After a demoralizing loss at home to the Colts and dropping to an underachieving 1-2 record. The 49ers had a new challenge ahead of them: Go to St. Louis to face the Rams who they haven’t beaten in almost 2 years, on a short week. To make things even more difficult, the 49ers would take the field without Aldon Smith who checked into rehab earlier this week due to a 2nd DUI conviction and Patrick Willis who is nursing a groin injury during last Sunday’s game. So where would their pass rush come from? Who would stop the run on the inside? How were the 49ers going to control the line of scrimmage after getting outmuscled 2 weeks in a row?
With the odds clearly stacked against the 49ers, the team answered those questions by doing a few things different this time around and showing some heart in the process. A loss today would’ve meant dropping to a drastic 1-3 mark on the season (0-2 record against the NFC West), and have ultimately caused a promising season to spiral out of control. However, a win would raise the 49ers back to .500 at 2-2, keep pace with the surging Seahawks, and gain separation against the other NFC West members, along with some much needed rest before a matchup with the powerhouse Texans.
It didn’t start well for the 49ers in the 1st quarter with a Phil Dawson miss from 53 yards out and a 40 yd Greg Zuherlein field goal to give the Rams a 3-0 lead. The expectations were that we had another slugfest on our hands as both offenses had trouble stringing together yardage. Colin Kaepernick finished the 1st quarter 2/5 for 11 yards. Frank Gore was struggling despite having 24 yards on 4 carries. It looked like another long night for the 49er faithful as the team began to fall into the cycle of offensive stalling which would eventually tire out the defense.
The 2nd quarter and beyond looked entirely different. When the 49ers received the ball on the 20 yd line after a failed Rams drive. Gore took the handoff and stutter stepped forward, then ran outside and cut up the middle to gain 27 yards on an exhiliarating run to wake the team up at midfield. This long run setup an incredible 49ers drive culminating in an impressive Anquan Boldin touchdown pass. As mentioned last week, the 49ers needed to get the ground game going to keep the defense fresh and wear out the opponent. Gore churned out another great set with 17 yards, then a 34 yard touchdown run before halftime putting the 49ers in the driver seat with a 14-3 lead and receiving the ball at the beginning of the 2nd half. Gore used his renowned vision and cuts to get between the tackles, and stole a little of Hunter’s thunder in the process by getting outside the edge and picking up first downs. Gore finished the 1st half with 107 yards on 10 carries as if to send the message “Let’s pound this rock!” to his coaching staff after they abandoned the run when he put up 82 first half yards against the Colts. Gore finished with 153 yards on 20 carries for a bionic 7.7 yds per clip. Hunter provided an excellent change of pace amassing 49 yds on 11 carries for a 4.5 yds/c to put the game away. Gore had 142 yds in the first 3 games of the season, tonight he had 153 yards. The 49ers cannot expect this kind of production from Gore week in and week out, and the offense will need more support from the passing game going forward.
Blocking: The 49ers ran the ball effectively, thanks to a very underrated part of football. Blocking. Vernon Davis returned from a minor hamstring injury to assist in the blocking duties. What makes Davis a top 5 Tight End in the league outside of his deep threat receiving ability, is his often-overlooked yet profound blocking skills in the running game. The offensive line in the NFL was able to give Gore the seams and space to make plays and get to the 2nd level and beyond exploiting a run defense that ranks 29th in the league. The Rams faced a heavy dose of Gore and could not stop it. The blocking needs to improve against better defenses going forward, the best offensive line will lose its title if this improvement does not happen starting with the Texans. JJ Watt and Brian Cushing are a younger equivalent of Justin Smith and Navorro Bowman. The 49ers’ offensive line will need to ready itself against the blitz packages and disguised coverages Wade Phillips will mix in. The offensive line is still not playing at its peak performance, and there is a possible major injury to Joe Staley that occurred at the tail end of last night’s victory. The severity of the injury can affect the integrity of the offensive line as Staley plays an integral role of blocking the best pass rushers from every team the 49ers face. For now, the 49ers can only hope that Staley returns or will miss little time.
