Preview: How the Niners match up against the Rams

This is the final installment of our NFC West matchup preview. Today we’re breaking down how the Niners match up with the St. Louis Rams. Tomorrow we’ll break down their matchup with the New England Patriots.

49ERS DEFENSE VS. RAMS OFFENSE: This matchup isn’t close. The Niners have a great defense and the Rams have a terrible offense. St. Louis got shut out twice in their final five games last season and they gave up a league-high 55 sacks. Aldon Smith toyed with their left tackle Roger Saffold, beating him for two sacks and three quarterback hits.

Quarterback Sam Bradford needs a top-notch offensive line to function. He’s not particularly good at sliding around the pocket and making accurate throws while he takes the big hit. Until the Rams offensive line improves from the bottom of the league to the top, I doubt Bradford will ever post a QB rating above 80.

The Rams biggest matchup advantage could turn out to be their 6-5 rookie wide receiver Brian Quick. The Niners (and most defenses in the NFL) struggle to cover extra-tall receivers because they don’t have any extra-tall defensive backs. If the Rams ever start to move the ball on offense, Quick may be a player the Niners defense chooses to double cover. But that’s an issue for 2013 or 2014.

49ERS OFFENSE VS. RAMS DEFENSE: This matchup wasn’t close last season. The Rams couldn’t stop the run and they had the worst cornerbacks in the NFL – Roderick Hood, Josh Gordy and Justin King. The defense gave up 60 points in two games to the Niners offense last season.

But St. Louis remade its defense this offseason. They signed CB Cortland Finnegan to a five-year, $50 million contract. He’ll be their Carlos Rogers – the No.1 CB who covers the slot in their nickel defense.

Then they drafted Janoris Jenkins in the second round to be the other starting cornerback. Many draft experts considered Jenkins the best cover-corner in the draft, meaning he’s the best at shadowing receivers as they run routes.

They also get back Bradley Fletcher, their No. 1 CB going into last season before he tore his ACL in early October. He’ll be the Rams third cornerback, most likely.

On paper, that group of cornerbacks is excellent. They should be able to cover the Niners’ new additions at wide receiver one-on-one.

The Rams already have a good pass rush. They registered 39 sacks last season, which was a remarkably high figure considering they faced the fifth fewest pass attempts in the NFL. Chris Long is one of the best defensive ends in the league. He lines up on both sides of the formation, and frequently against Anthony Davis on passing downs. He is Davis’ toughest matchup every season.

The Rams pass rush and improved coverage should boost their already respectable third down and red zone defense. Last season they ranked 12th in opponents’ red zone conversion efficiency and 19th in opponents’ third down conversion efficiency. Those rankings should improve next season.

You probably think I’m getting ready to say the Rams defense will out-match the Niners offense next season, but I’m not going that direction. Bear with me here.

Although the Rams pass defense could be very good, their run defense won’t be. It was dreadful last season – they gave up 4.8 yards per carry, tied for 28th in the NFL.

This offseason St. Louis added four players to try to plug the run. They signed linebackers Jo Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggans. They signed defensive tackle Kendall Langford, and they drafted another defensive tackle in the first round – Michael Brockers.

These additions should improve the Rams run defense, especially up the middle. Those four guys are stout, tough players.

But the defense has an Achilles Heel: Slow linebackers.

The starters next season are going to be James Laurinaitis, Mario Haggan and Jo Lonn Dunbar. Of those three, Laurinaitis is the fastest, and he runs a 4.72 40-yard dash. That’s slow.

Not one of them is fast enough to cover Vernon Davis. The Rams will have to put a cornerback on him, meaning they’ll have to use a Nickel formation most of the time against the Niners, meaning they’ll only have two linebackers on the field, meaning they’ll be extra vulnerable to the Niners running attack.

While they may be equipped to stop Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs up the middle, they’re not athletic enough to run down Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James around the edges. They cannot cover the field sideline-to-sideline.

The Niners can beat the Rams with simple counter run plays, student body sweeps and screen passes. The Niners will win both contests next season.

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