By Sam McPherson
The NFC West is not what we thought it was going to be in 2015: The St. Louis Rams are in second place, and the Seattle Seahawks are in third place. The Rams beat the Seahawks at home in Week 1, scoring the tying touchdown in the final minute before winning in overtime. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers are in last place, having just lost to Seattle at Levi's Stadium by a 20-3 score.
If transitive scores and home-field advantage mean anything, the 49ers may be in another rough time this Sunday in St. Louis. The Rams already have beaten the division-leading Arizona Cardinals this year, so they will be looking to go 3-0 in the division when they take on San Francisco. St. Louis is much better at home, generally, and the 49ers have been much worse on the road this year.
The Rams are 3-3, with the two division wins noted above and last week's 24-6 win over the Cleveland Browns. St. Louis has lost this season to the Washington Redskins on the road, the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, and the Green Bay Packers on the road. Even though they are one game behind the Cardinals in the NFC West, the Rams have that head-to-head edge and will be looking to stay undefeated in the division with a win against the 49ers on Sunday.
Rams on Offense
The good news is that the St. Louis offense is the second-worst unit in the NFL when it comes to scoring points. The bad news is that the Rams now have their No. 1 draft pick healthy, and he is a beast of a running back: Todd Gurley is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has rushed for 433 yards in the last week games. If the S.F. defense had trouble containing Marshawn Lynch last week at Levi's Stadium, the group is not going to fare well on the road against this younger version of Lynch.
Rams quarterback Nick Foles isn't playing particularly well this year, but he is capable of lighting up bad secondaries. The Rams receiving corps is hit-or-miss, averaging just 11.7 yards per catch while also having six different players with season-long receptions of 30 yards or more. Wide receiver Tavon Austin, for example, is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, but Austin averages under 10 yards per catch.
Rams on Defense
St. Louis is 10th in points allowed this year, despite giving up 351.3 yards per game. The Rams have 23 sacks this year already, and they have forced 10 fumbles to go along with five interceptions. It's an opportunistic defense that plays better at home (only 16 points per game, versus 23 points per game on the road). That extra TD comes in handy with the lack of a consistent offense.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has 4.5 sacks, while defensive end Robert Quinn has four. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson each have two interceptions. Another CB, Lamarcus Joyner, leads the team with 30 tackles, while linebacker Alec Ogletree is second on the team with 27 tackles. There are few weak spots on this unit.
Rams Players to Watch
Gurley is the key now to the Rams offense. If he's able to run free, that makes Foles a more dangerous QB. Yet even when Gurley ran for 159 yards on 30 carries at Lambeau Field, Foles still threw four INTs against the Packers. Needless to say, with the loss of safety Antoine Bethea for the rest of the season, an already-weak 49ers secondary just got weaker. San Francisco's front seven needs to stop Gurley at the point of attack and force Foles to beat them. Austin is a very slippery WR at times as well.
The 49ers are the lowest-scoring team in the NFL, putting up just 14.7 points per game, and the Rams defense gives up 16 points per game at home. If the S.F. offense can score two touchdowns, it will have done its job—and that would not be enough to win. Foles is not the Super Bowl-caliber QB the 49ers have gotten used to facing recently, but he did make the Pro Bowl in 2013 when he posted a 119.2 QB rating while throwing 27 TDs and just two INTs for the Philadelphia Eagles.
San Francisco has been bad this year on the road, defensively, albeit against good offensive teams. However, Gurley's presence makes the Rams a good team now offensively, and Bethea's absence is going to hurt the 49ers defense. Look for St. Louis to win by 10 points on Sunday, dropping S.F. even deeper into the NFC West basement.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.
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