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NFL Preview - St. Louis (4-4) at San Francisco (2-6)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - This Sunday's matchup at Candlestick Park featuring the San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams could have been one between former first overall picks, but instead is more likely to feature a pair of Heisman Trophy- winning quarterbacks going head-to-head.
Sam Bradford will look to keep his Rams atop the NFC West standings with a victory over a Troy Smith-led 49ers club that is trying to claw its way back into the divisional race.
At 4-4, the Rams are even with Seattle for first place in the division. They slipped into that spot last weekend despite being idle after the Seahawks were blasted at home by the New York Giants.
St. Louis' four-game win total has already surpassed its total number of victories over the past two seasons (three), and the rookie Bradford has been a big part of that resurgence.
The Rams' reward for last year's 1-15 season, the top pick of the 2010 draft has thrown five touchdown passes without an interception over his last three games and posted a career-best 112.4 quarterback rating in a 20-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 31, giving the Rams four victories in their last six games.
"I think, obviously, things have started to slow down a little bit for me, but I think more than that it's just not forcing things," said Bradford, who won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Oklahoma in 2008. "I think it's taking what the defense is giving me and by understanding by doing that the big plays will eventually present themselves."
Bradford and company must still learn how to win on the road. The Rams have dropped all three of their games as the visiting squad this year, six straight dating back to last season, and 15 of their last 16 on the road stretching back to 2008.
While Bradford is expected to be the cornerstone of the Rams franchise for some time, the 49ers' Smith gets a chance to create a quarterback controversy down by the Bay.
Smith, the 2006 Heisman Trophy recipient out of Ohio State, stepped in for an injured Alex Smith two weekends ago in London, England and helped guide San Francisco to a 24-16 victory over the Denver Broncos. Troy Smith struggled early in his first start since with the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, completing just 4-of-9 passes for 37 yards in the first half. He went on to throw for 196 yards, however, and completed a 28-yard scoring pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree while also running for a short touchdown.
Despite the bye week, Alex Smith seems unlikely to play this weekend as he recovers from an injury to his left non-throwing shoulder. The former first overall pick of the 2005 draft missed a large part of the 2007 season and all of '08 due to a right shoulder injury. He said he can run and throw the ball, but isn't sure the shoulder is ready to take a hit.
Though 49ers head coach Mike Singletary said Alex Smith would likely start if healthy, Troy Smith has gotten the work in practice this week.
"As of right now, it looks like it's going to be Troy," Singletary said on Wednesday. "Something could change, it depends on how Alex progresses through the week, but as of right now, it looks like Troy is going to take all the snaps."
Despite losing their first five games of the season, the 2-6 49ers are just two games back of first place in the NFC West.
The Rams hold a 60-58-2 edge in their regular season series with the 49ers, but have lost four straight against San Francisco since winning at Candlestick Park in 2007. The 49ers were 35-0 home winners when the teams met in Week 4 of 2009, and completed the sweep with a 28-6 decision at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 17. San Francisco's four-game winning streak over the Rams is its longest since a fabled 17-game win streak over the franchise from 1990 through 1998.
In addition to the regular season series, the teams have met once in the postseason, with San Francisco earning a 30-3 home triumph over the then-Los Angeles Rams in the 1989 NFC Championship.
Singletary is 4-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while the Rams' Steve Spagnuolo is 0-2 against both Singletary and the Niners as a head man.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Though the Rams are ranked near the bottom across the board in most offensive categories, the organization has to be happy with Bradford's progress. Bradford (1674 passing yards, 11 TD, 8 INT), who turned 23 on Monday, is aiming for a third straight game with two-plus touchdown passes and has turned the ball over just once in his last three games, losing a fumble. He also continues to excel despite having no big-name receivers. Wideout Danny Amendola (45 receptions, 2 TD) is tied for sixth in the NFC in catches and made a team high-tying six with a touchdown versus the Panthers. Fellow wide receiver Brandon Gibson (18 receptions, 1 TD) also made six catches for a team-leading 67 yards, while tight end Daniel Fells (20 receptions, 2 TD), who is third on the club in receptions, added four grabs with a 23-yard scoring catch. Running back Steven Jackson (676 rushing yards, 2 TD) played against Carolina despite undergoing left ring finger surgery the Monday before the game. After posting three straight 100-yard rushing games, he was held to just 59 yards on 23 carries and did not play much on obvious passing downs due to the injury. Offensive tackle Jason Smith, the second overall choice of the 209 draft, has been cleared to return after suffering a concussion in practice prior to the Carolina game in which he did not play.
