ST. LOUIS – Austin Davis has made the most of his improbable shot the St. Louis Rams, passing for 300 yards each of the last two games.
The degree of difficulty is about to go up. Way up.
The San Francisco 49ers enter Monday night's game with the NFL's No. 2 defense, making the going very tough even without key players from last season.
Patrick Willis leads the way for San Francisco (3-2) which has stepped up its play lately. Last week, they did enough to compensate for a sputtering offense that leaned on five field goals and converted on a fake punt deep in their territory in a 22-17 victory over the Chiefs.
Alex Smith found the going tough especially in the second half and Jamal Charles was held to 80 yards rushing.
"Patrick Willis, let's start there," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He is the kingpin in the middle."
Harbaugh said tackle Justin Smith and linebacker Ahmad Brooks have also stepped up their play, plus nose tackle Ian Williams has been a find. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman has resumed running and getting closer to returning.
Davis passed for 375 yards and two touchdowns last week at Philadelphia, nearly bringing the Rams back from a 27-point deficit in a 34-28 loss. The previous game, he passed for 325 yards although he was intercepted twice.
Several players have proven reliable targets, including wide receivers Brian Quick, Kenny Britt and Austin Pettis and tight ends Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks.
The 49ers took advantage of the extra day of preparation to learn more about a player who was fourth on the depth chart during the preseason before the job dropped into his hands due to injuries to Sam Bradford and Shaun Hill. Coach Jeff Fisher reversed field after the Rams' bye and said Davis was his quarterback for the rest of the year, after repeatedly saying Hill was that guy when he returned from a quadriceps injury.
Davis was a volunteer high school coach this time last year, getting re-signed by the Rams after Bradford's first season-ending knee injury. So it's still a nice rags-to-riches tale, but with a body of work to analyze.
"We've really we've got as much tape on him as we would have if the other guy had still been the quarterback," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "So, it's really not a whole lot different than any other week."
The Rams (1-3) are a lot more concerned about solving the 49ers' defense than Davis performing on national TV.
"It's just the next challenge, the next chapter," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "It's just obviously a very good defense.
"Again, he doesn't have to do it by himself, we have to do it as a team."
The game plan won't change much, if at all, to account for San Francisco's strengths. Running back Zac Stacy is probable coming off a calf injury that sidelined him last week and Benny Cunningham also been effective.
"They'll certainly make some plays, they always do," Schottenheimer said. "They will be tough stretches I'm sure. This is probably an elite defense, but we've played some good defenses."
For a change the 49ers didn't beat themselves last week, committing just two penalties for 10 yards last week.
Penalties remain a season-long concern for the Rams, who've also made enough critical mistakes to put a damper on hopes Fisher's third season will be the long-awaited breakthrough.
The defense has been a puzzlement, prone to giving up big gainers and limited to a single sack despite aggressive schemes under new coordinator Gregg Williams.
There's enough on his plate that Fisher isn't paying much attention to the 15-year anniversary recognition of the 1999 Super Bowl team. The team was honored at a function Sunday night and will be the focus of halftime Monday night.
"I'm actually thinking about the 49ers," Fisher said. "I've been here for a few years now. I'm reminded on a daily basius inside the building, so I'm used to it now."
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