Keys to the Game: San Francisco

Posted Nov 9, 2012

1. The Smith Boys of Missouri

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 761 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 and a half, he’s already racked up 21.5 sacks, including 7.5 this season.

The job of blocking the two Smiths could fall to any combination of Rams linemen. Tackle Rodger Saffold is still working his way back from a knee injury and could return as could Wayne Hunter from a back injury. Joe Barksdale also could get another start on the left side depending on how everything plays out.

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.”

2. Grounding Gore

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 eighth in the NFL in rushing with 656 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 had been on a roll until the New England game and will look to get back on track against a rushing attack led by Gore but buoyed by the likes of Kendall Hunter.

“He’s one of those guys who just has an uncanny ability to stay on his feet,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “That’s why we have got to make sure we bring more than one tackler when we come to tackle him. It has to be a gang effort this week.”

3. Stifling Smith

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith has long come under fire from fans and analysts for failing to live up to the hype that goes with being a former No. 1 overall pick.

Smith, though, has persevered through an army of offensive coordinators and systems and all of the criticism to become a dependable, reliable leader for the Niners offense.

In 2011, his first year under Harbaugh, Smith broke through with a nearly flawless regular season in which he almost never turned it over, throwing just five interceptions, a franchise record.

Smith also showed he could do more than just take care of the ball in the postseason when he led the Niners to within an eyelash of a Super Bowl appearance.

This season, he’s been even better, sitting second in the league with a 69.4 percent completion rate and fourth in the NFL in quarterback rating at 102.1.

For the Rams to slow down Smith and the San Francisco offense, it will have to find ways to rattle him and to get the Niners into obvious passing situations.

“There was a lot of criticism of Alex, undue criticism,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “You don’t go to the championship game unless you’ve got a quarterback that can throw. He played very, very well for them. I don’t like to say manage the game, he’s winning games for them because they can run the football. He’s making some good decisions and when you’re 19-for-20 in a ball game, you’re doing the right things.”

4. Where’s Willis?

Much like Gore, another San Francisco player is always one to watch when the Rams and Niners meet: linebacker Patrick Willis.

Willis is only five years into his career but in that time, he’s proved himself to be one of the league’s most consistently dominant defenders. From his middle linebacker position, Willis has directed one of the stoutest defenses in the league year in and year out and showed no signs of slowing down.

Since 2007, only Washington linebacker London Fletcher has more than Willis’ 757 tackles. He also has five Pro Bowl appearances and has earned four first team All Pro selections in that time.

Willis has been a particular thorn in the side of Rams running back Steven Jackson as the two powerful, physical combatants have had more than their share of combustible meetings in the hole.

For the Rams to get the run game going against San Francisco’s fifth-ranked rush defense, getting a hat on Willis early and often would go a long way.

5. Turnover Turnaround

The Rams ranked among the league’s leaders in takeaways after the first quarter of the season, dipping into a seemingly endless supply of interceptions in the first four games.

But that well has dried up in recent weeks and the Rams still haven’t been able to create takeaways by coming up with strips and fumbles. They’ve forced just two fumbles in the first eight games and recovered only one, an abnormally low total.

That’s why over the bye week, Fisher and the defensive coaching staff took a look at the lack of turnovers and made it a priority to emphasize the need to start coming up with more big plays on that side of the ball.

That’s a task that’s easier said than done against a Niners team that has made ball security one of its trademarks. In the first half of the season, San Francisco has just nine giveaways with Smith tossing five interceptions and he and his teammates have coughed up four fumbles.

In order to compete against the Niners in a difficult road contest, the Rams will have to find a way to generate extra possessions by forcing some San Francisco mistakes. In practice this week, the Rams spent extra time working on forcing giveaways.

“It’s extremely difficult to do but it’s something you have to practice and put an emphasis on,” Dunbar said. “That’s the only way that you are going to create turnovers. You have got to create them in practice, create them on the scout team, you have got to create them on special teams. You have just got to go after it and make that a concerted effort to make those plays.”