Jackson might not find much room to run this weekend as he goes against the NFL's eighth-ranked run defense (110.2 yards per game). San Francisco held Denver to just 59 yards on the ground in London and are led by linebacker Patrick Willis (67 tackles, 1 sack), who leads the club in tackles and had a game high-tying nine versus the Broncos. Willis had 2 1/2 sacks and a 23-yard pick-six the last time he faced the Rams at home. Rookie safety Taylor Mays (32 tackles) and linebacker Takeo Spikes (43 tackles, 1 INT) both ended with seven tackles against Denver, while lineman Justin Smith (36 tackles, 4 sacks) had a pair of sacks. He had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks the last time he faced the Rams. Despite also getting sacks from linebackers Manny Lawson (25 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Ahmad Brooks (16 tackles, 2 sacks), San Francisco still yielded 370 passing yards to the Broncos and is 19th in the NFL with an average of 22.2 points allowed per game. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer (18 tackles, 3 INT) had an interception against Denver, but fellow corner Nate Clements (42 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) is questionable due to an ankle injury.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
With Troy Smith likely under center this weekend, the 49ers would be wise to lean on running back Frank Gore (691 rushing yards, 4 total TD). The 27-year- old has gone over 100 yards rushing in three straight games, notching 118 yards on 29 carries with a touchdown versus Denver. Gore has 213 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his last two games versus the Rams, but the Niners rank just 22nd in the league with an average of 98.6 yards per game on the ground. San Francisco's run game could be in line for a big numbers if Smith gets his legs moving as well. Tight end Vernon Davis (33 receptions, 4 TD) battled a sprained ankle versus Denver and was limited to just one catch for 12 yards, with backup Delanie Walker (12 receptions) leading the team with five catches for 85 yards. Crabtree (31 receptions, 3 TD) ended with three catches for 83 yards and has scored a touchdown in three of his last four games. San Francisco, which ranks 30th in scoring at 17.1 points per game, hasn't gotten much production outside of its core three of Gore-Davis-Crabtree. Wideout Josh Morgan (21 receptions, 1 TD) is fourth on the team with 21 catches and has the only other receiving touchdown not caught by one of the big three previously mentioned.
Four of the Rams' eight games this year have been decided by four points or less, and St. Louis has lost three of them due to struggles on offense. Few fingers of blame can be pointed at the defense, which ranks seventh in the NFL with an average of just 17.6 points allowed per game. St. Louis held Carolina to just 201 total yards of offense during that Halloween matchup. St. Louis ranks 10th in total defense (313.9 ypg) and eighth versus the run (97.8 ypg) after holding the Panthers to just 25 yards on the ground. Linebacker James Laurinaitis (54 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) had a monster game versus Carolina with eight tackles, a sack and an interception. Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (38 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT), who has three interceptions and two forced fumbles in his last six versus the Niners, added a sack and interception, while safety James Butler (20 tackles, 2 INT) also had a pick. Butler, though, is doubtful for this week due to an ankle injury, while defensive end James Hall (28 tackles, 7 sacks) and cornerback Ron Bartell (29 tackles) are questionable. Hall has a hand injury, while Bartell is dealing with a neck problem. Hall has 6 1/2 sacks and three forced fumbles in his last seven games, while fellow end Chris Long (16 tackles, 5 sacks) has four sacks and two forced fumbles in his last three contests. Long notched a sack and also recovered a loose ball versus the Panthers. Safety Michael Lewis, released by the 49ers on Oct. 4, is expected to make his debut with the Rams.
Though he isn't a top-10 fantasy quarterback, Bradford could certainly fill in well for a team whose top signal-caller is on the bye. Jackson continues to be a must-start despite his lack of touchdowns, while Amendola is the top receiving option for St. Louis. Fells could be a good sleeper candidate at the tight end spot due to byes. The Rams defense is a solid play this weekend given the Niners' offensive issues, while kicker Josh Brown is 14-for-18 on field goal tries. Like Bradford, Troy Smith could be a sleeper because he can make plays with his feet, but Gore and Davis are the only must-starts on the San Francisco roster. Crabtree is worth a look in deeper leagues, however. San Francisco's defense has put up solid numbers and could be used, while kicker Joe Nedney is just 8-for-10 on field goal attempts, though a pair of those makes have come from 50 yards or beyond.
A sense of urgency is in the air for both teams, though the most pressure should be on the 49ers. Regardless of what the Seahawks do, the 49ers could make things very interesting in the NFC West with a victory and put themselves back in the race despite their horrid start. On the other hand, the Rams don't want to potentially lose some ground in the division with a loss to a last- place club. Both teams are fresh and are coming off the bye, so San Francisco playing the host to St. Louis works in its favor. However, the Rams have the talent and pressure up front to limit Gore and Troy Smith, while Bradford does his part with more mistake-free football to get St. Louis a rare road win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Rams 17, 49ers 14
11/11 19:02:12 ET