NFC West: 2013 Week 4 SFO at STL

49ers aren't ready to go away yet

September, 27, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- The San Francisco 49ers obviously wanted to send the rest of the NFC a message as they make their final preparations for Week 4: We are still a team to be reckoned with at the quarter point of the season.

Make no mistake, the 49ers, particularly on offense, are not perfect four games into their NFC title defense. However, they emphatically showed Thursday night that they are not ready to remove themselves from playoff consideration. In an impressive show of will, San Francisco manhandled the St. Louis Rams, 35-11, to improve to 2-2.

If the 49ers had fallen to 1-3, their season would have been officially unraveling. Instead, they go into the long weekend feeling like Weeks 2 and 3 were correctable aberrations.

Overcoming their myriad issues was not easy, especially traveling across the country on a short week. San Francisco entered this game having been outscored by Seattle and Indianapolis by a combined 56-10. The 49ers' offense, including quarterback Colin Kaepernick, had been awful; they were banged up; and, most importantly, linebacker Aldon Smith had entered an alcohol-treatment program, just shy of his 24th birthday, and would be away from the team for at least a month.

Yes, it was a crisis week for the 49ers.

And they punched the Rams in the mouth, just as a true playoff contender would.

Every member of the organization deserved a game ball Thursday night. This was a special bounce-back win. Coach Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick would get gold game balls. They answered the call.

After losing to the Colts, the 49ers fell below .500 for the first time in Harbaugh’s 35 games at the helm, and it was the first time his team had lost back-to-back games. He and his staff, which stayed over at the facility on Sunday night, did a brilliant job. Harbaugh gave a hint of what was coming in his Monday news conference.

"We have the rare opportunity," he said, "of staring adversity in the face and whipping it.''

It was clear Harbaugh had his team prepared and the 49ers realized what was at stake. The understated Kaepernick said Tuesday when asked what was the message of the week: “We have to win.”

Yes, there is no such thing as a must-win until it is actually a must-win. That’s impossible in September. But the 49ers would have been rowing upstream for a good part of the season had they not won Thursday night.

And for the 49ers to win so impressively, with everything that ailed them, shows that this team is still very much a contender.

It started on the ground -- as it should in the 49ers’ offense. Frank Gore, often an unsung hero for the 49ers, paved the way with 153 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-inches to make the score 14-3 late in the second quarter. It was Gore’s highest rushing yardage total since 2009. The 49ers didn’t have success running the ball in the first two games of the season, and they went away from it last weekend against Indianapolis. Thursday night it was the focal point of the offensive attack and opened up the passing game for Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s statistical line was not overly impressive: He was 15-for-23 for 167 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. In reality, Kaepernick was effective. He took what the defense gave him and threw lasers all night. Anquan Boldin made a big impact with five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.

“When we are at our best, we do whatever it takes offensively to be successful,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “That’s what we did tonight. The ground game worked, so we used it. We showed that we are capable of doing this every week. That’s what’s satisfying. After the last weeks, this is what we needed.”

Most importantly, San Francisco's offense took pressure off of its defense. The defense had been taking heat of its own after allowing 84 points this season. But, for the most part, the unit was solid, wearing down only late in the game. The 49ers had held a lead for just 25 plays over the first three games, all in the first week.

The San Francisco defense was refreshed Thursday night as it was staked to an early 11-point lead. Playing without Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who has a groin injury, the unit was suffocating. After wilting against the run, the 49ers allowed St. Louis just 18 yards on 19 carries. The Rams managed a total of only 188 yards of offense.

Running the ball and stopping the run. It was San Francisco 49ers’ football when they needed it the most.

“We went back to being us,” Gore said.

Yes, there are still some issues. The 49ers committed 10 penalties and now have 39 this season, the receiving corps lacks depth and the defense occasionally sagged on third-and-long.

But all of those things can be fixed. The 49ers were in a crisis. Style points were not the point Thursday. Simply winning was the tonic San Francisco needed. The 49ers showed the rest of the league, they will not go away so easily.

The regression of the St. Louis Rams

September, 27, 2013
Jeff FisherAP Photo/Tom GannamJeff Fisher and the St. Louis Rams are 1-3 and have looked bad getting there.

ST. LOUIS -- Signs of progress for the St. Louis Rams have been few and far between for most of the past decade.

A drastic improvement to 7-8-1 in 2012 provided some real hope that the sinking ship that was the U.S.S. Rams was finally going to come up for air.

