Three things to watch in Rams-49ers matchup
NOV 29, 2013 3:43p ET
The St. Louis Rams haven't had a winning season since 2003 and haven't made the playoffs since 2004. The next two weeks will likely determine whether those two long streaks will continue into the 2014 campaign.
There are five games left in the Rams' regular-season schedule, and St. Louis will play on the road for three of them -- at San Francisco and Arizona before traveling to Seattle for the season finale.
The 49ers and Cardinals are both 7-4 and the Seahawks, winners of six straight games, have the best record in the NFC at 10-1.
Add in the Rams' 5-6 mark and the NFC West is a combined 29-15, which is the best composite record among the NFL's eight divisions. The AFC West is next at 27-18.
The Rams are 2-3 on the road this season -- with wins at Houston and Indianapolis and losses at Atlanta, Dallas and Carolina -- but are 2-1 away from the Edward Jones Dome over their past seven games.
San Francisco thumped St. Louis 35-11 back in Week 4. Now we'll find out during the rematch just how different this team is.
Here are three things to keep an eye on this Sunday when the Rams travel to San Francisco:
RUN, RAMS, RUN
After rushing for a season-high 258 yards on 29 carries against the Bears last week, the Rams now rank 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt (4.3) and 16th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (113.8).
But since the first meeting with the 49ers, when St. Louis rushed for just 18 yards on 19 attempts, the Rams are second in the NFL in rushing yards per game (151.9), trailing only the Redskins (177.4), and second in rushing yards per attempt (4.9).
"We focused in on it and we stuck with it and we emphasized it, and it's allowed us to be successful here as of late," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said this week.
It's no secret that the rushing game has been a focus and a big part of the team's success over the past seven games, including its affect on loosening up defenses for the passing game.
The question is whether the Rams can keep that going.
Rookie Zac Stacy practiced Friday after leaving the Bears' game with a head injury. He has rushed for 620 yards and four touchdowns in the past seven games.
Benny Cunningham, the undrafted rookie who has emerged as the No. 2 option behind Stacy, has rushed for 181 yards and a touchdown the past two weeks, averaging 9.1 yards per carry.
Sunday's game will be a good measuring stick for how the St. Louis rushing attack has improved.
The 49ers are allowing just 104.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the NFL, and have held three of their past five opponents under 93 yards on the ground. San Francisco is allowing 3.9 yards per carry, which ranks 10th in the league.
Arizona, the Rams' next opponent, is third in the league at 3.5 yards allowed per rush. Just file that information away for next weekend.
CONTAINING FRANK GORE
San Francisco running back Frank Gore dominated the Rams in the first meeting, rushing for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Gore has rushed for 779 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry, and seven touchdowns this season. He's averaging 3.7 yards per carry in the 10 games against opponents other than St. Louis.
Fisher said that Gore is still a talented running back.
"He's not getting the carries right now," Fisher said. "He's probably hoping to get more. I think they've gone, in the last four games, like 19, 18, 13, 13. They're very effective in the running game and he's still got a lot of ability."
Fisher was asked if he expected to see Gore get more carries on Sunday.
"I would expect to see a lot of runs, yes," he said. "As I think they would, too."
CAN CRABTREE MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
The 49ers rank 32nd in the NFL in passing yards per game, averaging 173.5. The Rams, meanwhile, have started backup quarterback Kellen Clemens the past four games and are 23rd at 210.8 yards per game.
Anybody who drafted Colin Kaepernick in fantasy football knows how inconsistent the San Francisco passing attack has been. (Raises hand, shamefully.)
Could that change the rest of the season with the return of Michael Crabtree?
Crabtree was San Fran's leading receiver a year ago, when he caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns.
He ruptured his Achilles tendon during OTAs in May and had surgery soon after. Crabtree did not play last week but has been practicing with the 49ers and was not listed on the injury report this week.
The Rams' secondary has struggled with injuries lately. They placed Cortland Finnegan on the injured reserve list a week ago and cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson (concussion) and Brandon McGee (foot) have been limited in practice this week.
The St. Louis secondary would have had its hands full with Anquan Boldin (52 catches for 724 yards and five TDs) and tight end Vernon Davis (38 catches for 623 yards and nine TDs) anyway. But if Crabtree is healthy enough to contribute, the 49ers might be able to revive their struggling pass attack.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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