Niners linebacker Patrick Willis (No. 52) leads one of the NFL's best defenses. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The 49ers offense has been under fire this season from all sides. The passing game, which ranks last in the NFL, has disappeared at times. The explosive, big-play attack that flourished late last year is more subdued. And fans and NFL analysts continue to ask, “What’s wrong with Colin Kaepernick?”
But while the offense has sputtered, the defense has remained rock solid. Former NFL head coach Herm Edwards his week even called it a Super Bowl-caliber defense.
So as St. Louis quarterback Kellen Clemens prepared for the Rams’ matchup against the 49ers Sunday at Candlestick Park, it was the San Francisco defense that was on his mind.
“Finding a weakness,” Clemens told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when asked this week what the biggest obstacle is in facing the 49ers. “They’re great up top, they’ve got two of the best linebackers sitting there staring you in the face and then they’ve got a very good secondary. Find a weakness on that defense and then please tell me about it.”
The 49ers rank No. 6 in total defense, No. 4 in points allowed (16.7 per game), No. 4 in pass defense and 12th in rush defense.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said it will be a challenge for the Rams to play against the 49ers defense in their home park.
“Their defense is really solid,” Fisher told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s always a challenge to be on the visiting sideline out there. … That’s a tough place to play. They’ve won a lot of games over the years.”
The Rams already have first-hand experience with the Niners this year, having lost to them 35-11 early in the season. In that loss, the Rams couldn’t run the ball vs. the 49ers defense. But since that time Fisher has made some changes and St. Louis is now more intent on running the ball.
In Sunday’s game, the Rams no doubt will give the ball early and often to rookie running back Zac Stacy, who’s become the No. 1 ballcarrier for the Rams since that first matchup. Stacy has rushed for more than 600 yards and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry. And, since the previous Rams-49ers game, the Rams are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing yards per game (151.9) and second in yards per carry (4.9), notes Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com.
The revived running game has made the entire Rams offense better. In the past two games, the Rams have a 42-21 win over the Bears and a 38-8 victory over the Colts. Clemens has been effective, and rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin has been dynamic.
“The challenge and the task is the Rams,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters this week. “This is a very good football team that is playing their best football. Offensively, they have become very explosive. Completing passes down the field. The run game has been very effective for them. And, they’re churning out yards and points.”
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers (7-4) eight-point favorites over the 5-6 Rams.
Offensively, meanwhile, the 49ers are looking forward to the return of wideout Michael Crabtree, who was activated Tuesday and had a full week of practice this week. Harbaugh is hoping the addition of Crabtree will help a passing offense that showed some life in Monday night’s victory over the Washington Redskins. Perhaps, the 49ers offense has turned a corner.
Kaepernick and Co. will get a chance to prove it Sunday.
“There was quite a bit of positive in the game,” Harbaugh said this week. “No. 1 being that we won the game. That was what we were after. But, yeah, definitely some good things. Mario Manningham contributing was big. Anquan Boldin had a great game. Vernon Davis involved with big plays. We hit some big plays.”