The 49ers welcome their long-time rival, the St. Louis Rams, to town on Sunday looking to clinch the NFC West. The 49ers are heavy favorites, but I certainly won't be getting comfortable until the 49ers take a sizable lead. Consider it just some basic fan paranoia, I guess.
I had a chance to chat with 3k over at Turf Show Times as we get ready for Sunday's game. The Rams are struggling this season after entering 2011 as one of the favorites in the division. Even with some potential regression, I figured the Rams continuity that they would be able to at least hang in the thick of the divisional race. Of course, I didn't really expect this kind of explosion from the 49ers, but I also didn't anticipate this drop-off by the Rams.
Niners Nation: The Rams were one of the favorites in the division (including mine) heading into the season in part because they had a lot of consistency from 2010 to 2011. What happened?
Turf Show Times: Well, to finish the leading of the question, too much inconsistency. The offense went from one of the most simple to one of the most complex for a QB as the Rams lost OC Pat Shurmur to a head coaching job in Cleveland and filled his spot with Josh McDaniels. They've lost cornerback after cornerback after cornerback; ten (yes, 10) Rams cornerbacks have been placed on IR this season since camp.
The Rams are now without both offensive tackles. And the holes up front on defense have been ripped wide open as the season passed the halfway mark. The reality is the Rams suck (again). And you don't get to that level of ineptitude without everything going wrong: injuries, poor coaching, poor execution and poor management. (We're a happy bunch, can't ya tell?)
NN: Chris Long is having a career year and is looking like an anchor for that defense. What are his strengths and does he have any noticeable weaknesses?
TST: His strengths are his jump on the ball and (I can't say "motor") the fact he plays through the whistle. He picks up sacks he shouldn't just by coming around the back and pursuing the QB through the play. But as a weakness, he's just not that quick or athletic. He doesn't have Robert Quinn's (or Aldon Smith's....sniff...) lateral hip work and quickness to get around guys without using pure strength. He's a very, very good 4-3 DE though.
NN: Sam Bradford's numbers are down in year two. How is he looking? Has the loss of Danny Amendola been that significant?
TST: Well he's not looking good. I think part of it is the aforementioned rise in system complexity (and the added responsibilities he had at the line in calling his protection), but yes part of it is receiver play. And while Amendola would have helped, Greg Salas stepped into the role pretty quickly; in weeks 6-9, he averaged 5.5 rec for 54 yards, a very acceptable rookie slot output.
Drops were a HUGE issue in the first four weeks. It seemed like nobody could hold the ball, Salas included. And we're talking wide open 4 yard halo of space open. It was just odd. The truth though is that everything has been bad. Sam, the O-line, receiver play - it's impossible to pinpoint a single factor to explain it all.
NN: Steven Jackson, Brandon Lloyd and Chris Long have been the high profile guys for the Rams. Are there any particular under-the-radar players 49ers fans should keep an eye out for on Sunday?
TST: Well rookie DE Robert Quinn certainly has the athleticism to make a difference. He's blocked two punts and is up to five sacks on the year with four in his last five games. And our second-round pick, TE Lance Kendricks, seems like he's always on the verge of a breakout game. It hasn't come yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it does before the end of the season.
NN: I thought Josh McDaniels would be a boon for Sam Bradford. How has the coaching staff in general performed this season and what are your expectations heading into the offseason as far as retention?
TST: Hehe. This one's easy. It's all been poor. Crappy. Deficient. Lackluster. Suboptimal. Wretched. Dissatisfactory. I would go on, but I'd need a thesaurus. While the defense has kept the Rams in games (despite a total inability to stop the run), the offense has never clicked evidenced by a second-worst 12.7 points per game scoring rate. The offensive gameplans have either been acceptable or absolutely indecipherable, so the Josh McDaniels "wow" factor didn't arrive with Josh McDaniels.
And Spags has a tendency to make some of the worst decisions when the Rams have the ball. Last week, the Rams were down a field goal and had a 3rd and 1 at their own 36 with just about three and a half minutes remaining. After an incomplete pass set up a short fourth down, the Rams punted and never got the ball back. It's that kind of ham-handed coaching that has people calling for his termination.
Will it come? I'm not sure. With all the injuries, the deck was stacked against him and with a year left on his contract, I could see owner Stan Kroenke letting him finish it out. But it would be a gamble. Everything with this team and this franchise right now is moving in the wrong direction. You won't find too many fans upset if ownership decides the best way to reverse course is to blow up the front office and try to build top down around the young core the Rams have.