The five keys

SFI's five keys for the 49ers in tonight's game against the St. Louis Rams at San Francisco's Monster Park:

1. GANG UP ON ISAAC BRUCE AND TORRY HOLT: Bruce leads the NFL with 25 receptions and 348 receiving yards. Holt is second in the league with 22 receptions. The Niners must focus on containing these two star receivers and worry about the other options in the St. Louis passing game later. Niners cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph have to get physical with Bruce and Holt and get bumps on them as they come off the line of scrimmage. Bruce, off to the best start of his 11-year career, has 86 receptions for 1,334 yards against the Niners. He needs seven receptions and 48 yards to become the all-time career receiving leader against the Niners. San Francisco's secondary, which also will be looking for help from rookie nickel back Shawntae Spencer, must prevent him from getting those seven receptions here - but not at the expense of letting Holt go wild.

2. RALLY AROUND RATTAY: The San Francisco offense needs a boost, and here comes its regular starting quarterback to provide it. No quarterback on the San Francisco roster knows the offense or how to execute it better than Rattay, and his return should help the Niners find a rhythm and pace on offense that they never found last week against Seattle with Ken Dorsey at the controls. To rally around Rattay, the Niners also must protect him, since he survived only two quarters into the season opener before a heavy hit by Atlanta defensive tackle Rod Coleman separated his shoulder and forced Rattay out of the next two games. But before missing those two games, Rattay returned in the opener after taking pain-blocking injections and rallied the 49ers to two fourth-quarter touchdowns with a bum throwing shoulder, indicating what can happen with the offense when he is in charge. And now, he's healthy, too.

3. BREAK OUT BARLOW: The Niners have to break tailback Kevan Barlow loose to help them sustain drives on offense and control the clock to keep the dangerous St. Louis offense off the field. The Rams are very susceptible to the run, ranking 30th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and average yards allowed per rush. The Niners need to exploit this area early and often. Barlow was limited to 22 yards on 10 carries last week in Seattle - the lowest rushing total of his NFL career as a starter - and a lot of that had to do with limited space to run up front. Barlow also ran a bit tentative in that game - possibly due to rib and knee injuries - but he's healthy now and there are no excuses for the Niners not to take advantage of his rushing ability against this weak run defense.

4. HARASS MARC BULGER: St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger is off to a tremendous start, completing 69.3 percent of his passes and averaging 305 yards through the air in the Rams' first three games. He has thrown a touchdown pass in each game, and can dissect a defense when he has time to throw. The key is pressuring him and forcing him into early throws and mistakes. Bulger has put up fine passing numbers in each of St. Louis' first three games, but he wasn't sacked once in the Rams' season-opening win against Arizona. The next two weeks against Atlanta and New Orleans, he was sacked five times in each game. The Rams lost both times. The Niners have to get a similar kind of heat on Bulger to disrupt St. Louis' offensive rhythm, which revolves around the pass.

5. WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE: The Niners need to hold onto the football, and they also need to snatch it away a few times from the St. Louis offense. So far, San Francisco has been one of the worst teams in the NFL at doing either with a minus-7 turnover differential, which is tied with Miami for the worst figure in the league. The Niners have turned over the ball nine times - second-worst in the league - and have just two takeaways, which also is the second-worst figure in the league. St. Louis - which has a minus-6 turnover differential - is the only NFL team that has yet to produce a turnover, and the Niners need to prevent the Rams from getting started here. The St. Louis offense takes a lot of chances - it has six turnovers so far in three games - so the Niners need to make the Rams pay when they try something risky. And even when they don't, for that matter.


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