NFL Preview - St. Louis (3-5) at San Francisco (6-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In the NFL, there is no difference between winning and winning ugly. A win's a win as they say at this level.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has pretty much thumbed his nose at anyone who has criticized him for not putting up astronomical numbers like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. A 6-2 record and a first-place tag in the NFC West is more than proof.
Smith will try to build off one his most efficient performances Sunday versus the division-rival St. Louis Rams at Candlestick Park. He had plenty of time to think about his latest game because the 49ers just had their bye week.
Before the 49ers took some much-needed time off they shut down the NFC West- rival Arizona Cardinals by a 24-3 score on Oct. 29. In the Monday night affair, Smith was nearly flawless and completed 18 of his 19 pass attempts for 232 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His only flaw was an incompletion to Delanie Walker and head coach Jim Harbaugh tried to get the league to change it to no avail.
Smith, who registered a 157.1 passer rating and set an NFL record for the most passes in a game without more than one incompletion or interception, was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first time in his career. His 94.7 completion percentage was the highest single-game mark in NFL history (minimum 15 attempts), but Smith knows there's a lot of work to be done.
"We all know what we're capable of a team it's a matter of consistently doing it week in and week out," Smith told Pro Football Talk Live. "It's not just showing up on gamedays, I think this team understands that. There's a ton of work left ahead of us, a long season."
Known as a game manager who avoids turnovers and plays mistake-free football, Smith has 12 touchdown passes to five interceptions. He only has three 300- yard passing games in his career, but owns 19 wins since the start of 2011.
San Francisco's defense gets its fair share of attention, and deservedly so. The unit held the Cardinals to just seven yards rushing and 265 yards overall. The stingy effort enabled the 49ers to win for the second straight week and for the fourth time in five games.
The Rams had high hopes for a productive season after a 3-2 start, but those aspirations have gone by the wayside with three straight losses. Like the 49ers, the Rams also are coming off their bye week.
St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis gave his perspective on how the 3-5 Rams can turn things around in the second half.
"I think it's important: how do we respond to this? How do we come back on Wednesday and Thursday and practice hard and really try to focus and focus on the little things and details that make us better?" Laurinaitis said. "Because this thing doesn't get easier for us."
Laurinaitis, the Rams' leading tackler with 74, is second in the league in stops behind Arizona's Daryl Washington. Laurinaitis said it's important for the players to look themselves in the mirror and evaluate how they're playing up to this point. It can't be that good with a 3-5 record brought on by a season-high three-game slide. Leading by example and going the extra mile may sound cliche, but it's what helps team succeed.
"We've got guys across the board that are going to work their butts off and we hope the young guys take notice and do the same," Laurinaitis said.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is on the same page. Fisher had a chance to look over film and knows there's a lot of work to do in all phases of the game. Getting the ball in the red zone, forcing takeaways and limiting turnovers are on the top of Fisher's agenda. St. Louis has just one takeaway in the past four games and recorded eight through the first four.
Before the Rams headed to their bye they suffered a 45-loss to the New England Patriots in London. The defense could neither stop the run or the pass, as the Patriots racked up 473 yards of offense, including 152 rushing. Sam Bradford had a touchdown pass and an interception for St. Louis, which is riding its longest losing streak since ending 2011 on a seven-game slide.
The Rams lost both meetings with the 49ers last season and are just 3-11 in the past 14 meetings between the NFC West inhabitants. In two career games against the 'Niners, Bradford has thrown for 543 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Smith has faced the Rams eight times, posting 1,467 yards, six TD passes and two picks.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Rams running back Steven Jackson is having a down season as evidenced by his 403 rushing yards -- 24th in the NFL -- and one touchdown. It doesn't appear he'll have much success against a San Francisco defense that is ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed (87.4), second in total yards (271.4) and first in points (12.9).
Jackson had just 23 yards on seven carries against New England and hasn't reached the 100-yard mark in rushing since last Dec. 24 at Pittsburgh. He has taken a back seat to rookie running back Daryl Richardson, but is supportive in what makes the team better.
"It's a huge adjustment, but I think the more you embrace change, it makes things for transition work a little easier," Jackson said. "That's why I try to do my best, is just be a veteran that I know I can be. Go out there, take advantage of the opportunity that is given to me, run hard, and show the young guys behind me how to be a professional on and off the field."
Rams other rookie running back Isaiah Pead has been patiently waiting to show what he can do.
"We drafted Isaiah because of those run skills and he's got them," Fisher said after the Pats loss. "But again, it's hard to get everybody the carries, but we'll try to keep him involved. We had him involved in a couple packages going into that game, so he got in the ballgame."
The Rams could get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back but Wayne Hunter and Joe Barksdale have been filling in admirably. Center Scott Wells also is trying to get back on the field to help the running game and protect Bradford in the pocket. Robert Turner is snapping balls now until Wells is ready to return. Leading wide receiver Danny Amendola is close to returning as well, and has been sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Can Smith keep up his proficient ways in what should be a breeze for the 49ers this week? The St. Louis defense has some weapons in Laurinaitis and defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, who leads the team with seven sacks.
Smith is second in the NFL with a 69.4 completion percentage and fourth in rating (102.1). He has been sacked 22 times -- sixth most in the league -- and his 1,659 passing yards are 27th. But Smith doesn't have to do it all himself. He has the No. 1 rushing offense on his side and arguably the best defense in the league. Watch for the 49ers to get Frank Gore going early on Sunday. Gore has 656 rushing yards -- eighth in the NFL -- and four touchdowns on 119 carries.
San Francisco needs to get tight end Vernon Davis more involved since he has just five catches in his last two games and hasn't scored since a loss at Minnesota in Week 3. Davis has been targeted often by opposing defenses, but that has only opened more doors for Michael Crabtree and others.
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he is doing everything he can to get Davis more involved. Roman added that besides catching passes, Davis has other responsibilities in the run game and pass protection.
"I just wait for my opportunities," Davis said. "I know what I can do. I know the ability that I have and the things I can do in this game, but I don't talk about it. The coaches know. I just let them call the shots and I just sit back and play my role and try to be a team guy."
Some teams thrive after the bye week and other not so much. The 49ers have won their last two games after the off week and will complete the trifecta Sunday with a dominating home win because of an efficient ground attack and their suffocating defense. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are two of the best interior linebackers in the league and will have no trouble stopping Jackson or St. Louis' rookie running backs. Bradford will get his stats, but not the most important one when the clock strikes zero.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 26, Rams 13
11/08 14:25:18 ET