Matchup breakdown: Rams-Niners

ST. LOUIS -- Three individual matchups to keep an eye on as the St. Louis Rams take on the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

Rams' front seven vs. Niners running back Frank Gore

Perhaps no individual player of the past decade has been more of a thorn in the side of the Rams than Gore. While the Rams have had their games where they’ve kept him in check, Gore seems to have a knack for finding just the right time to drive a stake through the Rams’ chances with a touchdown or big play.

In the first meeting, the Rams limited Gore for much of the first half until he took a fourth and 1 carry 34 yards for a touchdown to make it 14-3 San Francisco. That play effectively zapped the Rams of their energy and Gore went on to a big day, finishing with 153 yards on 20 carries.

The Rams' run defense has had its share of ups and downs in the games since, but aside from poor performances against Tennessee and Houston it has been much improved.

Gore's production has been limited a bit by lack of opportunities but it's possible San Francisco is trying to conserve him for the stretch drive. It's probably a safe bet to expect a heaping helping of Gore on Sunday.

"He's not getting the carries right now," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’s probably hoping to get more. I think they’ve gone, in the last four games, like 19, 18, 13, 13. They’re very effective in the running game and he’s still got a lot of ability.

“I would expect to see a lot of runs, yes.”

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Niners linebacker Aldon Smith

The Rams managed to miss Smith in the first meeting as he dealt with off-the-field issues and took a leave from the team.

But Smith returned in Week 10 against Carolina and has been working his way back into the mix every week since. Smith had two sacks last week against Washington and appears to be rounding back into form.

Contrary to what some might have said, Long was one of the few Rams who performed fairly well in the first meeting of the year against the Niners.

But the Rams have dramatically altered their offensive approach since that game, and Long has been quite good since they started operating out of a more power run heavy scheme.

The challenge will be greater this week with Smith on the other side. Long struggled mightily against Dallas' DeMarcus Ware in Week 3 and had some hiccups against Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis. The Niners’ 3-4 defense more closely resembles what the Colts do than Dallas, but in Smith, Long should face a similar challenge in terms of athleticism and speed off the edge.

Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens even joked this week that he wouldn’t mind if Long and the Rams got a little help from the holiday.

“If he’s taking his time (getting back up to speed), that’s fine,” Clemens said. “Maybe he has a little too much turkey on Thursday, that'd be just fine.”

Rams tight end Cory Harkey vs. Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman

For all of the players who notched dominant performances in the Niners’ win the first time the two teams met, perhaps none imposed his will more than Bowman, San Francisco’s “other” inside linebacker, who might also be its best defensive player.

Bowman was all over the place in that first meeting even without running mate Patrick Willis there to work as his tag team partner. He finished the game with six tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup but he was even more active than that line indicates.

"He's a veteran guy," Clemens said. "He can diagnose plays and they did a good job -- because (LB Patrick) Willis was out -- they did a good job of putting Bowman in the spot where he was going to be most effective. He knows where the ball’s going to go a lot of times. Willis is the same way. They’re very good players. They get their guys lined up. They get their guys in the right spot and make plays. We’ll have to account for them."

That most of Bowman’s pressure that came up the middle was especially disconcerting for the Rams. The onus of handling that pressure falls on any number of players, but Harkey might be one of the players the Rams need to step up the most.

Harkey has developed into the team’s ultimate hybrid, playing a lot of fullback in addition to inline tight end duties. He’s been a key cog in the running game and needs to be on point in the efforts to neutralize Bowman.