The San Francisco 49ers return to Candlestick Park this Sunday to host the St. Louis Rams for the final time at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Rams soundly on the road in Week 4, but things have changed quite a bit since then. San Francisco’s health has improved greatly in recent weeks and St. Louis has a hard-charging rookie running back leading its offensive production.
Here are the top 10 storylines to track on Sunday.
10. Playoff Push
Every week in the National Football League takes on a major importance. In December, that intensity is amplified greatly. The 49ers are tied with the Arizona Cardinals for second place in the NFC West and the NFC’s No. 6 playoff seed. San Francisco needs to handle its weekly business and not worry about other results around the league. The 49ers beat the Rams 35-11 on the road this year and will look to sweep the season series on Sunday. Last season’s matchup finished in a tie at Candlestick Park. Nobody wants that to happen again. Ever.
9. James Provides Spark
It was great to remind everyone the 49ers have a return game. That was the sentiment Jim Harbaugh expressed after LaMichael James put up 125 return yards on Monday night’s win over Washington. James even tight-roped the sideline for a 40-yard punt return to set up a 49ers touchdown. The development of James as a punt return remains ongoing – by no means is he a finished product. However, James’ playmaking mindset is a great attribute for a return man. James likes having the ball and is unafraid to make something happen when he gets an opportunity to make a play. James will be challenged by the Rams. St. Louis has the No. 2 punt coverage team, allowing 3 yards per return. The Rams also rank No. 13 in kick return coverage, allowing 22.7 yards per game.
8. Blocking Robert Quinn
Third-year defensive end Robert Quinn leads NFL with six forced fumbles. At 6-foot-4, 264 pound, Quinn is quick and agile enough to beat tackles around the edge and apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Quinn recorded one of his 13 sacks against the 49ers this season. He also finished the play with a “Kaepernicking” celebration. The 49ers, however, got the last laugh with a lopsided road victory. Even so, Quinn is one of the top pass-rushers in today’s NFL. He ranks second in the league and needs 1.5 sacks to catch Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts for the league lead. It’s worth noting the 49ers are 23-1 under coach Harbaugh when allowing 2.0-or-fewer sacks.
7. Rookie Runners
The Rams have benefited greatly from the emergence of rookie running back Zac Stacy. The 5-foot-8, 224-pound thumper has picked up 624 rushing yards in his rookie campaign. Stacy didn’t even carry the football against the 49ers in Week 4. Since then, he’s picked up 620 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Stacy suffered a concussions in last week’s upset home win over the Chicago Bears and has been cleared to play by passing the league’s concussion protocol. Stacy rushed for 87 yards before injury. With Stacy out for most of last week, fellow rookie Benny Cunningham stepped in to rush 13 times for 109 yards. The rookie runners combined for 213 yards before contact against Chicago. It was the most of any team in a game this season according to ESPN Stats and Info. St. Louis’ offensive line has picked up its play in recent weeks with former left tackle Rodger Saffold moving to right guard.
6. T-Brock and Roll
Tramaine Brock will likely start his second consecutive game on Sunday. Tarell Brown is not ready to return just yet, but the 49ers haven’t lost production from the secondary. San Francisco is allowing just 208.2 passing yards per game, ranking fourth-best in the NFL. Brock looks the part as a starting cornerback. Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio liked what they saw out of the fourth-year cornerback while he handled three-down responsibility against Washington. Brock previously said his goal is to become a starter and he has another opportunity to hold on to the role against the Rams.
5. Austin on the Rise
Watch out for Tavon Austin. St. Louis’ first-round draft pick has been a force in recent weeks. Offensively and on special teams, the play-making receiver has been scoring long touchdowns all over the field. Austin was selected as the NFC’s Special Teams Player of the Month In November. Austin averaged 25.3 yards per kick return and 22.4 yards per punt return. He also supplied a 98-yard punt return in a win over the Colts and 57- and 81-yard touchdown catches in that same game. The Rams went 2-2 in November and Austin was a key factor in the team being competitive in all four games.
4. Aldon Gets After It
Remember Aldon Smith? Yeah, that guy is still good at getting to the quarterback. Smith dropped Robert Griffin III twice on Monday night and was consistently in the backfield. Smith’s workload has amped up in recent weeks and it looks like he’s inching closer to be a full-time starter for San Francisco’s defense. Smith has 40 sacks in three seasons and now ranks No. 5 on the 49ers all-time sack list. Rams veteran quarterback Kellen Clemens is not the most mobile signal-caller. Expect Smith to play a lot and be in Clemens’ face often.
3. Gore Stuff
Frank Gore is getting his fair share of attention these days. Expect Sunday against St. Louis to be no different. Gore, however, has enjoyed tremendous success against the Rams. He ranks first in league history with 14 rushing touchdowns against St. Louis. In those 14 games, Gore has rushed for 1,149 rushing yards and has posted five, 100-yard rushing games. In recent weeks, however, Gore has seen opponents put ridiculous amounts of defenders in the run box to stuff his running lanes. It’s nothing new to Gore. St. Louis used that tactic in Week 4 and he rushed 20 times for 153 yards and added a 34-yard rushing touchdown, his longest of the season. Gore will again be the center of attention, but he’ll be helped greatly with the return of the 49ers top passing option from 2012.
2. Back-to-Back 'Kap'
Colin Kaepernick looked solid as he tossed three touchdown passes against Washington. He found Anquan Boldin twice and Vernon Davis in the end zone. The primetime performance was a positive development for the third-year passer who came under fire in recent weeks during San Francisco’s two-game losing streak. Kaepernick’s been steady in the face of pressure this year. His 110.3 passer rating in blitzing situations ranks fifth in the NFL. Kaepernick also enjoyed success in the first meeting with St. Louis in late September. He completed 15 of 23 passes for 167 yards, with two touchdowns and a 115.7 quarterback rating. Kaepernick, like Gore, will also receive help from the return of his favorite target from last season.
1. Crabtree Returns
Get your No. 15 jerseys out. Michael Crabtree is back and ready to play against St. Louis. The fifth-year wideout practiced all week after being activated off the team’s Reserve/PUP List. Crabtree’s return has been anticipated all season and it’s largely because of the breakout season he enjoyed in 2012. Crabtree became the team’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2003 and posted career highs in catches (85) receiving yards (1,105) and touchdowns (nine). Crabtree will likely be eased back into the offensive plans, but it’s worth noting that he’s produced every time he’s faced St. Louis. In 2012, Crabtree caught 12 passes for 171 receiving yards with one touchdown grab in two meetings with the Rams. Crabtree also has averaged 84.9 yards per game against St. Louis in seven career games.