NFL Preview - San Francisco (5-9) at St. Louis (6-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Consistency has been hard to come by among the members of the NFC's West Division this season, therefore it shouldn't be shocking if the San Francisco 49ers once again make a change at quarterback in advance of possibly their biggest game of the year.
The desperate 49ers are expected to turn back to Troy Smith in hopes of jump- starting a sluggish offense when the team heads to the Edward Jones Dome for this Sunday's pivotal showdown with the St. Louis Rams that should help clear up a very cloudy forecast in the NFL's most tightly-bunched division race.
The quarterback position has been a revolving door for San Francisco in a 2010 campaign that's so far fallen short of expectations. Former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith started the first seven games before injuring his shoulder in a potentially costly road loss to bottom-feeder Carolina on Oct. 24, with Troy Smith taking over for the next five contests and guiding the Niners to three wins -- including an overtime verdict over the Rams at Candlestick Park in Week 10.
Head coach Mike Singletary re-inserted the fully-healed Alex Smith, considered the more polished passer of the two candidates, under center following an early December loss at Green Bay, and the sixth-year pro tossed three touchdown passes in his return to lead San Francisco to a much-needed 40-21 triumph over fellow NFC West inhabitant Seattle. He was ineffective in a 34-7 thrashing at the hands of playoff-hopeful San Diego in Week 15, however, mustering just 165 yards through the air with an interception while being sacked six times.
Although Singletary hasn't publicly tipped his hand, various reports have indicated that Troy Smith will be getting the call when the 49ers take the field in a must-win scenario on Sunday. San Francisco presently trails both the Rams and Seahawks by a game in the quality-lacking NFC West, which could be sending a representative with a losing record to the playoffs in a non-strike season for the first time in NFL history, and would be eliminated from contention with a loss.
St. Louis, which has matched its entire victory total over the previous three years combined in a vastly-improved 2010 campaign, would earn its first postseason trip since 2004 with wins over the 49ers and at Seattle in next week's finale. The Rams could also take the division at 7-9 if they top the Seahawks in Week 17 and San Francisco stumbles against lowly Arizona in its final game.
The Rams haven't helped their cause as of late, however. St. Louis comes in off back-to-back setbacks to a pair of heavyweights in New Orleans and Kansas City and has lost four of six after a 4-4 first half.
The ill-timed slide has coincided with a rough stretch from young quarterback Sam Bradford, who threw two interceptions against both the Saints and Chiefs and is on a three-game run in which he's failed to record a touchdown pass.
It appears as if Bradford, the top overall choice of this past April's draft, won't be going head-to-head with Alex Smith in a clash of No. 1 selections. Sunday's bout instead figures to be a rematch of former Heisman Trophy recipients, with Troy Smith garnering the coveted collegiate award for Ohio State in 2006 and Bradford claiming the honor during his outstanding career at the University of Oklahoma two years later.
Troy Smith amassed a career-high 356 passing yards and led the 49ers back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit in the club's 23-20 overtime decision over St. Louis in mid-November.
The Rams have a slim 60-59-2 edge in their regular-season series with the 49ers, but have now lost five straight to their longtime division foes following the Week 10 outcome. San Francisco has also won at the Edward Jones Dome in each of the previous three years, including a 28-6 rout in the 2009 regular-season finale, and hasn't been beaten by St. Louis since a 13-9 defeat at Candlestick Park on Nov. 18, 2007.
San Francisco's five-game winning streak over the Rams is its longest since a remarkable run of 17 straight victories against the franchise from 1990 through 1998.
The 49ers also bested the Rams in the lone playoff encounter between the clubs, a 30-3 verdict at home in the 1989 NFC Championship when the Rams will still based in Los Angeles.
Singletary improved to 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis with last month's result, while the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo is 0-3 versus the 49ers since taking over in St. Louis last season.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Singletary's anticipated move back to Troy Smith (1093 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) may be rooted in the athletic triggerman's excellent mobility, which should help combat both a strong St. Louis pass rush and the inability of a shaky front line that remains without steady left tackle Joe Staley (fractured fibula) to adequately pass protect. Or it could be based on the fact that Smith was able to move the football effectively against the Rams last month, something the Alex Smith-led offense didn't do in its last game. Either way, expect San Francisco to go run-heavy on Sunday in spite of the season-ending hip fracture top back Frank Gore suffered four weeks back, with physical rookie Anthony Dixon (198 rushing yards, 2 TD) the main candidate to handle the load with support from veteran Brian Westbrook (221 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 3 total TD). The 49ers had success utilizing the tight end in the passing game in their last meeting with the Rams, as the combo of Vernon Davis (50 receptions, 6 TD) and Delanie Walker (25 receptions) accumulated 159 yards on eight catches that afternoon. Third-year pro Josh Morgan has supplanted Davis and 2009 first- round pick Michael Crabtree (45 receptions, 5 TD) as the go-to receiver lately, however, with the wideout compiling a career-high 106 yards on seven grabs against the Chargers.