This season was supposed to provide more signs of progress, to provide tangible evidence that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel down in the deepest depths of football purgatory.

After another complete no-show in Thursday night’s 35-11 beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, it’s blatantly clear that somewhere along the way progression turned into regression.

“Everybody in the building is disappointed,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Our fans are pissed. We’re pissed.”

Dallas manhandled St. Louis last week, but this week we were told the Rams would bounce back. One game can be a hiccup, two can be a trend. In retrospect, it might be generous to not extend that to three given how Atlanta dominated the Rams in the first half of their Week 2 matchup.

Playing a division rival on a short week on a prime-time stage offered St. Louis a chance to recover. The 49ers flew halfway across the country for this game and played without linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. They, too, were coming off a poor performance.

If nothing else, the 49ers appeared to be an opponent the Rams could use to get back on track. The only problem is that the Rams’ current track isn’t the one they seemed to put themselves on a year ago.

It’s not so much that the Rams are carrying a 1-3 record that’s alarming. It’s how they’ve arrived here.

The defense that kept the Rams in games by getting key stops, rushing the passer and slowing down opposing run games? It’s now a group with no direction other than backward.

San Francisco didn’t even hint that it would do anything but run Frank Gore over and over. No matter, Gore did whatever he wanted on his way to 153 yards and a touchdown.

That performance didn’t even match the 175 yards Dallas’ DeMarco Murray put up last week.

“It’s disgusting. Really, it just is disgusting,” Long said. “When you give up that many yards in the run game, there’s a lot of things going on and we have got to fix a lot of things.”

The 49ers were without injured wideout Michael Crabtree, and tight end Vernon Davis is playing hurt, leaving Anquan Boldin as the team’s only proven receiving threat. That didn’t stop Boldin from posting 90 yards and a touchdown.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Chris Long
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY Sports"It's disgusting," Chris Long said of the Rams' run defense. "Really, it just is disgusting."
Things certainly aren’t much better on the other side of the ball. The Rams spent big money and draft capital to give quarterback Sam Bradford the pieces needed to make the offense his own.

The return of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was supposed to give the offense the continuity it needed to take the next step. The Rams signed tight end Jared Cook and drafted wide receiver Tavon Austin with the belief that the duo would more than be able to compensate for slot receiver Danny Amendola's exit.

At running back, the Rams mostly stood pat, steadfast in the belief that some combination of Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead could replace the departed Steven Jackson.

None of those suppositions have proved true in the first four weeks. The running game, in particular, is a complete non-starter. The hottest debate in St. Louis right now might be whether the running game isn’t working because of a lack of blocking or the lack of a starting-caliber back.

The answer is probably both. Whatever it is that the Rams call a running game right now carried 19 times for 18 yards. The longest run of the night came from rookie Benny Cunningham, who gained 7 yards on a late carry. The 49ers had 219 rushing yards Thursday night; the Rams have 189 in four games.

“We had two less carries than they did at halftime for no yards, and that’s pretty much the issue we’re facing right now,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “Because everything spins off of that.”

The list of red flags piling up around the Rams right now is too long to fit this space. Penalties continue to be a problem (they had eight for 82 yards), and what might be the second-hottest debate in St. Louis is whether the offense or the defense has been worse on third down.

Thursday night, the Rams converted three third downs on 17 attempts (17.6 percent) and allowed the 49ers to convert 6 of 15 attempts (40 percent).

The Rams are again the youngest team in the league, a fact that they insist will not be used as an excuse. It shouldn’t be. The Rams were 2-2 after four games a year ago with a team that also was the youngest in the NFL.

That was the team that looked poised to deliver this franchise back into contention. Through four weeks this season, that seems like nothing but a distant memory.
ST. LOUIS -- Observed in the locker room following the San Francisco 49ers' 35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams.

Staley seems fine: It looks as if standout left tackle Joe Staley is going to be OK. It was a harrowing scene late in the game when Staley went down. He was on the turf for several moments. However, Staley walked off the field on his own and was seen leaving the X-ray room without a noticeable limp.

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said it looks as though the team “dodged a bullet."

Kaepernick responds: Teammates were very happy for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He was taking a lot of heat after the 49ers played poorly on offense the past two weeks. Kaepernick responded with a strong game Thursday night.

