NFL Preview - St. Louis (0-3) at San Francisco (2-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After the Detroit Lions got off the schneid last week to end a 19-game skid, the St. Louis Rams are the new owners of the NFL's longest losing streak at 13 games. The team hopes to rid itself of that distinction Sunday afternoon against the familiar San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park.
St. Louis has lost 30 of its last 35 games and dropped to 0-3 for a third consecutive season. First-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo is caught in a whirlwind of failure and hopes that Sunday's road test against the NFC West-rival 49ers can cure the Rams' woes. Spagnuolo was shut out, 28-0, in his debut in Week 1, but his team managed to hang with Washington in a 9-7 setback the following week. The Rams, who will also try to stop a seven-game road slide, were blown out again this past Sunday in a 36-17 loss versus Green Bay.
The job doesn't get any easier for Spagnuolo, who lost starting quarterback Marc Bulger to a bruised right shoulder against the Packers. Bulger, who went 3-for-4 for 23 yards, has no tear or sprain in the shoulder and was diagnosed with a bruised rotator cuff. He has not been ruled out for this divisional matchup and is listed as day-to-day. Backup Kyle Boller played three quarters and was 16-for-31 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Leading wideout Laurent Robinson didn't receive good news on his injured right ankle, however. Robinson suffered a high ankle sprain and what was described as a "fracture high on his fibula" against the Packers. Acquired in a trade with Atlanta this past offseason, Robinson is expected to undergo surgery and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. He had emerged as the Rams' most consistent receiving threat, posting a team-leading 13 catches with 167 yards and a touchdown.
In other team news for St. Louis, linebacker David Vobora was suspended four games this week for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
The 49ers are trying to put the memories of this past Sunday's last-second loss in Minnesota behind them when they shoot for a fifth straight win at home. San Francisco is 4-1 as the host under head coach Mike Singletary, while quarterback Shaun Hill is unbeaten (6-0) in games played at Candlestick Park.
In last week's setback at the Vikings, Minnesota wide receiver Greg Lewis got behind the San Francisco secondary to haul in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre with two seconds left for a 27-24 victory. The catch ended the 49ers' 2-0 start to the season and a four-game winning streak dating back to last year. San Francisco was aiming for its first 3-0 start since 1998.
Singletary's squad has scored at least 20 points in every game this season, and looks to do some damage Sunday versus St. Louis. San Francisco's 53 points allowed is tied for ninth-best in the NFL in that category.
Singletary and his staff devised a solid game plan to keep Vikings all-world running back Adrian Peterson, who compiled 85 yards on 19 carries and never reached the end zone, in check. Perhaps the 49ers focused too much on containing Peterson and neglected Minnesota's aerial attack, as evidenced by the 282 net yards passing the Vikings put up.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has an easier task this week, but Rams power back Steve Jackson can hurt defenses on the ground and has reliable hands out of the backfield. The 49ers defense has been stingy against the run this season, allowing 66.7 rushing yards per game to rank first in the NFC and fourth in the NFL.
Speaking of the run, 49ers star running back Frank Gore suffered a right ankle strain against the Vikings and will most likely miss Sunday's game. Gore is eighth in the NFL with 241 rushing yards. Rookie Glen Coffee will carry the bulk of the load if Gore is unable to play.
The Rams hold a 60-56-2 edge in their regular season series with the 49ers, but were swept in last year's home-and-home with their NFC West rival. St. Louis was a 35-16 loser when it visited San Francisco in Week 11, and dropped a 17-16 decision to the 49ers at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 16. The Rams' most recent win in the series came in San Francisco in 2007.
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 2-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while Spagnuolo will be meeting both Singletary and the Niners for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bulger (339 passing yards, 1 TD) missed plenty of practice time this week and is still day-to-day with a shoulder strain suffered last Sunday. He will likely be replaced by Boller (164 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT), who hasn't made a start since the 2007 campaign with Baltimore. It looks like he will get the start after he took all of the repetitions with the first team when practiced resumed on Wednesday. Boller got acquainted with the first team in the preseason, when Bulger suffered a broken right pinkie finger. Boller is more mobile than Bulger and ran for 31 yards on four scrambles to keep plays alive with his feet last week. With Robinson (13 receptions, 1 TD) out for the season, the Rams will look to Donnie Avery to step up. Avery is second on the team with 10 catches in three games, but hasn't reached the end zone. Tight end Daniel Fells (3 receptions) leads the team with a pair of touchdown receptions. Tight end Randy McMichael (8 receptions) and wide receiver Keenan Burton (6 receptions) need to be more involved in the offense, which promoted wideout Nate Jones from the practice squad to replace Robinson. Rookie tackle Jason Smith (knee) will most likely be out this week.
It was San Francisco's defensive backfield that gave up Minnesota's game- winning touchdown pass in the waning seconds after the 49ers thought they had a 3-0 start sealed. Cornerback Nate Clements (15 tackles, 1 INT) did score a 59-yard touchdown on a blocked punt by defensive end Ray McDonald (4 tackles, 2 sacks) last week, but was one of the several defensive backs stunned by the late heroics by Favre. Mark Roman (11 tackles, 1 sack) was the one covering on the play. The 49ers should have an easier time in defending the pass this week, with St. Louis coming in banged up and winless. If Boller gets the start Manusky has to dial up a blitz package often to shake up the Rams' offense. Defensive lineman Justin Smith (6 tackles, sack) has 16 hits on the quarterback and 24 pressures this season. The 49ers need at least a two-sack game from their best pass rusher on Sunday.