Troy Smith's scrambling ability could be an asset against a St. Louis defense that's racked up 39 sacks so far in 2010 and had five in its tough loss to the Niners last month. Ends James Hall (41 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Chris Long (26 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and veteran tackle Fred Robbins (23 tackles, 5 sacks) can all get to the quarterback, and Spagnuolo loves to bring the blitz from all angles in the team's highly aggressive scheme. Opponents have completed under 58 percent of their passes on a secondary that sports two sound cover men in cornerback Ron Bartell (52 tackles, 10 PD) and free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (69 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), but running the ball on the Rams has been an easier task. St. Louis has allowed an average of 4.6 yards per rush attempt and was bullied for 210 yards on the ground by the bruising Chiefs a week ago, though the unit does field one standout stopper in second-year middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (98 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT), who's coming off an 11-tackle effort against Kansas City.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford (3065 passing yards, 17 TD, 14 INT) seems to have hit the proverbial rookie wall down the stretch, with the talented youngster having thrown five interceptions and no touchdowns over the last three games and hitting on a substandard 21-of-43 passes in the Week 15 loss to Kansas City. His struggles could cause the Rams to lean even more heavily on workhorse running back Steven Jackson (1148 rushing yards, 5 TD, 39 receptions), which was certainly the case in the team's November tussle with the Niners. The standout ball-carrier piled up a combined 148 yards on 28 touches (20 rushes, 8 receptions) in that contest, and his presence helped Bradford complete a sharp 30-of-42 attempts for 251 yards without a turnover. The receiving corps is young but has made good progress over the course of the season, with undrafted slotman Danny Amendola (75 receptions, 3 TD) among the NFC leaders in catches and promising second-year man Brandon Gibson (47 receptions, 2 TD) hauling in a career-best eight Bradford passes for 72 yards against San Francisco last month. The Rams mustered only 224 total yards versus Kansas City, their second-lowest output of the season.
The Rams may need Bradford to step up his play in order to prevail on Sunday, because San Francisco has generally been quite stout in stopping the run. A defense that's yielding an average of 3.5 yards per rush (2nd overall) on the season has two terrific anchors up front in nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (36 tackles) and end Justin Smith (54 tackles, 5.5 sacks), while inside linebackers Patrick Willis (116 tackles, 5 sacks) and Takeo Spikes (103 tackles, 3 INT) have each put forth excellent all-around years. Enemy quarterbacks have had an easier time taking on a 49ers squad that's ranked just 25th against the pass (230.1 ypg) and was shredded for 266 net yards through the air and three touchdowns by San Diego's Philip Rivers in Week 15. The Niners do possess a deep stable of capable pass rushers that will be out to make for an uncomfortable afternoon for Bradford, though the team lost one of its better ones when outside linebacker Travis LaBoy (28 tackles, 5 sacks) sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Chargers. San Francisco still has Parys Haralson (33 tackles, 4 sacks) and Ahmad Brooks (25 tackles, 4 sacks) to come off the edge, while both Willis and Smith are adept at generating a push from the interior.
The best source of points from a matchup of teams that don't normally light up the scoreboard should come from the running backs. Jackson makes for a worthwhile start as the focal point of the San Francisco offense, but the timeshare situation between Dixon and Westbrook limits the overall value of both players, though each should get a fair amount of touches. Davis is usually a fine choice at the tight end spot and Morgan has sleeper potential at wide receiver, but the quarterback change lends considerable risk to his prospects. Amendola is the top option among Rams pass-catchers, but should only be used in points-per-reception leagues. Look elsewhere for a quarterback, as Bradford is slumping and Troy Smith hasn't played in close to a month, and there are better choices at kicker than San Francisco's Jeff Reed and St. Louis' Josh Brown. The Rams defense has some upside, as it's pretty good at obtaining sacks and the Niners often have trouble putting up points.
Singletary's election to go with Troy Smith could very well pay off, as he's probably been the more effective of the two San Francisco signal-callers this year, but the switch still doesn't solve what may be the team's biggest obstacle. The 49ers have not run the ball well since Gore got hurt last month, and it's a stretch to think that Smith's the type of quarterback capable of carrying an offense by himself. There's also the fact that San Francisco has not performed well on the road this season, and that negative trend could wind up as a determining factor in a game where the combatants are pretty evenly matched. Bradford's going to have to play better than he has over the past few weeks for the Rams to come out on top, but the rookie will get some aid from Jackson and an under-the-radar defense that will force at least one momentum- changing mistake.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 23, 49ers 17
12/23 13:39:07 ET