Rams vs. 49ers: 5 Things We Learned in San Francisco's 26-0 Win
During the first half on Sunday, the avid 49er fan might have questioned whether Jim Harbaugh and Co. realize that they have the NFC West title in the bag, yet they don’t want the fans getting overly confident. They like to keep things as drama-laden as possible.
You know, to keep the fans interested.
So what did the Niners do but drop TD passes, whiff on a 3rd-and-18 inches play at the goal line and generally keep the Rams in the game to the point of potential disaster.
Nonetheless, the 49ers pulled away for the 26-0 victory and claimed the NFC West title to assure a home playoff game. Moreover, they have the luxury of having a month to work on their weaknesses, such as the third-down passing game, without too much risk.
The division title is a great accomplishment to be sure, one that hardly anyone predicted. The 49ers remain the surprise team of the 2011 season. The defense remains stout, even though it appears that Patrick Willis will be out for a while with a strained hamstring.
The 49ers are 10-2, with the second-best record in the NFC. But with the Packers surviving in New Jersey against the Giants, and with the Saints playing well, San Francisco has little time to relax. Holding onto the No. 2 seed is a huge advantage.
Aside from getting them a week off to heal and then a home game, it will keep them out of the Superdome in New Orleans. The Saints haven’t lost their all year and look like they won’t lose there until 2015.
With the playoffs in mind, here are five things we learned about the 49ers in their victory over the Rams.
There’s the feeling that the Niners are like a freight train. They start slow and take some time to get up to speed. But when they do, they’re hard to stop. But in light that the Saints and the Packers are going to be in the mix, you have to wonder if the Niners, no matter how good their defense, can score enough.
In Baltimore, they never got up to speed. But then, a three-day preparation week and a cross-country flight can be mitigating factors. But against the Rams, you could see that the Niners don’t have that rapier-like strike that gets big yards or a clutch first down when needed.
The Rams came into the game ranked worst against the run. Early in the fourth quarter, the Niners had 140 yards, getting nearly five yards a crack. The Rams had 12.
St. Louis, as you would imagine, was vulnerable to the play-action pass, which Smith worked to perfection in the second quarter on a beautiful long throw to Vernon Davis (85), who dropped it.
They tried again in the third quarter, and Michael Crabtree came through for a 52-yard TD pass. It was the longest pass play of the year for the Niners until Kyle Williams took a short pass and turned it into a 56-yarder.
These are all good indicators, but at the same time, it has to be said that the Rams are hardly a good gauge on which to measure a team’s effectiveness. But the Niners did what they were supposed to do: make the issue moot by the third quarter.
Twice, Alex Smith went into the shotgun on third down and changed the play. On the first, the play clock ran out, bringing a 5-yard penalty. It almost happened again in the fourth quarter, but Harbaugh called timeout to save the penalty. Smith hit Kyle Williams (10), who turned the short pass into a 56-yard TD.
Nonetheless, the Niners were not good in the Red Zone, getting two field goals, the latter coming when the recovered a fumble by Ram quarterback Jay Feeley at the 6. That’s when the third-and-goal play with Frank Gore going up the middle went no where.
In short, the Niners were ragged despite the amazing numbers. Sure, Frank Gore (21 carries, 73 yards) became the San Francisco 49ers all-time leading rusher, passing Joe Perry. Alex Smith went 17-for-23 for 274 yards and two TDs. His QB rating for the game was an Aaron Rodgers-like 142.3. But the Niners went 4-for-14 on third down, which is something they’ll have to improve upon in the playoffs.
Giving the ball back to the Packers and the Saints usually does not lead to victory. That’s one reason why no one is saying it was a great offensive game. Too many points were left out there though David Akers did make four field goals. Two of those could have been turned into TDs, turning a 26-0 score into 34-0.
In the playoffs, those kinds of missed opportunities tend to haunt a team.
The end-arounds worked. Three times. Ted Ginn Jr., Delanie Walker and Kyle Williams made big gains on these mis-direction plays. That’s a good sign because it keeps the linebackers from packing the middle of the line of scrimmage like so much turkey stuffing. But then, the Wildcat play with Kendall Hunter didn’t.
There were more deep throws, especially play-action from mid-field. Smith made some great throws. Even when the plays didn’t work, that helps the running game because the linebackers know they can’t get caught inside, and the opposition secondary cannot help on the run.
In this area, the continued effective play of Kyle Williams is a real bright spot. He touched the ball three times for a total of 91 yards and a TD. Add that to Michael Crabtree’s four catches for 94 yards and a TD, and there’s an inclination that the Niners can get the big play.
Eviscerate Poor Teams
The Rams are 2-10, and if they didn’t have Sam Bradford as a quarterback, you’d have to say they looked like they’re playing for the chance to draft Andrew Luck. They finished with 157 total yards, went 3-for-13 on third down (they didn’t convert until the fourth quarter), gave up four sacks and generally were embarrassed in the extreme.
They never really challenged the 49ers; in fact, you could say that the Niners should have put this one away in the second quarter. But they won.
It was the sort of game where you have to wonder how good Aldon Smith is. He has two sacks while consistently destroying the right side of the Rams offensive line. Larry Grant came in for Willis and played like someone who was let out of a cage. He brought anger and speed to the position, which is to say, he fit right in next to NaVorro Bowman.
Good Questions to Have
Jim Harbaugh and staff, and even the front office, get to contemplate the good stuff. Do you rest your better players like Frank Gore, Justin Smith, Bowman, Willis, Davis and Braylon Edwards?
Do you shape the game plan to work on weak areas like pass protection, deep routes or new elements of the running game?
Knowing Harbaugh, he’ll keep the Niners the same, but continue to expand their repertoire. They won’t be passing 50 times in a game. They can take a few more risks here and there, but they have to keep their eyes in the rearview mirror.
The focus remains on victories, and that means using the team’s strengths to maximum advantage and keeping the mistakes to a minimum. This game will probably get the Niners higher in defensive rankings. The key thing to remember is that there’s a huge difference between Baltimore and St. Louis.
They won easily against the Rams, and it should have been easier. They missed against the Ravens. It’s that memory that should spur them on into the playoffs.