COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Rams will play host to their NFC West division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, in prime time in Week 4 as both teams enter the game with 1-2 records. The Rams and 49ers will both be looking to avoid a 1-3 start to the season and neither team can afford to fall further behind the undefeated Seattle Seahawks in the hotly contested NFC West.
The Rams and 49ers both were completely embarrassed in Week 3 losses and with both franchises carrying large expectations into the 2013 season, this Week 4 tilt is vital for either team's playoff chances.
The Rams were 1-0-1 against the Super Bowl runner-ups from last season and St. Louis gave Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers fits in both contests, even though San Francisco looked like heavy favorites on paper. Here are some things to watch as the two teams square off for the first time in 2013.
Can the Rams protect quarterback Sam Bradford? Bradford was sacked six times in Week 3 by the Dallas Cowboys and will have to do a better job of keeping him upright and give him time to get the ball pushed further down field. The Rams will be without right tackle Rodger Saffold, who will be out with a sprained MCL, so it will not be easy. But the Rams do catch a break as the 49ers will be playing without pass rushing specialist Aldon Smith.
If Bradford gets time, the Rams should be able to move the ball through the air and get the ball to wide receiver Tavon Austin and tight end Jared Cook.
Can the Rams finally establish some sort of running game? Through three weeks, it is obvious that the Rams miss Steven Jackson, the franchise's all-time leader in rushing yards. Daryl Richardson, who did not carry the ball once against the Cowboys due to injury, looks to be ready to go health-wise against San Francisco. But he must improve upon the 3.3 yards per carry he has toted thus far in 2013.
The 49ers defense allowed 184 yards on the ground to the Indianapolis Colts, including three rushing touchdowns. If the Rams are ever going to get the running game going, oddly enough, they may have a good opportunity to do so against a usually stingy San Francisco defense.
Will the Rams secondary apply more press coverage against the shaky San Francisco wide receivers? After Anguan Boldin exploded in Week 1, the San Francisco aerial attack has struggled mightily. Many are putting the blame on Colin Kaepernick for some poor play, and he has been bad the past two weeks. But he is not getting much help from his wide receivers, who are having problems getting open.
The Rams have played a very soft defense in the secondary to start most games, likely covering for an inexperienced pair of safeties. But will the Rams be more aggressive and press the aging Boldin and the other 49ers receivers? If Janoris Jenkins, Cortland Finnegan and Trumaine Johnson can play well, it should give the Rams defensive line a chance to make some plays on the quarterback.
Will rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree be able to limit the running ability of Kaepernick? Through three weeks, we have seen very little of the explosive running ability of the San Francisco quarterback. But after two consecutive losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, where the 49ers combined for just 10 total points, San Francisco will likely let the reigns loose a bit and call Kaepernick's number more and ask him to use his legs to make some plays.
Ogletree has played extremely well thus far through his first three NFL games, but making sure Kaepernick does not find the edge in the read option attack will be a big key to whether the Rams win or lose this game. If Ogletree is able to stay disciplined and contain Kaepernick, it should give St. Louis a big advantage.
Will Chris Long show up? The highly compensated and former No. 2 overall pick had a very productive 2012, picking up 11.5 sacks. Many believed Long was ready to make his first Pro Bowl this season if he could continue to build on last year's campaign. But thus far, Long has been missing in action and highly unproductive, recording just four tackles in three games while barely sniffing any quarterbacks.
Long has been dealing with a hip injury and it may be limiting him, but there are zero excuses at this point in the season as the Rams prepare for a division game that really is a must win. Long must make some plays. He must apply pressure on Kaepernick. He must help bottle up the San Francisco running game. If Long does not show up and play a big game, it may be another long night for the Rams defense.
Corey Rudd is owner/editor of StlSportsMinute.com and co-host of Fan Interference on CBS Sports 920 AM in St. Louis. Rudd also writes about the St. Louis Cardinals , St. Louis Rams and Missouri Tigers football team as a contributor for Yahoo Sports. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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