When the San Francisco 49ers beat the St. Louis Rams in Week 4, it certainly looked like we were in for another season of terrible from the Rams. They had lost their third game in a row, giving up at least 30 points in each of those losses, and rushed for just 18 yards against the 49ers.
Instead, it seems like that helped get them on the right road to success.
St. Louis is 4-3 since that 35-11 loss at home to San Francisco and even though they lost Sam Bradford for the season, they've scored 80 points over their last two games and are now just one game under .500. A retribution win over the 49ers on Sunday would give the Rams some much-needed confidence that the plan under Jeff Fisher really is working, not to mention that they'd be just a game behind San Francisco in the standings.
It was the Niners that got the pick-me-up they needed on Monday night against the Washington Redskins. An easy 27-6 win that kept them ahead of the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card race and assured everyone that their defense is still great.
Meet the 49ers
Star linebacker Aldon Smith returned two weeks ago in a loss to the New Orleans Saints, but he really made his presence felt on Monday against the Redskins. Smith recorded two sacks and three tackles as the Niners held Robert Griffin III and the Washington offense to just 90 total net yards passing.
Overall this season, the 49ers rank fourth in scoring defense and sixth in total defense. By Football Outsiders DVOA measurement, San Francisco is sixth overall on defense and much of that had to come without Smith.
The question now for the Niners is whether or not they can improve an offense that is 30th in total yards and 32nd in passing yards, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick producing at only a fraction of what he did last season. The eventual return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree from an Achilles injury that has sidelined him all year could help, but there's still a lot not known about how explosive he'll look when he does come back. Crabtree was only just activated off of the physically-unable-to-perform list this week.
Can the San Francisco defense now stop the suddenly-explosive Kellen Clemens offense of St. Louis on Sunday?
Meet the Rams
The 30-year-old Clemens has been asked to fill-in for the injured Bradford and while he's played well, it seems as though there's another effect from having to change their offense: The Rams can actually run the ball.
Through seven weeks, St. Louis was one of the worst running teams in the league and gained over 100 yards as a team just once. Since Clemens took over as starter, they've run for at least 140 in every game and a total of 758 rushing yards in their last four games. It's an almost unbelievable turn of events, led by the 410 yards by rookie Zac Stacy during that time.
Fantasy owners would also be pleased with his four touchdowns.
There will also be a lot of eyes on rookie Tavon Austin, who had 295 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against the Indianapolis Colts two games ago. He could certainly be one of the key reasons to believe that the Rams offense is starting to turn things around for the better.
Can they do it against one of the top defenses in the NFL now?
Local Takes: San Francisco 49ers
Andrew Carroll at Niners Nation took a look at Kaepernick's dramatic variance in performance this season:
After last night's fine performance against Washington, Kaepernick has posted 3 games with an adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) above 11.00, something only five quarterbacks have done this year. But he is also one of only six quarterbacks to twice post an AY/A below 3.
Adjusted yards per attempt takes into account touchdowns and interceptions, but does not punish Kaepernick for sacks. He has taken 26 of those this year at an Alex Smith-like rate of 8.6 percent. Colin's INT percentage, meanwhile, has almost doubled, to 2.5 percent -- so, as most of us have seen, the sacks are not coming as part of a risk averse decision-making process to avoid a potential interception or tight-window throw. No, often Kaepernick is walking into sacks rather than stepping up into the pocket, or attempting to escape outside before he needs to.
Local Takes: St. Louis Rams
Over at Turf Show Times, Douglas broke down what it means to be rolling with Clemens as the number two QB:
Back up quarterbacks usually mean diminished offensive play-calling options. Not so with Kellen Clemens, whose been with the Rams for a few years now. He knows the offense, having been around Rams' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer since their "Big Apple" days with the Jets. The only trouble with No. 2 QBs, is their reliability factor. There's a reason why they aren't starters in the NFL on a regular basis. Clemens has acquitted himself since Bradford went down with an ACL injury, but he'll have a jury ready to throw their thumbs down at the merest hint of stumbling. To keep this from happening, he'll need one thing, and one thing only: The Rams offensive line to play well.
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St. Louis is hot and looks like a completely different team when they've got a running game. When you look at their schedule, you can see that every team they've lost to with the exception of the Atlanta Falcons is currently in position to make the playoffs. They've also forced eight turnovers over their last two games and taking advantage of mistakes is key for every NFL team.
Can they force the 49ers into making some of those mistakes?
Few people expected last season's games between these two teams to be close, but it almost doesn't get any closer. They tied in Week 10 and nearly tied again in Week 13 before San Francisco eventually won in overtime. Will that happen again?
Maybe not another tie, but staying close seems more than reasonable. It just seems like the Niners defense can get the job done.
SFO 21, STL 14
The week opened with the 49ers as 11.5-point favorites but that's down to as little as eight points, according to OddsShark.com.
On Sunday, Dec. 8 at 1:25 p.m. PT, the 49ers have their big rematch with the Seattle Seahawks, this time in San Francisco at Candlestick Park.
At that same date and time, the Rams will be in Arizona taking on the Cardinals in another NFC West divisional matchup.