The San Francisco 49ers needed to go into Week 4 with a must-win attitude. Entering with a shocking 1-2 record, the 49ers traveled to St. Louis with a lot of doubters, a short week to prepare and the media's sickening fixation on their quarterback's Twitter habits.
It's hard to say that a .500 team just saved its season. But with a 35-11 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night, the 49ers signified a return to exactly what made them great in the first place.
When the defending NFC champions of a year ago lose consecutive games by a combined score of 56-10, the critics are sure to flock. Add the loss of sack machine Aldon Smith for the indefinite future and an injury to All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, and you'll find a team in a frenzy of scrutiny:
After torching the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, quarterback Colin Kaepernick suffered through two of his worst performances since becoming the starter last season. A ground-and-pound football team inexplicably also refused to run the ball.
Receivers couldn't get open. The defense couldn't stop the run. But finally, it all clicked.
Running back Frank Gore was the forgotten man through three games, with only 41 carries and a 3.5 yards-per-carry average over that span. More than half of those carries, as well as Gore's lone touchdown, were recorded in Week 1.
For a team that powered a deep playoff run with the read-option and a successful a running game, this was an inexplicable lapse in play-calling. Consistently ripping off long runs on Thursday night, Gore averaged 7.7 YPC against St. Louis on an overdue 20 carries.
Overall, the 49ers took 40 rushes for 219 yards and three touchdowns against St. Louis, good for 5.5 yards per attempt. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman obviously took the hint for what ailed his attack.
This included only three rushes for Kaepernick, whose 167 yards through the air won't blow anyone away, either. However, he kept the game in control and threw two early touchdowns to build the lead, letting the running game take over from there to cement the victory.
These successful running plays also opened up the play action for San Francisco. This allowed Kaepernick a great outlet to avoid sacks, as he was only taken down twice behind the line.
On the flip side, the traditionally stout 49ers' rushing defense failed to live up to the billing. Through three games, the 49ers ranked 29th against the run and allowed a league-leading six rushing touchdowns.
A Rams team averaging 3.2 yards per carry appeared to be just what the doctor ordered.
The Rams managed just 188 yards of total offense, and the defense seemed to force three-and-outs with relative ease. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford had a overall pedestrian night, and the running game completely bottomed out with just 0.9 YPC.
The secondary, minus injured cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, also returned to form. With 10 pass deflections, five sacks and two takeaways, the defense finally looked like the unit that sparked a Super Bowl run last season.
Of course, these trends must continue in order to truly save the 2013 season in San Francisco. However, playing this well with a short week of rest on the road is very encouraging going forward.
The NFL season isn't played in a vacuum, and the 49ers' remaining schedule has almost passed through its roughest stretch. After a visit from the Houston Texans next week at Candlestick Park, the 49ers will have faced four 2012 playoff teams in their first five games.
As much as this win means, avoiding a 1-3 start was even more critical when playing the numbers game for playoff spots.
The upcoming slate includes winnable games at Jacksonville, Washington and Tampa Bay, as well as home games against St. Louis and Carolina. Adding in two remaining games against the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers will play seven games against teams with a combined 3-16 record.
This creates a favorable overall schedule, especially if the 49ers can come out of Week 5 with a win over Houston. A 3-2 record could reasonably pave the way to 10 or 11 wins, which should be a safe bet for postseason contention.
The future, of course, will have to play out. Just as everyone seemed to kick the 49ers while they were down, it would be wise not to overreact to one win early in the season.
However, the San Francisco 49ers looked like a team that rediscovered its groove on Thursday night. With extra time to prepare for an inconsistent Texans squad, the Niners appear to have rediscovered their identity.
San Francisco is back to the basics and embracing what it's built to do. If that holds up, 2013 could still prove to be a special season in the Bay Area.
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