ST. LOUIS — Though the St. Louis Rams were among the few teams enjoying the upper hand against the San Francisco 49ers last year, coach Jeff Fisher says it’s far from a rivalry.
Counting one playoff game, the series that used to be a battle of California is tied 62-62-3, with both teams at .500 at home and on the road entering Thursday night’s matchup. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson showed up for Rams practice during the short-week buildup and fondly recalled any 49ers matchup as a big game.
“We hate the Niners,” said the 53-year-old Dickerson, who starred for the Los Angeles Rams in the 1980s. “That hasn’t changed. Anytime you face the 49ers I like their chances, even if the Rams were 0-5.
“There’s something about that game, the level of play steps up.”
San Francisco dominated for a long stretch before 2012, going 11-3 the previous seven seasons.
“Last year we got our feet back on the map,” Fisher said. “But I don’t think there’s a rivalry yet. Hopefully, it will become one.”
Since beating the Packers in the opener, the 49ers have been outscored 36-10 in losses to Seattle and Indianapolis. Sam Bradford absorbed his first six sacks of the year and the Rams (also 1-2) fell behind early for the third straight time — way behind — in a 31-7 setback at Dallas.
“We’re facing adversity. It gives us the opportunity to stare it in the face and respond,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s a relentless quest for improvement, that’s where we’re at.”
Five things to watch for in 49ers-Rams:
FAMILIAR FOES: Besides meeting twice a year, last season they played nearly 10 quarters, with the first NFL tie in four seasons and a Rams victory late in overtime in the rematch. While both sides bemoaned missed opportunities, they loved what Fisher called “knock-down, drag-out” games that Harbaugh noted were “hotly contested.”
“That’s football in the good old days, the good old Big Ten football — you feel like you’re playing Wisconsin or Michigan State again,” Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
S-L-O-W STARTS: The Rams have trailed by double digits all three games, overcoming an 11-point deficit against Arizona, falling a TD shy after Atlanta built a 21-point bulge, and coming up empty against the Cowboys.
The last two games, the 49ers’ offense also has been a non-starter. Colin Kaepernick was 13 for 27 for 150 yards with an interception and three sacks.
“The effort’s been extremely good and the precision needs to be better,” Harbaugh said.
OFF AND RUNNING: Kaepernick hasn’t hurt defenses much with his legs thus far, and the Rams will do their best to keep it that way by making him pay for any forays.
Neither team has generated much on the ground, with Frank Gore getting just 11 carries last week and totaling 142 yards on the season. No Rams players are over 100 yards. St. Louis hasn’t run much because it’s been playing catch-up all the time.
Neither had much luck running last year, either, with both Gore and St. Louis’ Steven Jackson averaging less than 3 yards per carry.
PENALTY PROBLEMS: San Francisco followed 12 penalties for 121 yards in a 29-3 rout at Seattle with six more for 48 yards in Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Colts, taking the 49ers’ flag total to 29.
San Francisco’s defense gave Indianapolis five first downs by penalty, including on the first two snaps of the game. Three penalties were called on cornerback Tarell Brown.
“There were first downs by penalty. And, again, in a game that we were really a touchdown away at 13-7, up until seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, and there was a key drive there,” Harbaugh said. “I think our defense, that’s not something we want to be about. We don’t want to be giving first downs by penalty and we’ll keep working at it.”
NEW-LOOK LBs: 49ers All-Pro LB Aldon Smith is away from the team indefinitely to undergo treatment for substance abuse. Fellow All-Pro Patrick Willis is nursing a groin injury that could sideline him, too. That means some shuffling, and playing time for untested backups.
Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier and Demarcus Dobbs will have larger roles in the effort to end the first losing streak of Harbaugh’s three seasons.
“Guys will be ready to step in there,” safety Donte Whitner said. “There’s no time for excuses. It’s all good when you’re winning games two years in a row, but a little adversity here and we’ll see what we’re made of.”