Nathan Grimm (@Nate_Grimm)

The St. Louis Rams closed the first half of the season against one of the best teams in the NFL.

They’ll open the second half against one of the few teams that might be even better.

The Rams travel to San Francisco to take on the NFC West-leading 49ers Sunday. While it offers the Rams a valuable chance to gain ground in the division, it also presents a huge challenge right out of the gate for the 3-5 Rams.

The 49ers boast the second-best defense in the league, allowing just 271.4 yards per game. They’re not one-dimensional, either: they have the second-best pass defense and the fifth-best rush defense. The 49ers are allowing just 184 passing yards and 87.4 rushing yards per game. It’s a big reason they’re 6-2 on the year.

It’s not hard to see why they’re so good. On the defensive line, Justin Smith is still one of the best ends in the NFL. At linebacker – the 49ers play a 3-4, so they’ve got four of them – they boast two of the best in the league in ILBs Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. The two inside linebackers have combined for 133 tackles in the team’s eight games.

Outside, Aldon Smith is a ferocious pass rusher many Rams fans remember from his days at the University of Missouri. He and fellow OLB Ahmad Brooks have 11.5 combined sacks on the year.

Their defensive secondary is led by safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. The 49ers don’t take the ball away particularly well, but they don’t need to. They’ll just make sure you don’t go anywhere instead.

Their offense isn’t dynamic, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, the offense is predicated on methodical passing and hard-nosed running. Where the defense doesn’t generate many turnovers, the offense has given up even fewer.

QB Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick, is a model of efficiency at the quarterback position. Smith has a 69 percent completion percentage and a 12:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the year. He is a game-manager, and with their defense that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The 49ers are first in the league in rushing, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 168.6 yards per game. Frank Gore, noted Rams killer, has 656 yards while backup Kendall Hunter has 301 yards himself.

And the offensive line? One needs look no further than ESPN’s NFC West blogger Mike Sando’s recent All-NFC West midseason team to see why the running game and Smith are so effective. Four of the five linemen on Sando’s list – both tackles and both guards – were 49ers.

In a league that has become strongly pass-first, the 49ers are winning the old-fashioned way with rushing and defense. The Rams stated a similar desire before the season. On Sunday, the Rams will see how close – or how far – they are from their destination.


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