I mentioned earlier in the week that I had tickets for last night's Mets game, and I was torn between going to the game or selling the seats and going home to watch the 49ers, who were also playing last night in the asinine Thursday Night Football game. I posed the question to several sources and received a myriad of mixed responses. Ultimately, though Thursday was a nice night for a game, I was also tired from a long work week and successful in selling the tickets, so the winner for the night was the 49ers. This turned out to be the right call on my part; the Mets played a mostly unmemorable game, losing 4-2 to the Brewers. The 49ers, who were battered on and off the field the last two weeks, got their act together and laid the smackdown on the St. Louis Rams, coasting to a 35-11 victory.
This was a pretty important win for the 49ers. I realize that every win is important in the NFL season, but this was particularly important. For one, the 49ers really got embarrassed these past two weeks against Seattle and Indy, not just losing but really looking bad in doing so. Injuries to key players were mounting and fans were jumping off the Colin Kaepernick bandwagon in droves. If that wasn't bad enough, the 49ers now had to go to St. Louis to play the Rams on 3 days' rest. I've mentioned my personal distaste for the Rams plenty, but the 49ers had to be pretty sick of them too, after the pair of epic turdbombs that they played last season. The Rams played the 49ers tight and tough, taking both games into Overtime, winning one at home and playing to a rarely seen tie game in San Francisco. In general, the Rams just gave the 49ers fits, and this was the last thing they needed, sitting with a record of 1-2 and the season perhaps hanging in the balance.
It took the 49ers a while to get going last night. The 49ers started off all right on defense, but the offense was unable to generate much of anything. After trading punts, the Rams capitalized on a missed Field Goal from Phil Dawson and what would turn out to be a rare sloppy play from the defense, a facemask penalty on Justin Smith. But on a 3rd down play, with Austin Pettis open for a sure Touchdown, Rams Quarterback Sam Bradford overthrew the pass and the Rams settled instead for a Field Goal and a 3-0 lead.
Still, the 49ers could mount nothing in response. Kaepernick was wild, over and undershooting receivers and the passes that were good were generally either well-covered or broken up. Though Vernon Davis was back from his hamstring injury, he was far from 100% and appeared to be in more for purposes of blocking. After trading punts twice more, the 49ers finally got off to a positive start in a drive when Frank Gore, who'd been running well all night, bolted for 27 yards, putting the ball at their own 47 yard line. The 49ers followed that up by putting in LaMichael James, who caught lightning in a bottle late last season but has been missing in action to this point this season, and James showed none of the burst we saw from him last year, twice running straight into the line and netting -1 yard to bring up 3rd down and 11. The 49ers hadn't converted a 3rd down all night and that didn't appear likely to change. Another decent opportunity was about to slip away, and I was beginning to wonder whether or not the entire season was slipping away with it. Down on the road, unable to show any signs of life...Where was this ship going?
Colin Kaepernick answered this question by firing a strike to Anquan Boldin that went for 42 yards, down to the Rams 11 yard line. This play just snapped everything back into order and the rest of the game just fell into place from there. The 49ers got hit with another penalty one play later, but facing another 3rd down and 16 yards to go, Kap hit Boldin on a crossing route and Boldin did the rest, breaking a tackle and launching himself into the End Zone for a Touchdown that gave the 49ers their first lead since Week 1.
Things got better from there. Though the Rams moved themselves into decent Field Position, the drive was cut off when Bradford threw on a 3rd and 1 play, tossing up a lollipop pass that was batted by Tarell Brown and intercepted in the End Zone by Donte Whitner. On the ensuing possession, Kap and Gore moved the 49ers down the field with ease, although a pair of reviewed and reversed plays put the 49ers in a 4th down situation at the Rams 34 yard line. Too long for a Field Goal and too close to punt. The call to go for it was easy, particularly with the clock running down and the Defense playing well. So, go they did, and gone was Frank Gore, who took a handoff, shot through a hole and didn't stop until he hit the End Zone without a Ram laying a finger on him.
For Gore, who was frustrated after last week's game due to his lack of use in the 2nd half, this was the kind of game he needed in response, and the kind of game that the 49ers needed him to have. Gore had 104 yards on the ground by halftime and ended up with 153 for the game in the sort of performance that has come to typify The Inconvenient Truth: Stepping up his game when it's needed most.
The second half was more or less a continuation of the second quarter. Although Gore fumbled on the 49ers first possession, the defense continued to tee off on the Rams. Daryl Richardson, forced into the role of featured Running Back with Steven Jackson gone and Isaiah Pead awful, proved functionally useless, as the Rams ended up with more rushing attempts (19) than rushing yards (18) for the game. Sam Bradford found no luck passing either. Navorro Bowman, in particular, played the kind of game that earns accolades. Bowman ended up with 6 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced Fumble, and generally was all over the field wreaking havoc even when he wasn't earning stats. He pretty much ended up in Bradford's face on most pass attempts and regularly snuffed out rushing attempts. Much like Gore, Bowman had to step up in this game as well, with Patrick Willis injured and out. Bowman and company forced a 3 and out following the Fumble, and the 49ers responded by zipping right down the field for another Touchdown, this one a pass from Kap to Vernon Davis, on a corner post route that seems to have become very popular between these two.
With a now comfortable lead, the 49ers seemed content to let the defense continue to pound on the Rams offense, and let their running backs eat up the clock. The 49ers tacked on a pair of touchdowns in the 4th Quarter, one an Anthony Dixon run that came after a Bradford fumble deep in the Rams territory, and the second a Kendall Hunter run where he broke a tackle and the Rams seemed to lose track of him from there. The Rams scored a touchdown as well, capitalizing on the lone 49ers turnover of the night, a fumble by Kaepernick after a bad snap and a missed handoff. But that came after the game was well in hand and by game's end, the Rams basically said "No Mas," kneeling out the clock at the end of the game rather than trying to score some prideful garbage time points. So, the 49ers played the kind of game that they really needed to play and beat an opponent that they should have beaten to even their record at 2-2.
This wasn't the prettiest of games for Kaepernick, who, deserving or not, was the focus of a good deal of the criticism (and responded to it in typical Kap fashion, by going around and favoriting all the negative tweets about him) surrounding the team this past week. And early in the game, he didn't look any better than he did in the past two weeks. But with Frank Gore being so effective, that took some of the pressure off him, and he eventually settled down and had a good game, completing 15 of 23 for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns, numbers that might have been better had the game dictated it. But Gore's 153 yards and Kendall Hunter's 49 ensured that Kaepernick could take it easy as the game wound down. Still, Kap can be better, he seems to be favoring his first targets on passing plays rather than looking for the best option too often, and the Rams defense picked up on this and nearly forced some interceptions. But, that didn't happen.
The Defense, on the other hand, played their best game of the season, hands down. The past two weeks weren't pretty, but the defense had held their own reasonably well before wearing down late. Last night, there was no wearing down. This was the kind of effort we'd seen out of the defense a lot the last two seasons and the kind of effort they need to have if this run of success will continue.
So, call off the alarms. It's not an emergency situation. But the 49ers can be better and their schedule doesn't really ease up. Fortunately, although they play the Texans next Sunday night, next Sunday night is 10 days away, so those ailing (Davis, Willis, et al) have plenty of time to heal up. Hopefully the good vibes can carry on through this break.