Bowman steps up: There were lots of pats on the back for linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He was all over the field and led the defense with linebacker Patrick Willis out with a groin injury.

Back to basics: Running back Frank Gore, who had 153 yards rushing, said the 49ers simply “went back to being us” in the win.

Locker Room Buzz: St. Louis Rams

September, 27, 2013
ST. LOUIS – Observed in the locker room after the St. Louis Rams35-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Quick Fisher: Clearly unhappy with his team laying another egg, Rams coach Jeff Fisher wasted no time getting in and out of his postgame press conference. Fisher offered an opening statement and answered two questions, then took advantage of a short pause and exited quickly after expressing his disappointment in his team.

McDonald hurt: One question Fisher didn’t answer was on the status of safety T.J. McDonald, who exited the game in the third quarter with a leg injury. It doesn’t look good for McDonald, though. He was wearing an air cast on his right leg and left the locker room on crutches. It’s the third game in a row the Rams have had a player leave in such a state.

Searching for answers: It’s hard to have much buzz when you enter a somber, quiet locker room. Rams players deserve credit for facing the music, but nobody had any answers for why the team has nosedived so dramatically the past two weeks.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 35, Rams 11

September, 26, 2013

ST. LOUIS – A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams:

What it means: The 49ers are not dead. Give this club a ton of credit. The 49ers entered this game on a short week in a bad way. They were outscored 56-10 in the previous two games, banged up and dealing with the fact linebacker Aldon Smith had entered an alcohol treatment center. This a crucial time for San Francisco, and the team answered the call. The offense wasn’t perfect but it was impressive, and the defense was tremendous (led by linebacker NaVorro Bowman) playing without Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis, who was injured. The 49ers improved to 2-2 and showed that as defending NFC champions, they are not ready to go bye-bye anytime soon.

Stock watch: Frank Gore’s stock is way up. The 49ers went to the basics offensively and it paid off. Gore was terrific. He had 153 yards on 20 carries, including a 34-yard touchdown on fourth-and-inches to make it 14-3 late in the second quarter. The 49ers had success on the ground in the first half Sunday in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts, but then got away from it in the second half. This time they stuck to their plan and it opened up the passing game.

Fair-catch kick: This game got fairly uninteresting in the second quarter as the 49ers pulled away. But San Francisco did keep things fresh when kicker Phil Dawson attempted a free kick at the end of the first half. Had he made the 71-yard attempt it would have been a field goal. It had no chance. The Rams tried to return it, but got nowhere. It was the first time the 49ers used the rare play in 24 years. It may be another 24 years before they try it again. But yeah, coach Jim Harbaugh was going to win this game. Everything was on the table.

What’s next: The 49ers get a relaxing weekend. That’s the payoff of a Thursday night game. The preparation is challenging, but if you win, it’s a great weekend at home and the start of a nine-day rest period. The 49ers will be refreshed when they host Houston on Oct. 6 in a Sunday night game. The home fans will be looking for a better effort than what San Francisco gave against Indianapolis.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 35, Rams 11

September, 26, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 35-11 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night.

What it means: For the second consecutive week, the Rams essentially didn’t show up, this time on a national, prime-time stage. It's being kind to give them the benefit of the doubt for mounting some sort of charge in the second half in Atlanta in Week 2. That’s officially a trend.

At this point, rather than being a young team on the rise as many expected, the Rams have regressed in all three phases and it’s fair to wonder which direction this supposed steppingstone season is headed.

Stock watch: Up: None. Last week, we gave a mention to punter Johnny Hekker. The team no-showed again, and the only thing that seems to be improving is its potential draft position in April.

Down: The St. Louis Rams. Offense, defense, special teams, coaching, you name it, it’s trending in the wrong direction.

Division dominance done: Under coach Jeff Fisher the Rams were 5-1-1 against NFC West foes entering this one and they seemed to have a particular spell over the Niners in 2012. Forget all of that.

An ailing San Francisco team -- missing two of its best defenders on a short week -- got healthy in a hurry against the Rams and atoned for a winless showing against St. Louis last season with a thoroughly dominant and convincing victory on the Rams’ home turf.

What’s next: The Rams will have a long weekend to lick their wounds from the past two games and try to figure out where everything has gone wrong. Some serious reflection will be important because after a home game against Jacksonville, which no longer looks like a gimme, the Rams play a stretch of three games that includes trips to Houston and Carolina and a home game against Seattle.