The final score might be closer than we expect but, come on, this game won’t be competitive.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas must be messing with us, favoring the 49ers to beat the Rams by just 31/2 points Monday night. Sure, the 49ers have kicked nine field goals the past two games and struggle to score touchdowns in the red zone. Yes, the Rams are a division rival desperate for a win. And yes, the Rams’ head coach, Jeff Fisher, is good. All true. If you look hard enough, you can find reasons to believe the Rams will win.
One 49ers’ beat reporter dug deep this week and found an interesting pro-Rams stat. She asked Anquan Boldin about it Thursday afternoon in the 49ers’ locker room.
“When you look at the numbers, the 49ers’ passing game is ranked at the bottom of the league,” the reporter said. “The Rams, despite their record, their passing defense is ranked at the top of the league. What, to you, really is the story behind those numbers?”
Boldin shook his head and shrugged like the reporter had asked about Middle English or the Hegelian Dialectic. “Look where they’re ranked at as far as run defense,” he said.
Yes, look where they’re ranked. Twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per carry. Twenty-ninth in rushing yards allowed per game. That’s all you have to know.
The Rams can’t stop the run. If a team can’t stop the run, they probably can’t beat the 49ers.
I asked Jim Harbaugh about the Rams’ run defense Saturday afternoon. Harbaugh was more diplomatic than Boldin. An NFL coach is being diplomatic when he uses words like, “aggressive,” “fast,” or “experienced” to describe a player. If the player was any good, the coach would say so, wouldn’t speak in code. Got it?
“They do a nice job of running through gaps, getting penetration,” Harbaugh said. “Outstanding defensive line, and linebackers that are aggressive, fast.”
Translation: the linebackers aren’t so good.
A reporter followed up. “At times, can the (defensive line’s) aggressiveness come back to bite them a little bit?”
“It can, yeah.”
No translation necessary.
Rams’ middle linebacker James Laurinaitis seemed in awe of the 49ers’ run game on a conference call this week. “They do so much shifting and motioning, it gets defenders to have bad eyes at times. When a lot of things start happening in front of you, you have to make sure, “Hey, what are my keys?” Before they say, “Set, hut,” what are my keys? What am I looking at? And, I think sometimes you see on film, at the end of the game, if guys aren’t still honed in on what their keys are they could start chasing ghosts.”
Can’t be more clear than that.
How good is Frank Gore?
“He has phenomenal vision,” Laurinaitis said. “As a linebacker, you have to pace the ball and cancel gaps because, trust me, a lot of times on their power plays it looks like there is no room in there. But he’s patient, he gets low and he kind of squeaks through these little holes. He knows if there only is an arm in there, he can go through an arm. I can’t just assume that because it doesn’t look open that he is not going there. You really have to be patient as a linebacker and pace the ball.”
Sounds good. But patience won’t work for the Rams. Neither will aggressiveness. St. Louis just is not good enough to stop Gore.
Only Greg Roman, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator, can stop Gore Monday night. Roman calls the plays. He is responsible for making sure Gore gets the ball. Roman made noises Friday afternoon that he will use Gore sparingly against the Rams.
“We don’t want to just ride that stallion all day every day,” said Roman, referring to Gore. “There’s just a point of diminishing returns at some point.”
Roman is right – Gore is 31 years old and will wear down if he carries the ball too much. But, sometimes Roman doesn’t give the ball to Gore enough. Sometimes Roman tries too hard to be clever. Take Week 3 against the Cardinals. Roman called just six runs for Gore and the 49ers lost.
Harbaugh won’t let Roman make that mistake again. That’s my prediction. The Niners will run Gore down the Rams’ throats, score two touchdowns, kick three field goals and win 23-10.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.