November 13, 2011; Cleveland, OH , USA; St. Louis Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (55) during the second half against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

3 Key Matchups: St. Louis Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Rams have drawn the short end of the straw in facing the San Francisco 49ers after an embarrassing defeat in Dallas. San Francisco is also reeling after losing on their home field to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts as they out-muscled the 49ers at their own game. As both teams look for a win after two consecutive losses, a 1-3 start would start the derailing process for either team.

Rams front-7 vs. 49ers rushing attack

Expect the 49ers to get back to the basics in their matchup against the Rams. Frank Gore and Co. have to be chomping at the bit to attack the Rams run defense that gave up 193 total rushing yards to the Cowboys. A large portion of those yards came from the Ram-killer himself, DeMarco Murray, who accounted for 175 yards. San Francisco will run more plays for Colin Kaepernick to get him out in space, Gore will get 20+ carries and Kendall Hunter will also factor into the ground game.

The Rams are only giving up 105 yards per game ranking 16th in the NFL, part of that was due to teams taking advantage of soft coverage in the passing to execute quick passes to push down the field. The defensive captain James Laurinaitis has to lift the tenacity of this young and talented defense to make plays and prepare themselves for a battle up front against the 49ers. This week will test if the Rams ailing run defense is a blimp or trend.

Rams offense vs. an injured 49ers defense

The 49ers are likely to be without both Patrick Willis–who is nursing a groin injury–and Nnamdi Asomugha who sustained a leg injury against the Colts. San Fran will also be without OLB Aldon Smith who was placed on the reserve non-football injury list as he enters rehab for substance abuse. For a team that ranked no. 3 in total defense (294.4 YDS/G) and no. 2 in point allowed (17.1 PPG) last season, the 49ers have given up 90 points over three games.

Through three games last season, they gave up 25 points; including a week 2 shutout against the New York Jets.

This is music to the Rams ears on paper, but will Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer take advantage of a defense that’s on their heels?

From what the Rams have showcased on offense, it doesn’t seem likely that will happen. The Rams offense is basically one-dimensional averaging 57 yards per game ranking 28th in the NFL. After Daryl Richardson 20 carry season opener, he has been bothered by a nagging foot injury. His return could add a minor boost to the offense. There was an Isaiah Pead siting notching 5 carries for 20 yards and hauling in a career-high in receptions with 7 receptions for 43 yards. The ground game is still in works, but more talented Pead can provide a spark.

What’s equally as troubling is Sam Bradford’s 6.32 yards per attempt, but the anemic yards per throw is largely credited to the play calling. What cause for equal concern is Tavon Austin’s 6.6 yards per catch. Deemed the most explosive player coming out the draft, Austin has yet to have a game over 50 yards receiving this year. Figuring out how to get him into space and use who uncanny play-making ability is the key to opening up the passing game.

It’s almost startling to say the 49ers defense is vulnerable, but with key players due to miss the game on both defense and offense, the Rams have to capitalize against their division rivals.

Rams punt return vs 49ers punt coverage

Speaking of Tavon Austin, St. Louis has 23 punt return yards over three games averaging 3.3 yards a pop. He has found little wiggle room to operate despite an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown that was called back by a holding penalty. If there is a time to dazzle and have a game breaking play on special teams, Thursday is the time to do so. San Francisco is 29th in the league giving 12 yards a return and 72 yards total through three games. If the punt return unit can hold their blocks and avoid frustrating penalties, then Austin could have a breakout game on special teams.

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Tags: James Laurinaitis San Francisco 49ers St. Louis Rams Tavon Austin

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