Cracking Niners Defense a Tough Task

Posted Nov 8, 2012

It’s been nearly two years since Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has played in a game against the 49ers.

After coming up with one of his best career performances in the penultimate week of the 2010 season, Bradford did not face San Francisco last season as he missed time with an ankle sprain.

But considering what the Niners defense brings to the table, it’s understandable that Bradford isn’t exactly doing cartwheels about facing one of the league’s most consistently dominant defenses.

Bradford does acknowledge, though, that there is no better measuring stick for he and his offensive teammates than the mighty Niners.

“I don’t know if I would say anxious,” Bradford said. “Obviously, I’m excited for the challenge. I think everyone on our offense is excited for the challenge. Any time you get to play a defense like this, it really kind of allows yourself to see where you’re at. We know that we need a great week of preparation if we’re going to go out and succeed on Sunday. I think everyone’s excited about the opportunity that we have to go and play one of the best defenses on Sunday.”

Indeed, San Francisco once again ranks near the top of the league in all major defensive categories. The Niners are second in total defense, allowing 271.4 yards per game, fifth in rush defense (87.4 yards per game), second in pass defense (184 yards per game) and first in scoring defense (giving up just 12.9 points per contest).

With superstars across the board such as end Justin Smith, rush linebacker Aldon Smith and top-notch middle linebackers like Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, the Niners defense presents perhaps the most daunting challenge in the league for any offense.

“There’s no doubt that they’re good,” Bradford said. “(Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) ‘Schotty’ told us this morning that they’re top five in almost every major category on defense, and it shows up on the film.”

Even with all of that said, the onus falls on the Rams offense to make the necessary strides as they begin the second half of the season. During the bye week, the offense placed emphasis on doing things to finish drives.

That meant a focus on eliminating the silly penalties that stall drives among other mental errors that have kept the Rams from hitting paydirt on a more consistent basis.

“I think the biggest thing for us, though, is not to beat ourselves,” Bradford said. “Looking at some film last week during the bye, I think one of our biggest problems is shooting ourselves in the foot, killing ourselves with mental mistakes and things that we can control. Instead of getting focused on them, it’s going to be big for us just to play our game and not kill ourselves this week.”
Going in to Sunday’s game Bradford and the offense have plenty of room for improvement in the final eight games. During the season’s first half, that group showed flashes and threatened breakthroughs with strong performances that were a bit too infrequent.

Bradford will share the field Sunday with a quarterback in San Francisco’s Alex Smith who has come into his own in the past two years as the Niners have finally added some stability.

Including his final year at Oklahoma, Bradford is now in his fourth offensive system with his fourth coordinator in as many seasons. Smith started his career by going with seven in seven.

“Obviously, he’s dealt with it,” Bradford said. “I haven’t dealt with it to the extent he has, but I think any job you take, you’re looking for stability. I think that’s a key to success in any occupation. We haven’t had that around here, but looking forward to the future, I think we have a really good possibility to have stability going ahead. You just build on it each week.”

Getting that stability has been the No. 1 factor in turning Smith into the type of quarterback who can lead his team to within a whisker of the Super Bowl as he did last year.

“It’s huge,” Smith said. “It’s big. No one wants to hear that excuse in the middle of the season. You’re trying to win games and you’re trying to get results. That’s what you really want. No one wants to hear your excuses. It’s a part of the game and it’s tough. You certainly don’t see any real successful quarterbacks in offenses that have that kind of turnover. The ones that are really setting the bar across the league are guys that have stability. They’ve been in the same system. They’ve had the same pieces in place. I think that’s not a coincidence.”

Bradford has seemed to settle in as the season goes on, making strides in a number of areas and managing to stay healthy through the season’s first half but the biggest litmus test of all could come Sunday against that San Francisco defense, a group in which Bradford sees no glaring weakness.

Still, while Bradford hasn’t played against the Niners defense since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach, the inverse is true as well. That lack of familiarity could also work in Bradford and the offense’s favor, a concern of Harbaugh’s as the game approaches.

“I think Sam’s done an excellent job,” Harbaugh said. “We haven’t faced him yet. That’s very worrisome because we see what he does on tape. He’s an outstanding football player. I think it’s more our preparation and thinking about how to defend Sam and the Rams offense than really thinking about continuity. We have a ton of respect for him. We see the talent and the production. It’s not just talent or potential, he’s got outstanding production as well.”

SPEED MERCHANT: It should come as no surprise that receiver Saalim Hakim’s apparent best quality is blazing speed.

After all, that was a trait that his brother Az-Zahir was known for when he played in the slot for the offense of the Greatest Show on Turf.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher took notice of Hakim’s running ability right away and said he wasn’t the only one. 

“Yes, ask (CB) Cortland (Finnegan),” Fisher said. “Cortland said, ‘Where’d you get that guy? He ran by me three times.’ Yes, so he can really run.”

INJURY REPORT: The Rams injury report had some minor alterations on Thursday afternoon.

Linebacker Justin Cole returned to practice after missing Wednesday with an illness. He was full participation. Tackle Barry Richardson (head) also had that designation.

Defensive tackle Kendall Langford (non-injury) had an excused absence and was added as did not participate. End Eugene Sims (knee) and safety Darian Stewart (knee) also did not participate.

Added to the list of limited participants was defensive tackle Kellen Heard, who has a foot injury. He joins tackle Wayne Hunter (back), tackle Rodger Saffold (knee), receiver Danny Amendola (shoulder), center Scott Wells (foot) and linebacker Mario Haggan (thigh) with the limited participation tag.

It remains to be seen which of those players will be available this week but if Saffold and Amendola can return, Bradford believes it could give the offense a needed boost.

“It could give us a huge lift,” Bradford said. “Obviously, those two guys are big parts of this offense. We’ve definitely missed them being out. It’s been great to have them out at practice the past couple days. They’ve looked good. I think they’re excited to be back. Bring some energy to our huddle. It’d be really nice to get those guys back on the game field on Sunday.”