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Sizing up the 49ers

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The 49ers seem to be in a kind of flux. They're not a bad team on paper, but to an outsider they just don't appear to be in the mix this season. (Something I have no doubt  fans of other NFC West teams are saying the same about the Rams.) Last season was San Francisco 5th consecutive losing season, and like his counterpart in St. Louis, head coach Mike Nolan enters his third season as head coach with whispers about his job security sure to come

The Chris Long selection nicely complements last year's additions of Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan, and the spiffed up d-line figures to be the perfect monkeywrench for the Niners offense. They've resorted to threatening former first round pick Alex Smith with a competition for the starting spot, competing with such luminaries as Shaun Hill and Trent Dilfer. Hill, however, did play well down the stretch, getting wins in his two starts in weeks 15 and 16 against the Bengals and the Bucs. Few know better than we Rams fans the feeble amount of protection afforded a QB in a Mike Martz system, and the Rams d-line matches up well against the Niners o-line. 

San Fran's biggest move in the draft came last year, when they traded their '08 first rounder to New England to get OT Joe Staley. Starting on the right side, Staley did not disappoint. This year he faces a bigger test when he moves over to become the starting left tackle SF switcharooed their '07 and '08 drafts to get. Without a doubt, Staley looks legit at LT, but it's not unreasonable to expect some adjustment time in the higher profile role. On the other side, it looks like Jonas Jennings will start . Jennings played in only three games last season thanks mostly to a high ankle sprain that eventually required cleanup surgery. I'll have to defer to Fooch at Niners Nation as to who would start should Jennings go down again, but I suspect it would be Adam Synder, currently penciled in at RG. Second round draft pick G Chilo Rachal could be in the mix too. Either way, the Rams defensive line ought to able to find ways to exploit the San Francisco offensive line and get to the QB, whoever that winds up being.

Don't forget that Long is also considered a good run defender, and the Rams defenisve line should still find their hands full against Frank Gore, if he's healthy. Again, the SF o-line will be a factor here too. I think on rushing downs in a 4-3 with Carriker and Glover (or Ryan or Wroten) in the middle, the Rams should be capable run stoppers. Remember, the final stats didn't shake out so well for them last season, but the Rams defense didn't allow a 100 yard rusher until week 16 against the Steelers.

Obviously against a Mike Martz-led offense the passing game will be key, and as much as we heart Isaac Bruce, it's encouraging to know that he's the 49ers top wide receiver. I'll let Football Outsiders sum up that siutation:

Of course, it takes two players to complete a pass, and the receiving corps for the 49ers was just as dreadful. Their leading wide receiver in DPAR was Taylor Jacobs, with a whopping 0.0 DPAR and a catch percentage of 33 percent. Every other wide receiver came in below replacement level. The 49ers are hoping that Smith or Shaun Hill (who played well in the final three games of last season) can turn things around at the quarterback position, and that Isaac Bruce, who will turn 36 during the season, can save the receiving corps. This is madness. This is San Francisco.

Again, it's nice that Fakhir Brown is indeed going to be back this season, and the Rams 4th round pick, speedy CB Justin King, should get some nice opportunities playing nickelback against the 49ers.

On the other side of the ball, the Jacob Bell signing might prove to the Rams best offseason move of all. As long as the health of various members of the o-line holds up, particularly Orlando Pace, they should be able to exploit a team that struggled to stop runs up the middle (26th in the league) as well as power runs on 3rd and 4th downs. The 49ers first round pick, 29th overall, Kentwan Balmer, upgrades their line, but confusion reigns as to whether or not he'll play DE or NT. Bringing in Justin Smith via free agency adds to their pass rush, but the loss of Bryant Young (he retired) hurts. Again, for the Rams so much will come down to the health of key cogs on the offensive line. If they do stay taped together fairly well, they should be able to move against the SF front, although runs up the middle could be tough with ILB Patrick Willis in the middle of the field.

Against the pass, SF had the 29th ranked defense, depsite the addition last year of nate Clements to complement Walt Harris at CB. The two even had four INTs apiece, but it wasn't enough to keep them from allowing 225 yards per game, 25 TDs, and a 63.5% completion rate (6th worst in the NFL). Harris will be 34 this season, so depth matters . Draftee Reggie Smith figures to be more of a return man. After looking at the Seattle and now the SF secondary, I think there's more reason to be encouraged by the Donnie Avery draft pick. That speed could burn more than a few defenses this year.

All in all, the Rams (ans I'm biased) appear to have the advantage this season against the 49ers. Mike Martz will test the defense though, and no game between these two rivals can be taken for granted.