3TFO: Rams @ 49ers, Week 13
San Francisco enters Week 13 with little chance of catching the Seahawks for the division crown, and are left instead to fend off challengers for a wild card spot. A trip to Washington on Monday night was just the cure the 49ers needed to right the ship after two consecutive losses to playoff hopefuls New Orleans and Carolina, cruising to a 27-6 victory.
It may be too late for their division rival Rams this year, but they are gathering momentum going into the later stages of the season following impressive wins against the Colts and Bears in their two most recent outings. The loss of Sam Bradford hasn’t handicapped the team the way many thought, as they have used an opportunistic defense and a revitalized rushing game to their benefit. The 49ers won the first meeting between these two teams in Week 4, 35-11. Let’s look at some of the players who could decide this one.
Colin Kaepernick vs. Robert Quinn and Chris Long
It’s no secret that this has not been the season fans had hoped for from Colin Kaepernick. After taking the league by storm after Alex Smith’s injury last year, much was expected from Kaepernick especially after thriving in the read-option last year. In 2013, it has become clear he has a lot to learn as a pocket passer. He has been far from stellar this year (-4.9 overall), and two of his three games in the ‘green’ this season have been against Jacksonville and Washington, teams with major defensive issues. Losing a weapon like Michael Crabtree (who may return this week) hasn’t helped, but there’s no doubt Kaepernick has struggled this year. Most noticeable are his problems facing pressure; in our Passing Under Pressure statistic, he is last among regular starters in both Completion Percentage (36.8%) and Accuracy Percentage (50%).
Hoping to apply that pressure will be defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Quinn has been having a monster season terrorizing quarterbacks (+44.5 pass rush) from the right end spot, and is coming off his best game yet, grading out at a crazy +14.4 against the Bears, which amazingly was our highest single-game grade ever for a 4-3 end. Sam Monson goes into greater detail about Quinn’s pass rushing exploits in this week’s Analysis Notebook. Long, although modest compared to Quinn, has been having a solid year himself with 43 total quarterback pressures (eight sacks, six hits, 29 hurries). Combined, they have helped the Rams’ defensive line to the third-best Pass Rush Productivity rating among the 4-3 teams, as Rick Drummond points out in his article on Team Defenses.
Rams Running Game
With long-time veteran and backfield stalwart Steven Jackson leaving for Atlanta during the offseason, the Rams were hoping backup Daryl Richardson would be able to step in and take over the starting role, having shown flashes during fill-in performances in previous years. However it has been rookie Zac Stacy (+6.1), starting since Week 5 against the Jaguars, who has really emerged as a threat running the ball. He has 627 yards on 141 carries for a solid 4.4 yards per carry average, scored four touchdowns, and has already forced 22 missed tackles in the run game. It’s likely the Rams will try and establish the run early against the 49ers, given that they won’t want to put too much on the plate of backup Kellen Clemens, who has been efficient at not turning the ball over, but is averaging less than 200 yards passing in his four starts. He has only thrown 42 passes in his last two games combined, and that’s a pace the Rams would be probably be happy to maintain. Stacy suffered a concussion against Chicago and is still dealing with the after-effects, so if he can’t go, rookie free agent Benny Cunningham will take over, but he has looked at least capable in limited action so far. Either way, the Rams will need to take pressure off their passing game, otherwise it will a long afternoon for Clemens against a stout 49ers’ pass rush.
The linebacking corps has been the anchor for the Niners’ defensive unit for several years now, although they haven’t been at full strength for much of the season. Patrick Willis missed a couple games due to injury, and had a sluggish start (just +2.5 in his first five games, +10.8 in his last four). That same week, Aldon Smith had to leave the team for several weeks to deal with off-the-field issues, and is just now returning to full time status. Smith, who missed five games, is coming off his best showing yet, grading out at +5.4 in just 45 snaps against the helpless Redskins. He is one of the leaders in Tackling Efficiency for outside linebackers at 16.0, and is tops at his position in Pass Rush Productivity. With Smith finally back in the fold, the Niners are at full strength, making for a very difficult matchup for the Rams’ offense.
Besides Willis and Smith, Ahmad Brooks has been especially strong in run defense from the left side, grading in at +7.4 against the run with 35 stops on defense. He has been the most consistent of the four, with just two games in the red, and a terrific Run Stop Percentage of 9.3. Navarro Bowman has been stouter in rushing the passer at +8.5, although almost all of that came against the Rams in their earlier meeting. Dan Skuta has been very steady on the outside on first and second downs, with no game below -0.1, and rookie third-round pick Corey Lemonier, who filled in ably for Smith during his absence and still sees the field in nickel rush situations, has generated 20 pass disruptions in 254 snaps this year.
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