If all bodies involved were healthy this would be yet another Thursday night mismatch, or at least that’s how it would feel even if recent history says something different. But when the 49ers visit St. Louis tonight they’ll be playing without Aldon Smith, and likely Patrick Willis too, giving the Rams and their several fantasy relevant players an advantage in a divisional series which was decided by all of three points over two games last year, one of which was tied.
1. Can Colin Kaepernick find his arms?
That’s not a question meant to be taken literally. To my knowledge, Colin Kaepernick’s arms are in the correct position, and in the proper working order (as are his legs). No, this is meant in a passing sense, because ever since the opening-week Packers carnival ride in which he passed for 427 yards at a pretty stupid pace of 10.6 per attempt with three touchdowns, there’s been little deep ballin’ from Kaep.
Kaepernick’s completion rate has fallen below 50.0 in the two games since, something that didn’t happen once last year in his seven regular-season starts. He’s also accumulated a combined total of just 277 yards since Week 1 while being held without a touchdown pass and throwing four interceptions. Looking back on last year again, that latter number is scary. Over 13 game appearances in 2012 and 218 pass attempts, Kaepernick showed impressive decision making skills and care with the ball for an inexperienced quarterback, throwing just three picks. Now he’s already eclipsed that number on just 94 attempts. Not good.
Of course, playing on the road in Seattle and in the pouring rain (because it was Seattle, you see, and saying it’s raining in Seattle is like saying there are cool penguins with their life narrated by Morgan Freeman in Antarctica) isn’t easy, and perhaps even more importantly, playing without Vernon Davis when your receiving corps is already razor thin also isn’t enjoyable. That last part could continue tonight, allowing the Rams and their talented cornerback duo of Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan to focus solely on Anquan Boldin.
The plight of Boldin mirrors that of Kaepernick, and hints strongly at teams doing some thorough film study since Week 1. His yardage has tumbled dramatically, with only 74 yards on six catches since Week 1, when he had an incredible 13 catches for 208 yards. But what’s even more worrisome for both Kaepernick and Boldin is the receiver’s lack of targets. Kaep looked at him 17 times against the Packers, and he’s thrown Boldin’s way 12 times since. That’s ended in a lack of long throwing (Boldin had four +20 yard catches in Week 1, then just one over the next two games), and a steep decline in Kaepernick’s yards per attempt, which fell to 4.5 and 5.6 following the season opener boom.
He’s in the right matchup tonight to turn around his throwing misfortunes quickly. Despite the presence of Jenkins and Finnegan, the Rams have been diced early through the air, giving up an average of 288 yards per game with seven touchdowns.
Davis’ status will still be critical. He practiced on a limited basis throughout the week, and will be a game-time decision tonight.
2. Can Colin Kaepernick find his legs?
This is a lesser concern, but a growing one. Kaepernick has still been running, and generally running well with his 129 rushing yards over three games. But his early pace isn’t on par with what you purchased in August.
Think of the Kaepernick we saw last year even before he stripped Alex Smith of his job. Before he took over for Smith at halftime in Week 10 against these very same Rams, Kaepernick made sporadic appearances in which he was asked to go all Tebow, only so much better. These brief sightings came mostly in garbage time, but Kaepernick’s stated purpose was well known to all involved, including both teams, everyone in the stands, and everyone watching at an old folks home. He was going to run, and run fast down a field.
In his five fleeting appearances prior to Week 10 Kaepernick attempted five passes, while running 13 times. That’s a wide split for a player with “throw the football” specifically in his job title, and it showed how much he was used specifically as a specialty gimmick in those early days, one that wasn’t at all a secret. Yet still on those carries he averaged 8.5 yards while scoring twice. His per carry average this year so far? 5.6.
Rushing and the resulting yardage certainly hasn’t been absent from Kaepernick’s game, but through nearly a quarter of the season those who invested a mid-round pick in him were expecting a little more. This is a quarterback who scored 31.8 percent of his fantasy points last year through rushing yards and touchdowns, and so far he’s only averaging 2.9 fantasy points per game through that same running method. Touchdowns are part of the problem, as a year ago at this point Kaepernick had already scored twice on the ground, on his way to five overall. But to score rushing touchdowns, the offense needs to be in a position to score any touchdown at all. Over the last two weeks that’s only happened once for Kaepernick’s offense that scored a combined 10 points against the Colts and Seahawks.
3. Where you at, Jared Cook?
Oh hey look, Jared Cook hasn’t been remotely consistent. I would make a shocked face if, as a Cook owner, my face wasn’t already numbed from repeated self punching.
Cook is yet another key player in tonight’s game whose Week 1 performance looks like a massive outlier compared to, well, everything else so far. For him, Week 1 against the Cardinals ended with 141 receiving yards and two touchdowns, which added up to 24 fantasy points. Now he has just five fantasy points since.
To an extent, Cook could be getting Sam Bradford’ed, which was evident in Week 2 when he was targeted six times, but only caught one of those balls for all of 10 yards. The utter lack of a running game in St. Louis (only 59 yards per game so far) isn’t helping matters for the Rams’ passing attack as a whole, with defenses given little reason to bring an extra man into the box.
Standard preamble/dire warning: in the end it’s all the same, but sit and start decisions on Thursday night just feel more pressing and possibly painful, because if you make a poor call one roster spot has already been burned long before Sunday. That sucks a lot (#analysis).
No-brainers: As angry/weepy as you may be because of Kaepernick’s combined nine fantasy points over the last two weeks, you’re not sitting him tonight. As mentioned, the Rams’ currently have the 23rd-ranked secondary, mostly because Finnegan has taken a step back. Again, Davis’ potential absence could still be awful, and a Rams front seven that had 52 sacks last year is also less than inviting. You’re not sitting Frank Gore either, and Boldin should be started in all formats, especially if Davis is out. For the Rams, Cook is the only definite starter if you own him, though be warned that the 49ers are allowing only 35.2 receiving yards per game to the tight end position.
Tweeners: As expected, predicting which Rams receiver will produce on any given week hasn’t been much fun. After Cook’s huge game on opening day it was Chris Givens in Week 2 (105 yards on five catches), which was the same game when Austin Pettis rose from his sleeper slumber (78 yards and a touchdown). So if we’re rolling that evil Rams wide receiver dice tonight, give me Givens. In his only game against the 49ers last year he was targeted 14 times, turning that volume into 92 yards, and 20 points in PPR leagues.
Flex/sleepers: Despite an escalated draft price in August, Tavon Austin has already fallen to flex status at best. That applies in PPR leagues too even with his six catches per game thus far, because the yardage simply isn’t there. He’s averaging only 6.6 yards per catch while getting few opportunities to display that elite open-field burst which led to an average of 11.9 YPC throughout Austin’s four years at West Virginia. His two touchdowns in Week 2 have salvaged his fantasy production.
There’s hope for Austin tonight, though, after the 49ers gave up 108 yards on seven catches to Randall Cobb, a similar receiver.
Stay away: There’s little motivation to start either Rams running back. Yes, Willis being out helps matters a lot, but the likely even split that will develop between Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead with the former hobbled minimizes the value of each back. Some of you in deeper leagues may not have a choice, and there’s at least hope for production from one of these two with the aforementioned key Niners injuries. The problem lies in predicting which one will get the majority of the carries. Avoid this toxic mess entirely if you can.