Thursday Night Football
San Francisco @ St. Louis
The defensive product DC Vic Fangio trots out Thursday will be far less imposing than what we're used to seeing from San Francisco. Minus All-Pro edge rusher Aldon Smith ("leave of absence") and five-time All-Pro ILB Patrick Willis (groin), the 49ers' defense is short difference makers at the first and second levels, and already struggles in the back end. Sam Bradford's Rams quietly had success against San Francisco in each of their two 2012 meetings, playing to a 24-24 draw at Candlestick and winning 16-13 at The Ed. Even with Fangio's unit at full strength -- and his own supporting cast much less talented than it is now -- Bradford completed a combined 52-of-78 throws (66.7%) for 496 yards and a 2:0 TD-to-INT ratio in those games. So Bradford has a track record of success against the 49ers. I like Bradford as a two-QB league start, and wouldn't be opposed to using him as a desperation standard-league streamer. ... Bradford's target distribution through three games: Tavon Austin 26, Jared Cook 23, Austin Pettis 22, Chris Givens 19, Daryl Richardson 12, Lance Kendricks 12, Isaiah Pead 11, Brian Quick 7. ... Austin is the Rams' 2013 target leader, and it's no secret San Francisco struggles in slot receiver coverage with 32-year-old Carlos Rogers manning the inside. Pro Football Focus has graded Rogers negatively in pass coverage in each of the first three weeks. Some draft analysts likened Austin's game to Randall Cobb's coming out of West Virginia, and Cobb stung the Niners for a 7-108-1 line in Week 1.
Pettis is a pedestrian possession receiver, but he's playing 88% of St. Louis' offensive snaps and has some red-zone chops. He's still a low-upside WR3 play Thursday night, likely dependent on a short TD to pay off. Pettis has caught one in back-to-back games. ... Although Cook has lacked consistency, no Rams player benefits more from Willis' absence. The 49ers regularly use Willis to shadow tight ends. I bet the Rams will actively look to exploit Cook's matchups. ... Givens had a forgettable Week 3 at Dallas, dropping two passes and managing two catches for 54 yards on eight targets. Givens is better than that, but he's shaping up as a boom-or-bust weekly dice roll in a spread-the-wealth passing attack. He does have a favorable matchup versus San Francisco's sub-average outside corners. LCB Nnamdi Asomugha is out with a groin injury, and RCB Tarell Brown struggled against the Colts last week. ... The absences of Willis and Smith improve the matchup of St. Louis' run game, but trying to predict who'll get the work could cause headaches. On game day, Richardson will be four days removed from aggravating a foot injury that cost him all but one Week 3 snap. When healthy, Richardson has found little running room. Pead looked sharp on 13 touches last week, totaling 63 yards. He hasn't been any worse than Richardson. Benny Cunningham is also in the mix. Fifth-round pick Zac Stacy hasn't played since the opener.
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Down but certainly not out, the 49ers are 7-1 under Jim Harbaugh after losses. They've dropped back-to-back games. Look for San Francisco to recommit to the run Thursday night. Team leader and should-be offensive centerpiece Frank Gore understandably had choice words for Harbaugh following last week's loss to Indianapolis, where Gore touched the football four times after halftime in the 27-7 tailkicking. The Rams' defense is four days removed from silver plattering 193 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries (5.68 YPC) to Cowboys tailbacks. This game could be a great opportunity to reestablish the physicality and smash-mouth mentality that has annually made Harbaugh's teams such a difficult opponent. ... Anquan Boldin's physical limitations have shown up during San Francisco's two-game losing streak. He's not getting open, and OC Greg Roman has oddly scrapped the man-beating stack and bunch concepts that worked so efficiently in Week 1 against the Packers. Boldin frequently plays slot receiver on passing downs, so look for a fiesty, potentially penalty-inducing battle inside with slot CB Cortland Finnegan. Consider Boldin a WR2/3 play at St. Louis; Finnegan has been one of the Rams' weakest early-season links. ... Colin Kaepernick's target allocation through three games: Boldin 29, Kyle Williams 18, Vernon Davis 14, Gore 9, Bruce Miller 8, Vance McDonald 7, Marlon Moore 3, Kendall Hunter and Quinton Patton 1.
Kap's fantasy owners should hope GM Trent Baalke puts in a call to the Browns about Josh Gordon soon. Maybe he has already. Niners receivers aren't creating separation, and Boldin can't carry a passing game. I still think Kaepernick -- coming off consecutive sub-par box scores -- is the premier buy-low quarterback in fantasy. He's the most physically gifted signal caller in the game, coached by the NFL's preeminent QB guru. And the 49ers' defensive losses can only help Kaepernick's numbers. I'd start him as a mid-range QB1 at St. Louis. ... The 49ers ostensibly held Davis out of Week 3 to get him closer to 100% for this division game. Opposing tight ends Jason Witten (5-67), Tony Gonzalez (4-33), and Jim Dray/Kory Sperry (3-37) have been relatively quiet so far against St. Louis, but that could change at any moment. The Rams are using rookie T.J. McDonald and 2012 UDFA Rodney McLeod as every-down safeties. SLB Will Witherspoon and MLB James Laurinaitis are not playing well. Despite missing a game, Davis remains in the hunt to lead all tight ends in touchdown catches. His return gives Kaepernick a big boost. ... Williams, Vance McDonald, and Moore are all role players in the 49ers' offense, and they are unworthy of fantasy roster spots. ... Keep an eye on Patton, who has struggled for early-season playing time but could be in line for more snaps soon. The 49ers will likely begin shaking things up at wideout.
Score Prediction: 49ers 24, Rams 21