This time Jim Harbaugh decided to show his hand. The San Francisco 49ers head coach had kept his cards close to his chest last week, not revealing whether Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick would start against the New Orleans Saints until the day of the game. But ahead of this Sunday’s visit to St Louis, he decided not to wait.
“Our plan will be to prepare Colin for the start against the Rams this weekend,” Harbaugh told St Louis reporters via conference call on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after sharing the same news with the media in San Francisco. The news certainly came as a surprise to the Rams. Just moments earlier their head coach Jeff Fisher had said he was preparing his team to face both quarterbacks.
Fisher noted that he had taken the same approach prior to the first meeting – since the 49ers were in the habit of subbing Kaepernick in on individual plays for a change of pace. But it is hard to imagine Harbaugh taking a similar approach now that his quarterbacks’ roles have been reversed. Kaepernick’s big arm and mobility allowed him to be deployed as a special weapon off the bench. Smith remains more a game-manager than game-changer.
Nevertheless, many Rams players were keen to emphasise the similarities. “Not a tonne differently than we would for Alex,” said the defensive end Chris Long when asked how he and his line team-mates would prepare for Kaepernick. “They both can really run. They have slightly different athletic make-ups, but Colin is really aware for a young guy, he moves around in the pocket really well. The one thing he does have is great straight-line speed, so you have to be cognisant of that.”
For both the Rams and 49ers, this game also presents the chance to settle a score. Just two-and-a-half weeks have passed since these two teams battled to the league’s first tie in four years. Fisher described Sunday’s game as “quarter number six”, but Harbaugh disagreed that this game could be viewed as a continuation of that one. “I think it’s just new business,” he said. “That game is finished business and this game coming up is new business.”
Many players on both sides had expressed their unhappiness with the mere concept of a tie following the last meeting, but Harbaugh did not share their sentiments. “No, I’m not adamant about that,” he said. “You can win, you can lose, you can tie. The game finished in a tie and now we move on.”
Harbaugh instead has been focusing his energies into working out how to improve on that result this time out. On paper his team should be heavy favourites, boasting as they do the second-best record in the conference and a four game lead over the Rams in the NFC West.
And yet if there is one aspect of this season that St Louis can still point to with pride it is their record in divisional match-ups. So far they are unbeaten against their NFC West rivals, with three wins and a tie.
That is no mere coincidence. As noted on the website ramsherd.com last week, the Rams’ quarterback Sam Bradford has played much better this season when he is familiar with the opposition. Through the first 11 weeks of the season, he averaged an additional two yards per attempt when playing against teams that he had faced at least once before.
No NFL team stays static from year to year, with new players, coaches and schemes being added every season. But nor do most teams undergo a total overhaul. Whether because of a familiarity with certain players’ traits or coaches’ tendencies, the Rams seem to have a better handle on their divisional rivals than they do with any other opponents.
If there is one other concern for San Francisco it might be Steven Jackson’s return to the fore. It was assumed that the running back was on his way out of St Louis following a difficult start to the year in which he found himself splitting carries with the rookie Daryl Richardson, but increasingly it appears that Fisher might have simply been trying to play the long game.
In the past Jackson has often tired at this point of a year, having been overworked during the first half of the season. By reducing his carries in September and October, Fisher now has the back looking his freshest at the precise moment when defences are showing signs of fatigue. Jackson gouged the 49ers’ previously stout run defence for 101 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco and last week went for 139 yards against Arizona.
Those performances also had more than a little to do with the return of key players along the offensive line. Sunday was the first time since opening weekend that the Rams have had all five starters available up front. The Pro Bowl center Scott Wells was the final piece of the puzzle – returning on Sunday after fracturing his foot in week one.
That is not to say we can necessarily expect a repeat showing. The 49ers still boast the fourth-best rush defence in the league, as well as the second-best overall. If they underestimated the Rams last time then they will surely not make the same mistake twice.
But for the Rams there is more than a measure of pride at stake. They will not finish top of the NFC West this season, but they would still enjoy dominating the division.
In the news …
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
Five-minute interview: Rams offensive guard Harvey Dahl
Back in 2006 you played in NFL Europe with the Rhein Fire, and I understand you may have seen a bit of England in that time too. When you guys flew over for the International Series game, were you the one on the plane telling everyone what to expect?
Yeah, a little bit. I spent three months in Germany, travelled around Europe a little bit. Then a couple of years ago me and my wife took a vacation to London, Scotland.
What was your favourite thing about the UK?
In London, the Tower of London, the open bus tours – the buses that go in a big circle round the river and the historic soul of it is really cool.
How important was NFL Europe for you?
It really helped me, it was really beneficial to my development. Just being able to get some playing time and work on technique and little things. And it was a good experience beside that too, culturally. It was a cool league. I’m glad I got to take advantage of it.
Did you prefer Germany or England? Think carefully about this one…
I enjoy England. I thought it was really cool. It was fun going to Stonehenge and some really cool historical sites. I also really liked Scotland, we went up there and spent time visiting loads of different scotch distilleries, which was a fun time! It was really pretty, there was a lot of nature there, which was cool.
And great whisky.
Yeah, that too!
The offensive line has had some tough luck with injuries this year, but despite it all has managed to hold together better than a lot of people might have expected …
Yeah, coach [Paul] Boudreau is doing a great job bringing the younger guys along. The backups have had to fill roles and they’re doing a really good job. We’re a work in progress, but we work really hard just to do little things and get better each week. Getting the run game going is really important to us, and protecting Sam.
If you don’t mind us saying, you’re not a small man, Harvey. Can you talk us through a day’s food?
We on the offensive line have to eat a tonne just to keep our weight up. We expend a lot of calories throughout the course of a day. I usually have breakfast at about 6.30am, eggs – potatoes either pancakes or oatmeal. Then around 10am I’d usually have a snack – sandwiches or pasta. Then practice, a protein shake after practice, then a heavy lunch, heavy dinner and a snack before bed.
Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?
That’s a good question. Why should they get behind the Rams? We’re an up-and-coming team, and more and more people are getting to hear about us.