Keys to the Game Answered: San Francisco

Posted Dec 2, 2012

1. The Smith Boys of Missouri Redux

THE ANSWER: Not generally considered a factory for future NFL stars, the University of Missouri has been pumping out talented players for the better part of the past decade. You’d be hard pressed to find two better than the pair that anchors the San Francisco pass rush: end Justin Smith and rush linebacker Aldon Smith.

Born almost exactly 10 years apart, the Smiths have become a dynamic duo for opposing offenses to deal with.

Justin Smith is widely regarded as the ultimate blue collar player, a 285-pound mass of muscle with a mean streak, who also happens to be quite productive. From his five-technique position, Smith is first among defensive linemen in tackles since 2001 with 777 stops.

Aldon Smith brings something much different to the table in terms of his athleticism but he’s every bit as effective as a pass rusher. In a season-plus, he’s already racked up 30.5 sacks, including a league leading 16.5 this season.

The job of blocking the two Smiths could falls to left tackle Rodger Saffold, who acquitted himself well against Smith in the first meeting but will need help from likely left guard Rob Turner though if Scott Wells is unable to play, it would be Shelley Smith again.

Regardless of whom lines up against the two Smiths will be in for a heck of a challenge.

“You have Justin who is very, very physical and then Aldon who is very, very finesse, very athletic, freakish athleticism so it’s going to be a challenge,” Saffold said. “They have dangerous twists between the two of them which allows Aldon to get free and we are really going to have to be physical and we’re going to have to be smart.”

THE ANSWER: The Niners defense was nothing short of terrific and the two Smiths wreaked their share of havoc. But they didn’t have the big plays they are normally recognized for. Each Smith had a sack and they combined for 11 yards to lead San Francisco’s strong defensive performance.

2. Grounding Gore, Part II

THE KEY: For the better part of the past eight years, 49ers running back Frank Gore has held a spot in this piece nearly every time the Rams have played San Francisco. And why not, considering that Gore has remained the centerpiece of everything the Niners like to do offensively.

With Jim Harbaugh in charge, nothing has changed. In fact, Gore seems to be getting better with age as he continues to be the engine that drives the offense. So far this season, Gore has showed no signs of slowing as he sits ninth in the NFL in rushing with 914 yards and continues to expand on his franchise rushing records.

Gore actually continues to rise up the charts of the team’s scrimmage yards leaders as well, now sitting third on the team’s list behind only Roger Craig and Jerry Rice.

Never one for finesse, the 217-pound Gore remains a wrecking ball runner unafraid to run over a defender as quickly as he’d run around one.

The Rams run defense did a solid job last week against Arizona but continues its search for consistency. While new quarterback Colin Kaepernick is drawing plenty of attention, it’s Gore that remains the key to the offense.

“The offense is going to run through the running game,” assistant head coach Dave McGinnis said. “That’s what they do. That’s how they establish everything that they do. They’re an extremely physical football team…Frank Gore is obviously the guy that you have got to stop because regardless of who the quarterback is, anytime they hand it off to that guy, he’s the real deal.”

THE ANSWER: Aside from an early run that went for 23 yards, the Rams defense did an outstanding job on Gore. He finished with just 58 yards on 23 carries. He did score a touchdown but the Rams ability to lock him down made a huge difference in keeping the team in the game.

3. Containing Colin

THE KEY: In some sense, the Rams gave birth to the Kaepernick as starting quarterback era in San Francisco.

According to Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, former starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion on a quarterback sneak in the teams’ first two meetings. That opened the door for Kaepernick to take the reins.

In that first meeting, Kaepernick was up and down with his accuracy but made plenty of plays with his legs and did enough to salvage a comeback and a tie.

Since, Kaepernick’s run/pass ability has been a nightmare for New Orleans and Atlanta as he’s posted a quarterback rating of 102.3 for the season with 680 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his extended work.

Kaepernick has been just as dangerous on the run as well; posting 214 yards on 31 carries (an average of 6.9 yards per carry) with four touchdowns.

In other words, Kaepernick presents myriad problems to the Rams even though they now at least have a little bit of a book on him unlike last time.

“Mobility and accuracy,” Fisher said. “We didn’t confuse him. He made plays. And then to come back and do what he did on Monday night against the Bears was pretty impressive. Then, to carry it on again yesterday was impressive. Obviously, the subtle differences over the last couple games are that the ball is going downfield with accuracy. You take their running game -- which, we all know how talented and productive their running game is -- then you add the vertical passing game to it, it makes a huge challenge on your defense.”

THE ANSWER: All things considered, the Rams kept Kaepernick in check for most of the game until he burned them late on one of those right call, right time situations with a 50-yard run to setup a leading field goal. But he also had a costly fumble on a pitch the Rams recovered for a touchdown.

4. Jackson on a Roll

THE KEY: In the past three weeks, only two backs in the NFL have rushed for more than Rams running back Steven Jackson’s 321 yards.

Fresh, healthy and hungry, Jackson has looked as good as ever in steamrollering his way over the Niners, Jets and Cardinals. He stormed through Arizona’s defense for 139 yards on 24 carries last week.

This week, Jackson gets a shot against the same Niners defense that started his impressive streak. In that first meeting, Jackson rushed for 101 yards on 29 carries.

To duplicate that feat against San Francisco’s fourth-ranked rush defense would be a boon for the Rams and put them in position to pull off an important victory.

“The guy is just a workhorse,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “He’s playing at a really high level. He’s doing so much for us and we are thrilled we have him.”

THE ANSWER: Much in the way the Rams stopped San Francisco’s run game, the Niners did the same. But that doesn’t mean Jackson wasn’t effective. The veteran found ways to gash the 49ers in the short passing game, rolling up five catches for 69 yards to go with 48 yards on 21 carries. For those counting, that’s 117 yards from scrimmage. And he came to life late to help the Rams tie, and eventually win it.

5. Finding More Takeaways

THE KEY: After a five-week drought in which the Rams came up with no takeaways and continued harping on it, they finally broke through last week against Arizona with a quartet of interceptions.

Included in those four takeaways was a pair returned for touchdowns by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams did not have Jenkins in the first meeting and his presence could be a big addition as the Rams defense now must keep the momentum rolling from that performance.

San Francisco has been notoriously stingy with giveaways, particularly when Smith was the quarterback. The Niners have thrown just six interceptions on the season and coughed up five fumbles.

A takeaway would have made all the difference in the first meeting for the Rams defense but they couldn’t come up with one. If they can this time around, it would go a long way toward a victory.

“It has to happen,” McGinnis said. “You have got to just keep working your defense, you’ve got to play fast and when you get a chance to get them, you’ve got to get them. That’s just what this league is. Clearly every defense in this league is trying to take it away. No offense in this league is trying to give it to you. So you’ve got to work very, very hard. We need to keep it up because this offense we are facing, we need to get some turnovers.”

THE ANSWER: They didn’t come in bunches like they did last week but the one they got came at the most crucial of times. Kaepernick’s pitch gone awry was recovered by Jenkins and he scored the touchdown that set up the game-tying 2-point conversion. It was, perhaps, the biggest play of the day. The Rams had no turnovers and were plus-1 for the day.