In the two games leading up to last week’s bye, the Rams faced two of the league’s most dynamic teams. Teams with Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks and aerial attacks capable of lighting up the sky.
This week, the Rams get a respite from that but by no means do they get a break. The challenge is different but it might actually be more difficult as they head to San Francisco to take on the physical 49ers.
“We’ve got our hands full this weekend,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “This is our biggest challenge to date. This is a very, very talented, well-coached football team.”
Indeed, playing the Niners in San Francisco at Candlestick Park might be one of the most daunting challenges any team in the NFL can face right now.
Heading into Sunday’s 3:15 p.m. kickoff, the Niners boast a 6-2 record and come in on a two-game winning streak with a roster full of healthy players. The Rams are 3-5, also coming off a bye but are looking to right the ship on the heels of a three-game losing streak after a strong start.
Getting back on track and searching for their third win in as many tries against NFC West Division opponents will require the Rams to come up with their best performance of the season in what figures to be another knock down, drag out slugfest by the bay.
“The last two opponents were different as is the Niners approach,” Fisher said. “So, we’re talking about… this is going to be one of those toe-to-toe, physical, physical football games. That’s going to be our biggest challenge and the biggest test. We’ll find out about ourselves and how we can hang in there and hold in there and make our plays from a physical standpoint.”
In the past couple of years, the Niners have made a habit of pushing teams around with a physical approach on both sides of the ball that may not look pretty but is certainly effective.
Leading the charge for San Francisco is a defense that is again near the top of the league in every major defensive category. Through eight games, the Niners are second in total defense (271.4 yards per game), fifth in rush defense (87.4 yards per game), second in pass defense (184 yards per game) and first in scoring defense (12.9 points per game).
It’s an impressive resume, to be sure, but it’s one that Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t shy away from with his group.
“You, obviously, point out the stats,” Schottenheimer said. “You show them the stats – they’re number two in the league in third down, they’re No. 1 in points scored. We’re not going to lie to our guys. Are they beatable? Sure, they’re beatable. But, we’re going to have to play very, very well as a team. Again, we’re up front with them. There’s no secrets when you watch the film because the film jumps off how physical they are. They do a great job. Again, we know what we’re getting ready for.”
San Francisco’s defense boasts superstar talents at nearly every position forming a group Schottenheimer said has no glaring weaknesses. End Justin Smith and linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are just a small sample of the talent the Niners bring to the table.
Cracking the code against that group has been nearly impossible for most teams but that doesn’t mean that group is invincible either. For the Rams, the focus since the bye week began has been on themselves and how the offense can go about putting more points on the board.
The Rams offense has had success moving the ball in many games this season but struggled to finish drives. Schottenheimer points to performing better on third down, coming up with better execution in the “fringe” area (around the opponent’s 30-35 yard line) and eliminating penalties as ways to get on the board more consistently with touchdowns.
All of those areas as well as the red zone became a point of focus for the Rams in the past couple of weeks.
“I’m not going to go into detail about it, but we’ve addressed it,” Fisher said. “Typically speaking, when you emphasize something, you typically get results. We’re going to continue to emphasize it until we do. That’s what we’re doing out here. You can see we spent a lot of time down there.”
On the other side of the ball, the Niners’ numbers might not be as all-around gaudy as the defense but there are certainly some that are particularly impressive. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has installed a running game second to none in the league right now, leading the league with an average of 168.6 yards per game on the ground.
Per usual, it’s veteran running back Frank Gore leading the charge in that regard but he’s been buoyed by the help of second-year back Kendall Hunter. In front of that duo is an offensive line that Fisher calls the “best in football.”
The result is a run game that is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and has thoroughly impressed Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis.
“Jim Harbaugh believes in running the football and he believes in giving it to a back that will take it and is willing to pound it in there, and they look for explosive plays out of their run game,” McGinnis said. “They will hand it off and hand it off and hand it off and this is as fine a running game as I’ve seen. They do a lot scheme-wise, but beyond the schemes, they’ve got an excellent offensive line and they’re tough. This is a very, very physical football team.”
That puts the onus on the Rams defense to be stout against the run, an area they had made great progress in the weeks before the New England game but struggled with against the Patriots.
In fact, the Rams have struggled defensively in general in the past two games and have been looking for solutions. At the top of that list is getting back to getting turnovers. After getting nine in the first five games, the Rams haven’t had one the past three times out.
So it’s no surprise that the defense has emphasized working on takeaways, doing strip drills for fumbles in practice and trying to create some takeaways.
While San Francisco has specialized in ball security, Fisher said it’s critical for his defense to find ways to get their hands on a few takeaways this week.
“We’re not getting turnovers,” Fisher said. “Now, the challenge again, going into this week, is the 49ers don’t make mistakes. They’re just not making mistakes. We have to force the mistakes in order to compete with a team like this. You go in there and don’t get the ball back either on third down or as a result of a turnover; it’s going to be hard to beat anybody.”
Theoretically, a game like Sunday’s plays a bit more into the Rams style of play than games against teams like the Packers and Patriots. The Rams knocked off division foes Seattle and Arizona with a similar blueprint but it seems San Francisco represents a step up in class, especially on the road, from those two home games.
As the Rams kick off the second half of the season, they know they are going to be in for a 12-round heavyweight fight. While Green Bay and New England are top-level teams, the Rams know they have to adjust their mouthpieces for what awaits in San Francisco.
“This is a game that you’ve got to do a really good job of not getting too high in the highs and not too low in the lows,” running back