Time of Possession:
By utilizing the advantage of 219 rushing yards across the team, the 49ers were effectively able to control the clock. It helped a lot that the defense held the Rams to only 18 yards on the ground the entire game. The 49ers were close in mimicing their 2012 average by holding the ball for 31:45 min. Even though the Rams were able to hold the ball for 28:15, they were unable to wear the 49ers’ defense out as the 49ers began to coast late in the 3rd and 4th quarters. Not to mention a few defensive turnovers to give great field position and put the game away. The time of possession will be key going further into the season for the 49ers as they will use similar strategies to take the lead in games and run the clock out. The 49ers have a proven history with this strategy and would be wise to stick to it. With this strategy, Kaepernick becomes more lethal as the running game complements his set of skills and forces defenses to keep an eye on both the running back and quarterback. In essence, the time of possession advantage is correlated with a successful running game and can loosely aid the read option going forward.
Defense: The 49ers’ defense did its job by generating a pleasant surprise of a pass rush with the absense of Aldon Smith. As mentioned in last week’s article, the 49ers would need to dig deep to compensate for the loss of Aldon Smith for the next 4 weeks, and will need to continue to find the spirit they conjured last night to rush the quarterback. The front 7 was able to contain and stuff the run entirely only giving up 18 yards in the entire game. Forcing Sam Bradford to throw 41 times and generating 2 turnovers (an interception in the endzone for a touchback, and a fumble recovery at the STL-3 yd line). These turnovers were huge resulting in a 14 pt favoring of the 49ers. While the 49ers’ offense did not help win the turnover battle by giving up 2 lost fumbles, the Rams were unable to move the ball down the field against the defense despite the gifts. Donte Whitner had a bad interception drop that landed into the arms of a Rams’ receiver Jared Cook, but Whitner redeemed himself with an incredible interception from a tipped ball from Tramaine Brock that landed in the endzone for a touchback, stealing a possible scoring drive from the Rams. The defense gave up 202 yards through the air for a paltry 4.9yds/att. The defense was able to keep the Rams contained while the offense tried getting the rhythm of the game. Corey Lemonier was an integral part of the rotation getting pressure off the side. Justin Smith and Ray Mcdonald continued to eat up blockers paving the way for Bowman, Brooks, and Dorsey to wreak havoc in the pocket. An overall great performance.
Despite being on the road, the 49ers played well through all 3 phases of the game but still committed an appalling, yet quiet, 10 penalties for 85 yards. Kaepernick was able to negate an unnecessary roughness foul called on Alex Boone where the referee failed, yet again, to apprehend the instigator. Kaepernick threw an out slant to Boldin who rounded the corner beating Cortland Finnegan and made a superman leap for the goal line. No matter how great the 49ers played to overcome the hurdles they created, they need to clean that up. The 49ers currently rank 29th in the league in penalty yardage through the first 4 games at 84.8 penalty yds/G. In 2012, the 49ers averaged 59.4 penalty yds/G but were surprisingly ranked at 28th. So they have dropped one spot, but added more than 20 yds to their average. Throw out the ranking entirely, and the 49ers are doing very poorly in this category. And these penalty yards have been more blatant in the 2 losses so far, stalling key offensive drives and preventing needed scoring. Penalties affect offense and defense, like rushing affects passing. These variables are connected, and require discipline and execution to improve upon. Reducing the penalties will only make the 49ers harder to beat, and that should be good enough reason to keep working on it.
Kaepernick threw for 167 yards, while this isn’t a concern, it is more to highlight the fact that the 49ers do not need all their dimensions to win. However, the Rams currently are not a playoff contender and the 49ers have aspirations for a special season in their final year at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick is learning how quickly things have changed from last season. Defenses have studied this special high ceiling quarterback and have made him look human. This is the perfect adversity to force Kaepernick to get better. While Kaepernick’s passing stats were modest tonight, 15/23 for 167 yds, 2TDs, his QBR was a top notch 83.6. Kaepernick is beginning to understand his role in the offense as a quarterback and a leader. When the running game is stifled, he will be expected to step up. If neither the running game and passing game are working, it is unlikely the game will be won. The read option can still be a threat in the NFL as it is still so new. The 49ers have the quarterback that can successfully execute the read option against defenses, but it cannot be overused. Like playaction packages, the read option can only be successful when the running game is successful early on. This begins with offensive line play, the 49ers have a top 5 offensive line in the league, and should have no problem buying time for Kaepernick going forward. They will need to adjust to defenses that stifle their running game with more delayed handoffs and draws when a defense over pursues. Adjusting to the new defenses is key. Through 4 weeks, the 49ers now have tape on these “new” defenses tailored to stop the read option and should be expected to exploit what they didn’t know before. Outside of staying healthy, the team is loaded with talent to win games in a variety of ways, and they just got back on track to doing that with a statement win in St. Louis.