8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: San Francisco -3
A pair of NFC West inhabitants face off tonight in St. Louis, as the struggling Rams host the dysfunctional San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football. Dysfunctional may just be too blaise for the Niners (3-2), who every week seem to be dealing with some new drama related to Jim Harbaugh or their lockerroom. Swirling reports out of the Bay Area proclaim that the fourth-year Head Coach is on the verge of losing the lockerroom, and as a virtual lock to leave franchise he revived and led to three consecutive NFC Championship Games, including an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII, once the season comes to a close. Lost in the madness is a team that has been ravaged by injuries and offseason defections, proving to be disappointing in defeat and frustratingly inconsistent even in victory. It all began with a comfortable 28-17 win at Dallas in the Opener, in which San Fran’s new-look defense forced four turnovers, followed by a pair of dreadful losses to the likes of Chicago (28-20) and afterward Arizona (23-14). Against the Bears, the Niners inexplicably coughed up a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter, and at the Cardinals they again relinquished a nice lead, this time 14-6, en route to getting outscored 17-0 in the second half courtesy of backup Quarterback Drew Stanton’s hot hand. In both cases the offense faltered into a disjointed mess; Against Chicago, Colin Kaepernick and Co. committed four turnovers, while the Quarterback led a 318-yard effort in the desert the following weekend.
It looked like it was going to be much of the same against the Eagles, who scored three non-offensive touchdowns in the first half of Week Four’s meeting at Levi Stadium to take a 21-13 lead into halftime. However, with their backs against the wall, the 49ers did what they have so often done before: fight back. Harbaugh’s defense shut out the high-flying Eagles over the final thirty minutes, capitalizing on four turnovers, while the offense took advantage of the short field to outscore the visitors 13-0 in the second half. Perhaps that was the precise moment when San Francisco snapped out of their September funk, for the good vibes continued last week as they welcomed a familiar face, former Quarterback Alex Smith, back to the Bay Area for the first time since departing back in 2013. Trailing 17-13 early in the third quarter, the Niners buckled down the rest of the way, relying on three Phil Dawson Field Goals to earn a narrow 22-17 victory. The defense relegated Smith to just 16-of-30 passing for a modest 158 yards, a touchdown and an interception, while his successor Kaepernick went 14-for-26, with 201 yards, a touchdown and most importantly, no turnovers. The return of the running game was also a welcomed sight; after a season-high 218 rushing yards against Philadelphia, the hosts trampled Kansas City’s defensive front to the tune of 171 yards, with veteran Tailback Frank Gore racking up 107 yards on eighteen carries, and Rookie understudy Carlos Hyde picking another 43 yards on ten attempts. Remember, no team in the league equates the run to success like San Francisco; since Harbaugh took over back in 2011, his team is a ridiculous 42-8-1 when rushing for at least 100 yards, opposed to just 7-8 when held below that threshold.
