The San Francisco 49ers face off against an old rival on Sunday, when they travel east to play the St. Louis Rams. We took a few minutes this week to chat with the folks at Turf Show Times to get a better handle on their Rams. The team is 3-3 and looking pretty solid in recent weeks. Todd Gurley is showing why people were so high on him, and that defense is looking might solid. Rams fans are still expecting another blah finish, but the talent is there to surprise us.
Niners Nation: How has the passing game been as a whole this year?
Turf Show Times: NOT GREAT, BOB! The Rams just aren't clicking in the passing game, even with the ascendancy of rookie RB Todd Gurley. Ok, "not clicking" is being far too kind. The Rams are 32nd in passing yards per game, and that's not the kind of stat you want to be last in. As you can guess when it's that extreme, it's a combination of things. QB Nick Foles has struggled to develop any consistent rapport with his downfield targets. There have been too many mistakes underneath by everyone involved. And the talent level just isn't sufficient for an NFL WR corps. Throw in an overwhelmingly disappointing season from TE Jared Cook who led the team in targets a year ago and tied for the lead in 2013, and it's just bad, bad, bad, bad. And not the old Run D.M.C. bad.
NN: I know you must enjoy talking about Todd Gurley. Are there any weaknesses you can see in the rookie? How would you describe him as a running back?
TST: Yeah, so I guess you could point to things as weaknesses, but they're more just skill areas that he doesn't excel in. He doesn't have elite quickness. He's not incredibly shifty. But it just doesn't really matter. What he does so well (vision, power, timing) is plenty to excel. Being a Rams fan, the best way I have to describe him is that he's a smoother, quicker Steven Jackson. That smoothness and uncanny quicks for his size, albeit not as quick as say Tavon Austin, allows him to do some creepy things. His second TD against Cleveland. This run in the same game. There's just too much there between the vision, the balance and then the top speed.
He's got the skills to be special. I do worry sometimes about the quality of the line and the surrounding product holding him back. For the last three games, it hasn't been a problem for him.
NN: What are the strengths and weaknesses of this defense?
TST: The strengths are pretty evident. They get to the QB. They've done a great job containing the run for five games, the exception being Week 2. And the secondary is playing great football. The real weakness isn't in the personnel or the execution. It's in the scheme.
The Rams are designed to attack up front and play a pretty soft shell around the sidelines and the deep cover. That leaves the middle of the field open, but that's by design. They do a good job of attacking the flats and killing the screen game. It's the middle where you can do damage. The thing is, most teams aren't comfortable dinking by design over and over and over and over. It's not about checkdowns. The Rams' defense is quick enough to close down on those and if you're checking it off on 3rd and long, your chances aren't good against this defense. Similarly, if you're not disciplined and run the risk testing the Rams defense along the sidelines or going deep, you're playing into our hands.
It's a pretty comprehensive defense, but there is a weak spot by design.
NN: Rams fans never seem excited about Jeff Fisher. What would you say his strengths and weaknesses are at this point in his tenure?
TST: Well, it's year 4 and he hasn't even gotten the Rams to .500. That's not exactly a resume bullet to get excited about. And coming off a period where since 2003 the Rams haven't had a winning record and the worst 5-year run of any team in NFL history coming from 2006 to 2011, I think it's fair to assume Rams fans wanted more by this point.
His strengths can be what frustrates the most: dedication to his approach and belief in his system. He doesn't have a lot of room for self-doubt, and that translates to his staff and his roster. Of course, the problem is when you're not winning or committing unbelievable amounts of penalties or ranking in the bottom third of the league in offensive categories, that confidence seems awfully misplaced.
Back in the preseason when asked about the struggling offense at the time, he said, "Go back a year from now, two years from now, three years from now - you guys all asked me the same questions: 'What's up with your offense?'"
It's a delusional confidence. He somehow doesn't understand that that line of questioning comes about because the offense HASN'T been sufficient. But whether he actually believes it's fine or it's just a media game he's playing, he doesn't let on. It's Jeff Fisher's world and we're all just...wait. No. No we're not. Never mind.
NN: Prediction time: How do you see this game playing out? Does not need to be a specific score, but with an 8.5-point spread, do the Rams cover it?
TST: So uh, on the Better Rivals podcast and in our TST Staff predictions, I went with the same score: Rams 7, 49ers 3. It feels fittingly ridiculous. There's enough absurdity to it to satisfy me and enough logic to it that I could justify. So I'll go with an offensive blowout.
NN: Bonus: How do you see the rest of the season shaking out for the Rams?
TST: Honestly, we just haven't seen a reason to believe the Rams won't end up as they always do, milking out a mediocre record while relying on the promise of a young, talented depth chart. As much as there is to get excited about, we've had that in the past few years. So until we see the Rams run off a couple wins in a row, I just don't see why we shoudn't set the expectations at 7 or 8 wins. This is a team that has scored 10 or less points in three games. One was a loss to Washington in Week 2. That's already a pretty notable miscue. The second was a home loss to Pittsburgh in which the Rams scored 6 points and Todd Gurley gained just 9 yards on 6 carries. The third was a loss in Green Bay in which the Rams scored 10 points despite a 30-carry, 159-yard showing from Todd Gurley.
The fan base is eager to get to double digit wins and get into the postseason. And having avoided a winning season since 2003, I'd go so far as to say we deserve it. But it's just hard to put my chips in right now. It's the difference between believing and expecting, and right now coming off of three seasons of Fisherball, I think we all know what to expect.