There’s no denying just how crucial of a role the St. Louis Rams’ ability to contain opposing rushing attacks has played in their recent string of success. After beginning the year giving up yardage in chunks to opposing backs, the Rams have quietly moved themselves up the rankings into 13th in the NFL in terms of run defense. And you’ll never guess who’s in 12th right in front of them.
That’s right, Sunday’s opponent, the San Francisco 49ers and their once vaunted run defense, are ranked just one spot ahead of the Rams in terms of stopping the run this season. Running the ball effectively and stopping the run have stood the test of time as effective strategies to winning games in this league, and it seems head coach Jeff Fisher’s crew has finally gotten on board with that philosophy.
What will aid their cause even more in slowing down the Niners’ rushing attack is having a decent run game of their own. The Rams began the season with basically zero push from their offensive line and no production from the backs carrying the ball, but Zac Stacy’s recent emergence along with Benny Cunningham’s coming out party last week gives the team a solid duo to keep opposing defenses on their heels all game long. That ability to milk the clock and limit the amount of possessions opponents can have is critical to stopping the run on the other side of the ball.
If teams are forced to maximize their possessions and cash in every time they have poessession, running the ball successfully suddenly becomes secondary and the pressure mounts on getting into the end zone. Instead of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter being able to gouge the Rams on the ground like they did in the two teams’ previous meeting, the game will suddenly become a chess match where game plans go out the window.
Defenders like Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis, and Michael Brockers will be critical to keeping the 49ers’ rushers in check around the line of scrimmage and preventing the big play from breaking down the field. Another key returning body for the Rams’ defense is safety T.J. McDonald, who coincidentally played for the first time last week since he suffered a broken leg in the Week 4 meeting with these Niners way back at the end of September. He thrives down in the box as a run defender acting like a fourth linebacker which will be much-needed against this San Francisco offense.
In reality the Rams are facing a much less daunting task in this contest than the ones they have passed easily in recent weeks. The 49ers have the league’s 32nd (last) ranked passing attack to go along with the fourth best running game. When evaluating the two offenses it is the Rams who actually possess the more potent attack with 324.6 yards per game on average (22nd) to the Niners’ 308.5 (30th). This has to bode well for a defense that has shown real signs of life over the past month and a half.
This is a desperation game for the Rams with the Niners still kind of sleepwalking through their season to this point. Given just how one-dimensional San Francisco has become as the season has moved along, that puts even more emphasis on St. Louis’ ability to bottle up Gore and the 49ers’ run game. There’s no doubt this matchup will determine the winner on Sunday, and given the trend lines the Rams are looking pretty good heading into this NFC West clash.