With that said, some real credit should be given to Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio and the Defense, which has been tremendous over the last two weeks, and in many regards the entire season thus far. With Pro Bowl Linebackers Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman suspended and injured, and virtually an entirely new Secondary, the Niners have been as stout as ever on this side of the ball, raking tenth in points allowed (21.2), second in yards allowed (282.8), including fourth against the pass (205.6), and fifth against the run (77.2). Tested by three of the most potent offenses in the league (Dallas, Chicago, and Philadelphia), they passed with flying colors. In the Opener at AT&T Stadium, Fangio’s unit came up with four takeaways while limiting the Cowboys to just seventeen points. A week later at home against the Bears’ balanced attack, they neutralized Cutler and Co. for most of the contest, limiting them to just 216 yards on the night. Lastly, they held the prolific Eagles to a mere eleven first downs and 213 yards, yielding just 22 on the ground, while forcing four turnovers in a game for the second time this season. Patrick Willis continues to be the rock of this group at Inside Linebacker, while Parrish Cox has thrived at Cornerback, leading the team with three interceptions and a stunning ten deflected passes. And then there’s Justin Smith, the old man of the defense; the 35-year old, five-technique has wrecked havoc in the trenches once more, posting a team-best three sacks thus far. Just imagine what this defense will look like once Smith and Bowman make their return…
Meanwhile, it’s deja vu once again in St. Louis, where the Rams (1-3) are once more without their insanely expensive starting Quarterback Sam Bradford for the rest of the season, after the Former No. One Overall Pick landed on Injured Reserve during the preseason with another torn ACL. Bradford sustained the same injury in 2013, departing after seven starts in which his team was 3-4. This was supposed to be a make-or-break campaign for the fifth-year passer, who was in the final year of his outlandish Rookie Contract that netted him over $40 million in guaranteed money. In his third season at the helm, Jeff Fisher has done a commendable job in resurrecting this floundering franchise considering these all too familiar circumstances; with Bradford starting in 27 of the Rams’ 37 games since 2012, Fisher has accumulated a 15-20-1 record over that span, which is actually pretty impressive given that he’s had to resort to the likes of Kellen Clemens and Austin Davis as an alternative. But then again, do they really need Bradford in the long run? St. Louis was 4-5 with Clemens under center last season, and is 1-3 with Davis shouting signals to this point, making the difference between the team’s overall performance with and without their highest-paid employee quite scant.
With that said, there’s a very high possibility that Bradford may never play for St. Louis again, which makes it all the more important that Fisher gets a long look at what Davis brings to the position. The third-year youngster was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi by Fisher back in 2012, and wound up splitting 2013 as a member of the Dolphins as well. With Bradford out for the season, and Shaun Hill unable to go in time for the Opener, Davis got the call, and has actually exhibited a firm grip on the job. Through five games, he has completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 282.3 yards per game on a healthy 7.9 net yards per attempt, tossing six touchdowns to three interceptions. Calling him a pleasant surprise may be understating things, for Davis has been red-hot over the last three weeks, shredding the Cowboys’ defense on 30-of-42 passing for 327 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions, followed by a 29-of-49, 375-yard performance, torching the Eagles’ defense with three passing scores. And the most telling note is that the offense hasn’t regressed under his play, actually ranking ninth in total yards (411.8), sixth in passing (302.5), twelfth in net yards per attempt (6.8), as well as nineteenth in rushing (109.3). However, despite all those yards the Rams have only managed to average 21.0 points per game, good for 23rd overall, thanks in large part to nine turnovers, third-worst in the league. Davis could be in for a long night tonight as two of his most reliable playmakers, Tailback Zac Stacy and Receiver Kenny Britt are listed as questionable with an assortment of injuries.
With the chaos at Quarterback serving as the prevailing theme over the last season and some change, Fisher and Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams have done a masterful job in developing the defense into one of the more feared units in the NFL. Excellent drafting has stockpiled St. Louis with a wealth of young talent, particularly along the Defensive Line where they possess a litany of First Round Picks. Plain and simple, these guys raised hell in the trenches last season, leading the league with a nasty 53.0 sacks. Robert Quinn led the NFC with nineteen unto himself, while fellow Defensive End Chris Long racked up another eight, along with three others netting at least five. During the Draft, Fisher and Co. sought to further bolster this area of strength with the selection of Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald at thirteenth overall, but as fate would have it, the Rookie is responsible for the Rams’ only sack of the campaign. Waitaminute, how can a team that averaged over 3.3 sacks per game last year have just one through four games? The problem is mainly due to a lack of opportunities; no defense in the league has seen their opponents throw fewer passes than these guys, with the opposition actually averaging more rushing attempts (31.0) against them than passing attempts (26.5). Granted, losing the aforementioned Long to a season-ending ankle injury is huge, but it’s really basic logic at that point; fewer drop-backs mean fewer opportunities to drop the Quarterback, and opponents have decided to pummel them up front with the run. St. Louis has allowed a porous 152.5 yards (29th overall) on the ground at 4.9 yards per carry (27th overall), which does not bode well with San Francisco coming to town tonight.