Jackson (288 rushing yards) is still searching for his first touchdown of the season, but gives the Rams their best shot at winning when healthy. Jackson is a threat out of the backfield as well, having hauled in nine passes for 61 yards. The muscular Oregon State product is facing a tough San Francisco run defense, so it's vital for him to get off to a quick start before St. Louis is forced to throw often. St. Louis averages 117.3 rushing yards per game, good enough for 13th in the NFL. Jackson ran for 117 yards on a season-high 27 carries and has eclipsed the century mark in back-to-back weeks. He owns 914 yards from scrimmage in his past eight matchups with the 49ers and has averaged an NFL-best 125 scrimmage yards per game since the 2006 season. Those numbers will most likely drop this week at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco has fielded one of the best run defenses so far this season and is one of three teams, along with Minnesota and Baltimore to have not allowed a rushing touchdown on the year. Singletary's stop unit played extremely well against Peterson, who failed to reach the end zone. Linemen Isaac Sopoaga (6 tackles) and Aubrayo Franklin (5 tackles, 1 sack) are the gap stuffers up front that will try to alter Jackson's course. Waiting for Jackson in the middle linebacker spot will be All-Pro Patrick Willis, who leads the team in tackles. Willis (29 tackles, 1 INT) is a fierce defender and excellent tackler who finished tied for the team lead with 10 stops last week. Strongside linebacker Manny Lawson (18 tackles) was the other 49er with 10 tackles at Minnesota.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Hill (548 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT) fell to 9-4 as a starter following last week's loss to the Vikings. He passed for 195 yards and connected on a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis. With a win, Hill would improve his record at home to 7-0. Davis (168 receiving yards, 2 TD) leads the 49ers with 14 receptions and finished with a career-high 96 yards on seven catches on Sunday. Davis could have his number called more often under new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye with Gore sidelined. Davis has already equaled his touchdown total from last season, and his 14 catches are nearly halfway to the 31 he registered a year ago. San Francisco is averaging 182.7 passing yards per contest this season with an average group of receivers. Veteran Isaac Bruce is second on the team with 10 receptions, while Josh Morgan (7 receptions) has yet to step up this season. According to Singletary, wideouts Brandon Jones and Jason Hill could be active this week. Jones is recovering from a broken shoulder suffered early in training camp. Top tackle Joe Staley (thigh) did not practice early this week, but has played in every game since being drafted in the first round in 2007.
The biggest news in the St. Louis secondary is the loss of safety James Butler (12 tackles, 1 INT), who suffered a left knee injury and is expected to miss a significant amount of time. He was replaced by safety Craig Dahl (7 tackles) in last week's loss to Green Bay. Dahl, who missed the first two weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, finished with a team-high in tackles on Sunday. The Rams are near the bottom of the league in pass defense, allowing 255.3 yards per game. Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (18 tackles, 1 INT) and cornerbacks Ron Bartell (17 tackles) and Jonathan Wade (7 tackles) were burned by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns. This week gets no easier, especially in a divisional matchup.
The loss of Gore is crucial for the 49ers, who will hand the reigns to rookie back Coffee (64 rushing yards), who carried the ball 25 times for 54 yards last week after Gore (241 rushing yards, 3 TDs) went down after one carry for four yards. Coffee gained valuable experience in that game and has Michael Robinson (12 rushing yards) and fullback Moran Norris (23 rushing yards) there in case of an emergency. San Francisco is in the middle of the pack at rushing with 111.7 yards per game. The 49ers are trying to regain their Week 2 form against Seattle, when the team rushed for 256 yards on 29 carries. The 8.8 yards per carry against the Seahawks ranks as the second-highest average for a single game in franchise history.
Rams end Leonard Little (6 tackles, 2 sacks) posted his first two sacks of the season last week and needs to keep the pressure on Shaun Hill. Little has nine sacks in his past 11 meetings with the Niners. Second-year defensive end Chris Long (15 tackles) is another avenue the Rams need to look down for more production in order to end this lengthy losing streak. St. Louis released veteran tackle Hollis Thomas (2 tackles) this week, with tackle Leger Douzable called up from the practice squad. Starting tackles Gary Gibson (10 tackles) and Clifton Ryan (7 tackles) are hoping Gore doesn't play so they can plug the gaps on Coffee. San Francisco has a tough offensive line, leaving top linebackers James Laurinaitis (25 tackles) and Will Witherspoon (19 tackles) responsible for any breakdowns up front. With Vobora suspended for the next four games, the Rams called up linebacker Dominic Douglas from the practice squad to the active roster. During the preseason, Douglas had two tackles, one pass breakup and a fumble recovery for the Rams, plus two special teams stops.
San Francisco's obvious choice as its top fantasy player was Gore until he got hurt. Coffee will get his first career start against a defense he is expected to do well against, while Davis has been getting a lot of looks lately from Shaun Hill. The 49ers quarterback is a stretch and so is the San Francisco defense, despite playing the lowly Rams. St. Louis doesn't have much to offer on the fantasy front, with Jackson and Avery the best options. Avery must step up now that Laurent Robinson is done for the season.
Unfortunately this won't be the week St. Louis ends its lengthy losing streak, even though San Francisco will be without its top offensive weapon. The pressure will be on the young shoulders of Coffee, who hopes to percolate the 49ers' ground game after brewing up a lot of experience last week. Having said that, Shaun Hill will most likely have his eyes set on Davis again after the two connected for a pair of scores in the heartbreaking loss to Minnesota. Singletary's defense, especially Willis, will be aiming to tee off on whoever's under center for the Rams. At this point it looks as if Boller will be the one trying to pull off the upset at Candlestick Park in his first NFC West action.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Rams 17
10/01 17:53:06 ET