Rams vs. 49ers preview

The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams met just three weeks ago, with the Rams jumping out to a 14-0 lead before falling 31-17. A week later, the Rams upset the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and the Niners were thumped by the Denver Broncos. Then, the Niners enjoyed their bye week.

The return game between these old NFC West rivals is scheduled for Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. ESPN NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez and Nick Wagoner break down Sunday’s game.

Paul Gutierrez: How does the acquisition of safety Mark Barron improve the Rams defense, and has Janoris Jenkins recovered from his tough coverage night against Brandon Lloyd a few weeks ago?

Nick Wagoner: If nothing else, adding Barron gives the Rams another player with some upside to plug in a leaky secondary. But how much he can help will depend on how the Rams deploy him. He's considered best as a box safety but didn't get to do much of that in Tampa Bay. And the Rams already have T.J. McDonald in that role. They will probably find ways to use them in tandem, but I'm not sure how it's going to work to maximize Barron's talent. We'll have to wait and see on that since Sunday's game will be his first with the team. As for Jenkins, he actually suffered a knee injury against Seattle after the Monday night game and did not play against Kansas City last week. He could potentially return this week, but that's not certain.

The Niners seem to be on the brink of getting some key pieces back. Coming off their bye, do you see the Niners kicking it into a higher gear the rest of the way, and if so, what's their ceiling?

Gutierrez: No doubt. The bye was good not only for their psyche after getting pummeled by the Broncos 42-17 in the final pre-bye game, but they also got healthy. Only four players were on their initial injury report on Wednesday, and not a single player missed that practice. Plus, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and running back Marcus Lattimore each had their 21-day clocks started this week to either have them activated or placed on season-ending IR. Then there’s linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who continues his rehab from the brutal knee injury he suffered in the NFC title game last January. And, oh yeah, linebacker Aldon Smith’s nine-game suspension is almost up, and reports continue to float that it could be reduced for good behavior. The schedule also eases up for the 49ers, so with the defense getting healthy and being rested, the Arizona Cardinals due to come back to earth soon and the Seahawks wobbly, I see the Niners about to embark on a prolific run. One that should go deep into January.

The Rams, though, seem to be going the opposite direction, with two players going on IR this week in left tackle Jake Long and leading receiver Brian Quick. With so many injuries and losses, how close are the Rams to shutting it down mentally?

Wagoner: I don't see that happening, honestly. For all the issues they have and have had in the past, there haven't been any signs of Jeff Fisher losing the locker room. This team plays hard in a general sense though last week's second half was a little alarming because it seemed much of the fight was gone. That being said, I still think Fisher will find a way to motivate his team and keep them playing hard, at least for the next little while. But the Rams play at San Francisco, at Arizona, home against Denver and at San Diego in the next four weeks. If they come out of that stretch at 2-9, it's fair to wonder if that motivation will evaporate. As we sit here right now, though, this is a team that's only a couple of weeks removed from beating the reigning world champions. They still think they can compete with any team in the league. Right or wrong, that's where they're at right now.

This is the Rams' first trip to Levi's Stadium after so many years at Candlestick Park. Candlestick was a dump, but it had its charm and was usually a pretty good home-field advantage. What can they expect in terms of the atmosphere in the new digs?

Gutierrez: Honestly, the 49ers are still trying to figure it out themselves. Look, it doesn’t take a cartographer to realize they are no longer the San Francisco 49ers; they are now the Santa Clara Niners. From the press box, you’re looking down upon San Jose, not San Francisco. And the fog horn blaring on a 90 degree Silicon Valley day seems, well, out of place. As far as a stadium, it’s immaculate -- even if they are already on their third different sod. Atmosphere-wise, fans have been known to disappear after halftime for a bit to escape the heat and enjoy the new yard’s numerous bells and whistles. It will be interesting to see if there is a 12th-man effect going forward, though.

Surely Austin Davis heard about his fellow Southern Miss guy Brett Favre say Davis could be the next Kurt Warner or Tom Brady. What was Davis’ reaction?

Wagoner: Davis reacted exactly how I expected him to, which is to say he took it in stride and wasn't really affected by it one way or the other. Davis and Favre stay in touch, so I'm sure he already knew that Favre is in his corner. Davis did say that he's not trying to be the next anybody and that he just wants to be the "first Austin Davis." Two things about Davis: He doesn't get rattled, and he's extremely self-aware. Every week, Davis will stand up in the locker room and openly discuss the things he did wrong. The next week, you usually can see him actively trying to correct those things. His honesty and approach are refreshing. It's asking way too much for him to reach the level of a Warner or Brady, but he's at least done enough to keep earning a paycheck in this league moving forward. We can re-evaluate how big that check and what his role will be at the end of the season.

The Rams had the Niners on the ropes a bit in the Monday night meeting before Lloyd's big touchdown catch right before the half turned the game around. What did the Niners take away from that meeting, and what are some things you think they can exploit having played the Rams so recently?

Gutierrez: That was the Niners’ third straight win, and in all three games, they had to win in comeback fashion. From that game, I think the Niners took away the confidence they could get quick-strike scores against the Rams’ wispy pass defense, and they can go back to it again -- with aplomb. Especially going after Jenkins. Still, as you mentioned above, it’s no sure thing that Jenkins will even play this weekend. Yes, it’s a division game, and sure, the Rams did beat the Seahawks the week after the Niners essentially rolled them in the second half. But a quiet confidence that had been brewing since the season opener exploded in St. Louis and was, well, quelled a bit in Denver. The Rams should again provide that confidence boost for the Niners, especially if they can keep the pass rush going like they did last time with five sacks of Davis, while keeping Colin Kaepernick clean. That’s the big key -- controlling both lines of scrimmage.