Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming road game against the St. Louis Rams.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 8 of the 2015 regular season.
1st Down: Who is the X-factor for Sunday's game?
@Joe_Fann: Colin Kaepernick
It's no coincidence that the 49ers two best games since Week 1 were also Kaepernick's best performances of the season. In those contests against the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens, Kaepernick posted 635 total yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. In San Francisco's other five games, the quarterback has two touchdowns and five interceptions. The 49ers go as Kaepernick goes, and they'll need a strong game from No. 7 against talented Rams defense.
@TylerEmerick: Jerome Simpson
After being activated to the 53-man roster last Friday, Simpson could play in his first regular season game since 2013. That storyline has gone under the radar this week. And although it's unclear how exactly San Francisco plans to use the sixth-year veteran, Simpson gives Kaepernick another weapon behind Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. The deep threat caught 48 passes for 726 yards and a touchdown for the Minnesota Vikings two years ago. Simpson is a mystery right now, so maybe the 49ers draw something up to catch the Rams off guard.
@TaylorPrice: Jaquiski Tartt
If the second-round draft pick makes his first NFL start on Sunday, I see No. 29 having a big role in defending Rams mega-rookie running back Todd Gurley. I'm having flashbacks of Tartt tackling Marshawn Lynch last week for a 4-yard loss as we speak. If Tartt doesn't start and last year's first-round selection Jimmie Ward gets the call, remind me to wipe the egg off my face. Coaches have kept their base personnel close to the vest this week. Tartt got the playing time last week when Antoine Bethea injured his pectoral muscle. Now that Bethea is on injured reserve, it would appear as though Tartt is the run-stuffing option the 49ers need to slow down Gurley's production.
2nd Down: A bold prediction for this NFC West clash is...
@Joe_Fann: The 49ers will recover a fumble and return it for a touchdown
Why not kill two birds with one stone? San Francisco is one of two teams (the Indianapolis Colts are the other) to not have a fumble recovery on defense this season. In addition, the 49ers are one of seven NFL teams to have not scored a defensive touchdown. This is the week that changes. I'm calling it. The 49ers will score a touchdown on Sunday via a sack/fumble of Rams quarterback Nick Foles that gets taken to the house.
@TylerEmerick: Tartt gets an interception
In line to take over for the injured Bethea, Tartt is best known for his aggressiveness and ability to deliver a hit. But with the rookie safety starting his first NFL game, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Rams attack whichever side of the field Tartt covers. That means the second-round pick should have a few opportunities for a takeaway. Foles has thrown five interceptions this year, three of which have gone to safeties. St. Louis is also tied for 29th in the league with just 16 receptions of 20 yards or more, meaning they've struggled throwing the ball deep.
@TaylorPrice: Multiple sacks for Aaron Lynch
Rookie right tackle Rob Havenstein, you get to block Lynch this week, who is coming off a two-sack performance against the Seahawks. Havenstein has not allowed a sack all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Lynch, on the other hand, is tied for the ninth-most sacks in the league right now. San Francisco's top pass-rusher has never produced a three-sack game in his young NFL career. The Rams also don't pass the ball a lot. So this seems like a really bold prediction, right? Yes, indeed it is. St. Louis has allowed 11 sacks this season. I initially wanted to say Lynch would produce two sacks in this game, but that's not so bold. So let's call it a trifecta and spice things up by predicting a career-best performance for Lynch.
3rd Down: What is the ultimate key to beating the Rams? @Joe_Fann: Stop Gurley
This one's from the "Captain Obvious" department. The Rams have the 32nd ranked passing offense and Gurley is coming off of three straight 100-yard rushing performances. So it's no secret that they'll want to get Gurley as many touches as possible. Winning on first and second down to set up passing situations on third down is the key for the 49ers defense. They accomplished that feat against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings in Week 1. They'll look to replicate that performance on Sunday. @TylerEmerick: Kaepernick gets the ball out early
Facing the likes of Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Chris Long and William Hayes, it's unlikely that Kaepernick will be able to let downfield routes develop from within the pocket. That's where Geep Chryst and the offensive coaching staff have to be creative. This game has Anquan Boldin written all over it. The veteran is a possession receiver whose physicality works well in tight spaces. The 49ers will also have to avoid obvious passing downs as much as possible. 3-and-long is a bad omen against the St. Louis defensive line. @TaylorPrice: Blocking Donald and Quinn
Typically, NFC West battles are won in the trenches (as are every other NFL game). It's important to win up front, and that starts and ends with blocking two of St. Louis' top defenders. Donald, last year's AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, already has 4.5 sacks in six games as a defensive tackle. Donald plays left defensive tackle, which means he'll face a combination of Jordan Devey and Andrew Tiller at right guard for the 49ers. On the edge, Quinn's battles with left tackle Joe Staley are always under the microscope. Quinn has four sacks this season and is an elite edge-rusher on 3rd-and-long scenarios.
4th Down: A play I would like to see the 49ers run on Sunday is... @Joe_Fann: A trick play
The season is not lost yet, but the 49ers are at the point where they have nothing to lose. I'd love to watch this team play with that mentality and open up the playbook. A trick play can come in many shapes and sizes: a flea flicker, a wide receiver pass or a fake field goal/punt. It's likely that the 49ers have gadget plays up their sleeves, and I think there's no better time than this week to show those to the world.
@TylerEmerick: Screen passes
What's the best way to slow down a pass-rush? You guessed it: screens. Through Week 7, the Rams have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 74.9 percent of their passes – the highest mark in the NFL. That goes to show how teams have tried to neutralize St. Louis' playmakers up front. Completing those short, dump-off passes helps stop Donald and Co. from pinning their ears back. We've seen the 49ers run several wide-receiver screens recently. Expect the team to gets its running backs involved in the passing game, too.
@TaylorPrice: A quarterback-designed run
For the first time in his five-year career as a starting signal-caller, Kaepernick did not attempt a single rush last week against Seattle. It's true that teams use defensive backs and linebackers to spy San Francisco's gifted running quarterback, but it's imperative for Kaepernick to tap into his unique talents to put the 49ers in good down and distances. Kaepernick has the ability to score any time he tucks and run. Improv plays are one thing. I'd like to see some designed runs to mix things up against the Rams. The 49ers coaches had extra time to design new wrinkles for Sunday's game, so perhaps there's a QB-driven run in the mix on Chryst's call sheet.