There's a lot, tons even, on teh line for the Rams today. All that robotic, uninspiried play we saw last week has hopefully been purged with the onset of adversity. This is still a very winnable game for the Rams, but the offense is going to have to control the field and play with the kind of passion we saw when they decided to end their losing streak in the middle of last season.
The 49ers had an ugly win against fellow NFC West opponent Arizona last win. But a win is a still a win, and it's one more than the Rams have at this point.
1. It looks like the Clements signing is already paying huge
dividends. With he and Harris on the corners, what's the best hope for opposing teams to put up some numbers in the passing game?
The addition of Nate Clements makes the secondary light years better than last year. Shawntae Spencer was always forced into a #1 or #2 role when it appears that really he's best suited as the 3rd corner. Walt Harris had a pro bowl season last year, but it was his first great year as a DB. I still think he can be tested and while I think he's a good corner, will see if he can repeat his 2006 performance. A guy like Holt will certainly get his numbers and I am really intrigued by the Holt-Clements matchup. Clements is not a speed guy but rather just takes care of his side of the field. Leinart is certainly a solid QB, but Bulger is an established pro and I think he could certainly do a bit more damage against the secondary than Leinart did.
2. Let's stay on the defense, the 49ers have switched to a 3-4 up front; how's the transition working out? I saw that Arizona put up better than 150 yards on the ground, is that related to the change in defensive front, new personnel, playing the pass against Leinart?
The defense looked pretty weak in the preseason and that was due in part to the transition and the fact that their entire defensive line didn't play in the preseason. While I expected this to turn into a good defense, I can honestly say I was a bit surprised with how well the defense played for the most part. In terms of the rushing yards, Edgerrin James put up 92 of those yards and if you look, his longest run was 9 yards and he only averaged 3.5 per carry. While he got his total number up there, he really had to work for it in my opinion. The problem the 49ers had, and it happened throughout the preseason, was wrapping up their tackles. One thing that I am excited to see is that Patrick Willis is already looking like a stud after 1 regular season game (he was voted NFL Rookie of the Week in their online poll. The big question the Rams game will help answer is whether they can generate a legitimate pass rush. The 49ers haven't had a defensive line pass rush in like a decade! But Bryant Young's motor just keeps on going and with a young linebacker corp I think there will be a slow improvement over the course of the season.
3. Like Steven Jackson, Frank Gore had a less than memorable game in week one, what was the reason for that and do you expect it to continue?
I think it was primarily due to rust. While Gore was able stay in shape, he didn't play a single down in the preseason because of the broken hand. As their leading receiver last year he's been an integral part of the passing game and he dropped a couple passes that I honestly think could be blamed in part on coming back from the broken hand. While not the veteran Jackson is, I think he'll be fine. On a side note, it's been a rough week for him and it's hard to tell what he'll do this week. His mom passed away on Wednesday and I believe he was down in Miami with family for the tail end of the week and will be heading back there right after the game. Not sure if he'll be extra-focused on the game, or the exact opposite.
4. Let me ask a related question, is there cause for concern about the SF offensive line? Gore didn't have the yardage and Smith was sacked three times, first game jitters or serious liability?
I really don't believe there is cause for concern. The offensive line was quite solid last year and I think it was just first game jitters. Rookie Joe Staley has taken over Kwame Harris's starting right tackle role and will probably take some time to get used to the pro game. I do think it's an area the Rams could have some success exploiting this week, but by the time the Rams-49ers rematch comes around in Week 11, I fully expect the O-line to be completely gelling. The good news is that even if there are any injuries this season, the depth at o-line is pretty considerable. Due to injuries in the past, almost all the backups have seen significant playing time and Kwame Harris and Adam Snyder could very easily be starting for other teams in the league. In fact, since being benched, Kwame Harris has been involved in trade buzz (some of it from his own quotes). However, this is one area I prefer not to worry about yet.
5. How's Alex Smith dealing with the coaching change? Is the loss of Norv Turner going to hurt Smith and/or the 49ers offense?
I think it will take a little time for Alex Smith to get used to Jim Hostler in the coordinator's role. The good news is that Hostler was his QB coach the last two years so they already had a working relationship coming into the season. Yesterday I discussed the vanilla nature of the game plan last Monday. Last year the team was much more prone to a gadget play here or there (the benefit of having 2 ex-QBs in the line up - Arnaz Battle, Michael Robinson). It was basically run, run, short/ugly/often incomplete pass, punt. I think the playbook will be opened up significantly against the Rams because the 49ers will clearly need all the offense they can get to hang with the formerly (and still sometimes) Greatest Show on Turf. Look for at least one gadget play involving either Robinson or Battle (maybe even both) this week and look for the 49ers to press the ball down field more. When they were attacking at the end of the the MNF game, Smith looked his best. For 57 minutes he appeared tentative and was often throwing off his back foot. At the end he was stepping up into the pocket and firing passes which showed off his arm strength and accuracy. Aside from the win, the best part about Monday Night was 0 zero interceptions. Even when he wasn't completing passes, Smith did not get frustrated and start forcing things, which is something he would have done last year or the year before. Smith doesn't need to be great for the 49ers to get to the playoffs this year. He simply needs to be efficient and make a few plays.
Thanks again to Fooch, and head over there to see things from the other side today if you're so inclined.
Now, let's hit a few points that the Rams need to stress today.
The defense is in quite a quandry with so many players out. However, you cna be sure that Frank Gore will feature heavily in the opposing game plan today. If they can make him work for his yards, the Rams can help keep them off the score board and more importantly force what looked like a shaky Alex Smith to pass more. Although, you worry about the 49ers passing with our 4th and 5th cornerbacks starting, it will give opportunity for Leonard Little to shine. If they can hammer Smith, we could see the same SF offense we saw last week.
All of that will rely heavily on this offense playing at the level it's capable of. Now, with the injuries on the line lots of true believers have handed in their team pins, even the most of the writers at the hometown paper have written off the Rams. Getting Steven Jackson going, and we're already hearing talk of the current line being run blocking specialists, will help bring hte SF cornerbacks up for the run and allow Bulger to start making the kind of throws he'll need to make for hte Rams to rack up some points and win the game. You read Fooch's oppinion above that Leinart and those ARZ receivers could have had a better game than they did...well so can the Rams. Bulger's played behind some dubious protection in the old Matrz days when the first order of battle was to just throw the ball; we want to see some of that today. The injuries on the line are huge, but not so huge that they can't be overcome with a healthy does of extra special blocking from the backfield and the tight ends. Remember, the 49ers failed to sack Leinart at all last week.
Don't forget about the fundamentals either. Fumbles and bad penalties will do more damage than a career day for Frank Gore. When SJ fumbled the ball last week and it resulted in an immediate Carolina TD, the Rams were done, and they looked like, especially on offense. They have to play oozing passion - it's the best way to play through adversity - but a pass interference or a lost fumble threaten to deflate whatever emotional momentum the Rams are coming into the game with.
If you're going to the game today, be loud. Remember when the Dome used to be an advantage? It needs to be again.
It's not going to be easy, but how much more do we appreciate the things that aren't? Or some cliche like that.