Aldon Smith_Au Kirk

(Photo Courtesy of Au Kirk)
Aldon Smith is out, but there are more pressing concerns for the Niners’ defense.

by Jay Flaherty

Heading into St. Louis for Thursday night football, just four days after being embarrassed at home by Indianapolis, the Niners face a lot of questions on both sides of the ball. The Niners sit at 1-2, tied for last place in the NFC West and two games behind the Seahawks atop the division. After last week’s loss to Indianapolis there were a lot naysayers questioning whether the Niners could ever regain their form from 2012. If they crap the bed against the Rams tonight — the same team they went 0-1-1 against last year — Jim Harbaugh could have a full-scale mutiny on his hands. Here are the big question marks heading into tonight’s tilt.

1. Can the 49ers Run The Ball Effectively?

The running woes of Frank Gore and the other backs have been well documented. Gore, who averaged 76 yards/game last year, has seen his production drop to just 47 yards/game, on just fourteen carries per game. The good news for Gore and backup Kendall Hunter are that they will be squaring off against a porous St. Louis defense that allowed 193 yards rushing last week to a Dallas Cowboys team that usually treats their running backs as though they’re lepers. Last year the San Fran offense rushed for 183 yards and 148 yards in the two games against St. Louis. The Niners offense will go as Gore and Hunter go, and early touches with strong production will mean a lot of points by the end of the night.

2. Can the 49ers Stop St. Louis’ Passing Game?

No, that’s not a typo. Sam Bradford and Danny Amendola absolutely torched us in the infamous tie game last year, and were it not for an Amendola injury prior to the second meeting, they likely would have done so again. Bradford threw for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first game, not including a 75-yard bomb to Amendola in overtime that would have put St. Louis within a chip shot of winning the game, had it not gotten called back for an illegal formation. Amendola, who is thankfully no longer on the Rams, had 11 receptions for 102 yards in that game. Less than a month later Bradford threw for 221 yards with Amendola on the sideline.

The Niners pass defense has allowed less than 200 yards/game thus far, but Bradford has inexplicably performs like an actual #1 draft pick against our secondary. Nnamdi Asomugha is questionable for tonight, leaving the cornerback situation a little dicey. Eric Reid has shown he can hit almost as hard as Dashon Goldson, but he needs to nail down his open-field tackling to become an elite safety.

3. Can the 49ers Receivers (Other Than Boldin) Make Plays?

It’s no secret that the Niners are stretched extremely thin at the Wide Receiver spot. Quinton Patton has a great opportunity to show he can be a viable #2 until Crabtree returns, and with Vernon Davis listed as questionable, Patton may need to step up sooner rather than later. Kyle Williams has been the de facto #2 guy thus far, but hasn’t stood out in any impactful way and is yet to have a breakout game. One indication of how dire the Niners receiving situation is: fullback Bruce Miller is currently tied for fourth on the team in receptions, with five.

4. Will The Niners Leave St. Louis at .500?

No win can be taken for granted anymore, but I have a hunch that Harbaugh will get back to the “three yards and a cloud of dust” football he learned from Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Look for the run game to be established early, and for Boldin to get some release down the field once the safeties have to move up to contain Gore. If Davis is healthy, which we should all be praying he is, then I think this Thursday night game will be over in time for fans to shower up and hit the bars (or stay at the bar, if that’s where you’re watching the game). I think all the haters will have to wait another week before having a chance to call for Harbaugh’s firing.

Final Score: Niners-27, Rams-10

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