Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer hits on some of the key aspects to this weekend's rematch against the Rams.
The first thing that comes to mind when you look at the Rams offense is a depleted offensive line. St. Louis already has three starters, Pro Bowl left OT Orlando Pace, G Adam Goldberg and left G Mark Setterstrom on Injured Reserve. Starting guard Richie Incognito is still having tests done to determine if he'll make it back to play in any games this season after suffering a knee injury a few weeks ago.
The Rams offensive line has had ten different starters in their eight games and 16 different combinations. From the last time we played them, there will be three starters still standing on the offensive line, but at different positions. Andy McCollum is a 14 year veteran who hasn't started and is now going to have to start at center. Brett Romberg has to move to guard. Milford Brown is listed at right tackle, but they are going to have to move him to guard. Brandon Gorin is a back up who will now start at right tackle.
QB Marc Bulger is having his worst season as a pro as evidenced by his quarterback rating of just 73.1. He has eight interceptions and only five touchdown passes. Bulger's numbers have been affected by porous pass protection as the offensive line has given up 29 sacks. Those hits led to broken ribs that kept him out of two games earlier in the year.
Bulger did have a strong showing against the Saints last week, but if you keep him under duress, you should be able to limit his numbers. You have to pressure him. Just like any good quarterback, if you let him sit there, he will pick you apart. That's what happened last week against another Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck.
So, the pressure has to get there because Bulger is not a very mobile guy.
This game should be a good situation for our outside pass rushers in Tully Banta-Cain and Parys Haralson, especially for Parys who will be going against a guy who hasn't been starting and is just getting back into the mix. It's also good for Ron Fields and Isaac Sopoaga having an older center who hasn't played this year, because he's probably stiff.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is going to take his shots. One of the advantages of playing in a 3-4 is that you can bring that fourth rusher from so many different places. I would like to see more stunts and twists up front by the defensive line and linebackers because those are the kind of things that offensive linemen have to know how to work together on in order to pick those things up. Being the 16th different combination of offensive linemen, these guys haven't had the real opportunity to work together.
I would like to see more blitzes up inside, whether it is with linebackers or safeties. Our edge blitzes just haven't been getting there. On an inside blitz, even if you don't get there, you can force the launch point for the quarterback to change. There are a lot of three and five step drops for Bulger and if you come up in the middle, you can force him to not set his feet and have to slide left or right, which can throw off the timing of the routes and give the secondary an opportunity to make a play.
The Rams are a different team when they have Steven Jackson in the lineup, so that's been a big help with him returning to action from a groin injury. With him in the game, teams will load up with eight men in the box, which opens things up in the passing game. He has been struggling this year, averaging 3.5 yards per carry with both the groin and a back injury affecting him. He was able to play last week, and although he didn't have a huge game, he came up with some big carries when they needed it. He does change the complexion, because you do have to worry about the power running game. With an offensive line that has struggled, the one thing you can do is power blocking straight up ahead and that is what Jackson does so well.
For the 49ers offense, I think it comes down to being able to run the football. Rams defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had the Rams blitz 16 of 18 plays in the first half which kept a red hot Drew Brees contained. The 31 sacks that the 49ers have allowed are like blood in the water for a defense, so Haslett will send his team to try to make sacks.
The only way to combat that is to be able to run the football. They do have an undersized defensive front that is dealing with injuries. Their best pass rusher in Leonard Little is out for the year, which is a significant loss for a Rams defense that is ranked only 21st in the NFL in sacking the quarterback. Pisa Tinoisomoa was injured in the first game but he's back now and he's their best player on defense. The offensive linemen are going to have to chip block on the defensive tackles before getting to the second level and blocking Tinoisomoa and that is hard to do against a guy who reads so well. It just makes things that much tougher for the interior linemen of the 49ers.
Frank Gore ran the ball well in Seattle when he got the ball early, but after falling behind early, the 49ers had to abandon the run game and start throwing the football. So if you can hammer the ball early, it takes you out of those situations where Alex Smith or Trent Dilfer will be taking a pounding. It also keeps the 49ers defense fresh. The 49ers defense literally played five quarters of defense in terms of the number of plays they were on the field. The 49ers are at the very bottom of the league in terms of time of possession, which starts to wear on the players, so the offense needs to be able to run the ball in order to open up that passing game.
Starting corners Fakhir Brown and Tye Hill missed the first contest, and they offer a tougher challenge for the 49ers receivers because they are much more talented than their backups. Last week, the Rams did a good job on Brees in the first three quarters, when they just went after him. In the fourth quarter when the Rams stopped blitzing, Brees started lighting them up. He ended up throwing for almost 200 yards in the fourth quarter alone. That sends a message to everyone on defense, whether it's the defensive coordinator or the players. They are going to know they've got to continue to stay after it. The Rams players even admitted that when they attacked, it worked. They got turnovers and sacks and when they didn't get sacks, they got pressure, and that's what they will feel they need to continue doing to salvage the rest of this season. I fully expect them to bring the house on every down, especially since they will have the starters back..
The Rams are at the point where they have nothing to lose and that can be a very dangerous opponent. It's not much different though for the 49ers who have a string of seven losses that they desperately want to break. Overall, I think these are two pretty evenly matched teams, but even when they are not evenly matched, it is usually a close game. I think that's because having been in the same division for 30 years, it is a real rivalry that fires the players up.