Five Keys: 49ers @ Rams

Not a lot has gone right for the 49ers over the last two weeks, where they have been outscored by 46 points and lost the turnover battle 7-1. Heading to St. Louis after a short week of preparation will be a difficult task as they hope to avoid starting the season 1-3. Inside we break down keys to winning the game against the Rams.

Health

The short week will have a big impact on who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. Patrick Willis (groin), Vernon Davis (hamstring), Nnamdi Asomugha (knee), Anthony Davis (shoulder), Kyle Williams (rib, knee) and Bubba Ventrone (concussion) were all listed as questionable heading into Thursday night's game.

Vernon Davis' absence played a big part in the 49ers inability to get anything going through the air in Sunday's loss to the Colts. Without Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, he's the team's best deep threat and provides the most difficult matchup of any of Colin Kaepernick's targets. Kaepernick and Davis have a rapport that can't be replaced by Vance McDonald or Garrett Celek. The Rams, featuring a stout front seven and physical secondary, will stack the box and force San Francisco to beat them through the air. Without Davis, that becomes a much more difficult task.

The 49ers were down just six points to Indy when Willis went down with his groin injury. It's no coincidence the Colts marched down the field to score a pair of touchdowns late to put the game away by gashing the 49ers with an array of running plays. For a defense that's been one of the worst in the league against the run to this point, San Francisco cannot afford to be without Willis for an extended period of time.

Explosive Plays

Kaepernick had seven passes of 20 yards or longer in Week 1 against the Packers. Against the Seahawks and Colts, he combined for just two.

Kaepernick was the most accurate thrower of passes 20 yards or longer in NFL last season, with an accuracy percentage of 60.6 percent. This year, that number is down to 30.8, good for 26th in the league.

A lack of weapons plays a part, as does opposing defenses having a full offseason to prepare for the 49ers offense that was mostly unknown when Kaepernick took over midway through 2012.

San Francisco needs to find ways to make explosive plays, which have a huge affect on field position time of possession. One of their biggest strengths last season was the running game, which was set up nicely by the offense's ability to get explosive gains downfield. They will need strong performances from Williams, Quinton Patton and/or Marlon Moore to open things up.

Tackling

Simply put, the 49ers have not been a good tackling team through the season's first three weeks. It's been a strength during the last two years, but it's been a real issue leading to a number of big plays for opposing offenses, especially on the ground. They've missed 25 tackles in their three games.

The Rams haven't exhibited much of a running game to this point, but there's a chance that could change Thursday, putting pressure on San Francisco to wrap up.

Rookie wideout Tavon Austin will get plenty of looks both in the slot and backfield as the team's most dynamic skill player. Likely matched up against Carlos Rogers, 32, the 49ers will have to find ways to bring him down in open space. Otherwise Austin is capable of breaking their backs, over and over again.

Turnovers

In 2011, San Francisco's defense led the league with 38 turnovers forced. That number predictably fell to 25 last year. And through three games in 2013, they've forced just three.

Considering the struggles of the offense, the 49ers' defense will need momentum swinging plays in the forms of turnovers to help win a tough game on the road. Thursday night games are typically sloppy affairs offensively, which means there will be chances to turn the ball over and give Kaepernick a short field to work with.

On the flip side, Kaepernick has to be more careful with the ball and not give the Rams any gifts. He's thrown four interceptions in the last two weeks and fumbled twice.

Getting Their Swagger Back

The 49ers are banged up, burdened with turmoil (see: Smith, Aldon) and playing like a bad football team in their two losses. Those losses have weighed heavily due to the circumstances. They have never lost consecutive games under Harbaugh. Three would be a devastating low point considering the expectations coming into the season.

Since Harbaugh took over, his players have reflected his confidence. But that confidence has been on the decline since getting dominated for a second-straight time in Seattle, a fierce division rival. It showed in the 20-point loss to Indianapolis.

The 49ers will be at the quarter pole of the season following Thursday's game. And 2-2 would feel a whole lot better than 1-3 with 10 days between their next test against the Texans. Beating the Rams could go a long way toward the team regaining its mojo after going 0-1-1 against them in 2012.

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

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