In the fourth quarter of every St Louis Rams home game, Al Pacino tells us that football is a game of inches. His famous speech from Any Given Sunday is played on the video board, and we are exhorted to "fight for that inch." Against the San Fransisco 49ers, that couldn't be more apropos.
The Rams and Niners played ten full quarters of football in 2012 before breaking a deadlock. Final score after two games: Rams 37, 49ers 34. No division matchup could be closer on the scoreboard, or harder fought on the field. And the games came down to the smallest increments – the inches off the line that Brandon Gibson was lined up on a fateful 80-yard play that could have won game 1. The seconds draining off the clock as Johnny Hekker panicked and called for a late snap on a potential game-winning field goal in that same contest. The degrees past 180 that signified Colin Kaepernick's blundered lateral as a backwards pass that Janoris Jenkins scooped and scored. For as well as the Rams played in those two games, they could have played a few inches better, a few seconds smarter. They could have been 2-0 against the eventual NFC Champions.
Ah, but "room for improvement." The mantra of a young team still learning how to win. Here we are a year later, and the Rams are younger still, and suddenly there appears to be room in every direction for this improvement yet-to-come.
For all the small increments that define winning and losing on the football field, there are some sweeping weather patterns affecting these teams as we approach today's prime time kickoff.
The 49ers are wounded in both pride and personnel, and are desperate to turn their momentum around. They will have to do it without the pass rushing of Aldon Smith and the run-stuffing of Ian Williams on their defensive front. They will have to do it without Michael Crabtree and possibly Vernon Davis in the passing game. They may be without defensive spirit animal Patrick Willis. They will have to get over a simmering feud between Frank Gore and his coach, and a smoldering love affair between Colin Kaepernick and himself.
The timing couldn't be better for the 49ers to prove that they can win in transition, for Harbaugh to show that he can lead his team through adversity.
The Rams started the season soaring on hope, but have come crashing back to ground on both offense and defense in the last two weeks. Those that see the improved talent on this team are desperate to see the training wheels come off, whether it means letting Bradford use his favorite offense or toughening up the historic softness of the pass defense or quitting the special teams hari-kiri that has gutted our field position.
The timing couldn't be better for the Rams simmering talent to erupt, for the Rams coaches to show that there is actual growth to show for all these growing pains.
Three matchups to watch
1. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier vs Jake Long. Long was flat-footed and flat-assed against Dallas' premier pass rusher just four days ago, sending a shock wave across the offensive line and reintroducing an unwelcome panic into Sam Bradford's passing game.
With Aldon Smith out, you would think the Rams might have dodged a bullet, but in the preseason, Corey Lemonier was just as effective a pass rusher as Smith. Lemonier generated 9 hurries and 2 sacks in 127 preseason snaps. There is very little regular season tape on Lemonier for the Rams to study. He could surprise, especially if Long can't set his anchor.
2. Trumaine Johnson vs Anquan Boldin. Boldin has shown no ability to separate from press coverage, and Trumaine Johnson is the one cornerback big enough and physical enough to be trusted to play up at the line. Boldin lines up almost exclusively on the right side, which is Johnson's side of the field. This battle could determine the 49ers' ability to extend drives, or the Rams' ability to force punts.
3. Brian Schottenheimer vs Tavon Austin. Frankly, something has to change here. Schottenheimer has to get out of the mindset of treating Tavon like a running back and start treating him like what he is — a slot receiver. Tavon's route tree has been stuck firmly in the Darren Sproles gameplan, and he has been set up for way too many punishing hits from linebackers and safeties playing zone five yards off the line of scrimmage. A wounded team like the 49ers will not hesitate to play dirty to get an advantage, and if that means crushing the 170-pounder at every semi-legal opportunity, that's what it means. Schottenheimer has to get him past the linebackers and into the holes in SF's zones, where he can make plays and skip to the sidelines. Oh, and for god's sake, no more off-tackle runs.
As Nathan Kearns pointed out at Ramblin Fan, the NFL is cruel to tiny men, and history is not on Austin's side when it comes to trying to make an impact across a 16-game season and beyond. Schottehneimer must do what he can to (A) get the most out of Tavon's skillset, while (B) helping him not get murdered on the football field. Whatever he's doing now is failing on both fronts.