NFL Week 4 Thursday Night Game Preview

Both the St. Louis Rams and the San Francisco 49ers are coming off bad week 3 losses. Neither team played well and both struggled with scheme and concepts that their opponents presented. Thursday night games are always a little sloppy because of a short prep week but these are two teams who are usually well coached so mistakes should be lessened a bit.

This really seems like an easy gameplan to predict for the 49ers. Last week they ran the ball 8 times with Frank Gore for 70 yards in the 1st half. Yet he finished with 11 carries. The short week plus a realization of their mistake means that the 49ers will probably be pretty dedicated to the run tonight. But if I know that, that means St. Louis knows that and will scheme against it. They’ll likely play a single-high safety most of the night but even dropping a safety into the box may not be enough against a very creative run-schemed offense.

The other major issue for the Rams is that their front four are praised for their pass rushing ability but have not been good at all against the run. Against the Cowboys they were turned out of gaps too easily and DeMarco Murray made it to the second level with almost no resistance. Dallas also did a good job of using draws and delays to let the rushers get upfield and then use that spacing to allow Murray to get to the open field. The Rams have to correct this and the linebackers need to play pretty much perfectly in gap control tonight to be effective.

Vernon Davis is active tonight and to me that means the 49ers will go with a ton of 2 tight end sets. They’ll be in 12 and 22 personnel a lot of the night unless they fall behind and they’ll use Kaepernick’s running ability to help create confusion for the Rams’ defense. The Rams likely want to play mostly zone tonight to help their back 7 keep eyes in the backfield and on Kaepernick. Zone is something St. Louis has been very bad at so far this year. There are major voids and breakdowns in communication which means it’s easily beatable. Plus, Courtland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins are better in man coverage.

Kaepernick still has problems with reading through progressions – something I’ve knocked him for in the past – and that should be the goal of any defense: keep Kaep in the pocket and make him read. I normally would encourage zone against a QB like Kaepernick but SF without any perimeter weapons and two solid CBs, I think the Rams would be better served playing 8 in the box with man behind it and shade the single high safety over TE Davis. This is essentially what Indianapolis did and I think the Rams have much better defensive personnel to execute it. I’d leave a spy in the middle of the field to tail the QB and ask my defensive ends to play with more discipline and less aggressive pass rush.

On offense, the Rams’ scheme is very strictly structured and everyone in it seems to play mechanically. There isn’t a whole lot of fluidity in it which is pretty much a good description of all of Brian Schottenheimer’s offenses. By association, Sam Bradford has looked very restricted. He’s not a freelancer by nature, but the offense doesn’t help him grow out of that.

It doesn’t help that the offensive line struggled against Dallas in all phases, but running backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson have looked pedestrian. Richardson certainly has more juice than Pead (who is inactive tonight) but needs more space to run before he can really use it. I like the velocity that he hits holes with but at this point the holes aren’t really there and he’s not the type of back to bounce the run with any consistency.

Dallas blitzed St. Louis heavily and played contain on the back end. This is probably what San Francisco will rely on as well. They’ll be without LB Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. Mike Willhoite and Corey Lemonier will be the starters. Both are rookies. I like Lemonier but I’m not sure he’s ready for a starting role at this point and I’m almost positive Willhoite isn’t ready yet. The Rams could take advantage of these guys with Jared Cook. I would expect him to have a good game as long as the Rams incorporate him into the game plan.

I don’t think the Rams running game gets any better tonight but I do think the Rams have a shot in the passing game. Tavon Austin has been used non-creatively in this offense, which is quite a shame and seemingly a waste of his explosiveness. Chris Givens is a very good deep threat and I would expect Bradford to throw a couple of deep balls his way throughout the course of the game. All it takes is for Givens to get his hands on one of them for it to be a big play.

A name to watch tonight is Zac Stacy. He’s a rookie running back who is a different style than any of the other RBs. I would love to see the Rams try to get him to the edge on a few stretch plays or work in a counter play or two with him. If they can get him to the 2nd level without Willis or Aldon to chase him down, he could end up with a few big plays.

My guess however is that the Rams stick to a short and contained passing game. Everything will be designed to get the ball out quick and underneath the base quarters coverage that the 49ers like to play. They’ll take a shot here and there but the idea will be to take what’s there and try to get first downs and trudge their way down the field.

Verdict

The 49ers seem to matchup really well against the Rams. They’re good in pretty much every facet that the Rams are bad in. They’re really only susceptible on the back end but the Rams offense isn’t really built on taking advantage of that. The 49ers should have no problem running the rock unless St. Louis breaks out some sort of scheme that proves effective (unlikely). The Rams have to have big plays to win this game. Otherwise it’s going to be very hard for them to win. If this game were in San Francisco, I’d say SF would win by 10+. As it is in St. Louis, I’ll say the 49ers win by 6.

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