ST. LOUIS — A reeling and revamped defense will wash up Thursday night on the banks of the Mississippi River, likely carrying with it the 49ers’ immediate fate.
The 49ers risk falling further off the NFC West pace if they can’t regroup, clamp down and regain supremacy against the Rams, their long-time division rival. The game did not end in time for this edition.
Even without sack leader Aldon Smith and probably star linebacker Patrick Willis, defense should dictate the outcome, much the same way the 49ers relied on that unit in 2011 to shepherd them out of the pre-Harbaugh doldrums.
The last two Sundays proved otherwise, as the 49ers sustained lopsided losses to the Seattle Seahawks (29-3) and Indianapolis Colts (27-7).
“Basically the last two weeks, we were in low-scoring defensive battles and we were the first defense to crack,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “When we get in low-scoring games, we’ve got to be able to hold the fort down and find a way to win those games with key stops, getting key turnovers and find a way to win them.”
Thursday night’s game could take it light on the scoreboard. The 49ers’ offense is in a so-called “dry spell,” and the Rams offense is coming off a 31-7 drubbing in Dallas.
So tight was this matchup last season that both games went into overtime. They first tied 24-24 on Nov. 11 at Candlestick, when Alex Smith’s concussion ignited Colin Kaepernick’s rise. A Dec. 2 encore in St. Louis produced a 16-13 comeback win by the Rams in the final minute of overtime.
On a historical scale, the series is so tight that it’s actually tied, 62-62-3, if you’re counting San Francisco’s 1989 playoff win. (The 49ers did count it in this week’s pregame notes while the Rams did not.)
But how can the reigning NFC champion be only a field-goal favorite over a franchise that posted a 2-14 record only two seasons ago, a Rams club that featured the NFL’s youngest roster on opening day this year?
The 49ers’ offensive struggles are largely to blame, but their defensive teammates aren’t pointing fingers, at least not yet.
“It’s both sides of the ball,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “The last two years, we’ve been creating a lot of turnovers and they’ve been helping out the offense, and we’ve been stopping the run.”