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49ers Defense Provides Bright Spot in Otherwise Lackluster MNF Win over Rams

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystSeptember 13, 2016

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Ray-Ray Armstrong #54 of the San Francisco 49ers reacts after intercepting a pass by Case Keenum #17 of the Los Angeles Rams during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A year ago at this time, the San Francisco 49ers gave us the annual "huh?" Week 1 result when they beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-3. Then they won four more games and fired their head coach.

At least then we knew the Vikings would be a quality NFL team in 2015, or at minimum a competent one. The Los Angeles Rams haven't been either for quite some time.

They had the league's worst offense in 2015 (297.6 yards per game). Their per-game average of 17.5 points ranked 29th, and they scored only 31 touchdowns (also 29th). Even though every NFL win carries some meaning, it's difficult to find a grand statement hidden among the rubble of Monday's bumbling, ugly 28-0 49ers win.

But, hey, at least they inched Jeff Fisher one loss closer to officially being the worst NFL head coach who can somehow always find employment.

Nick Mensio @NickMensio

Friendly PSA: Jeff Fisher is 10 losses away from becoming the head coach with the most career losses in NFL history. 9 more after tonight.

The scoreboard will tell you the Niners trounced an inferior divisional opponent, but that only became true late when the Rams seemed to shrug and finally get the business of losing over with.

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Head coaches Jeff Fisher (left) and Chip Kelly embrace after the game.
Head coaches Jeff Fisher (left) and Chip Kelly embrace after the game.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Rams had punted nine times when the third quarter was in its final minutes, and overall they converted just three third-down attempts. Yet, because the stench coming from San Francisco's offense was only slightly less pungent, the Rams still found themselves just shy of red-zone territory with a little over one minute remaining in the third quarter.

That sequence may seem like a foggy memory now, just as the rest of the game hopefully does. Forgetting the beating offensive football took Monday is wise, but before a fourth quarter that was essentially extended garbage time, the Rams were threatening to make it a one-score game.

Their hopes ended when linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong intercepted Case Keenum's latest awful decision. That brings us to the only real slice of meaning from Monday night, and the sole sprinkling of positivity the 49ers can take away from the circus act at Levi's Stadium despite the lopsided final score.

Their youth-filled defense was a swarming, pain-inflicting and Todd Gurley-stuffing hammer. The Rams running back, who finished third overall in rushing during his 2015 rookie season, was repeatedly hit behind the line of scrimmage. He averaged 2.8 yards per carry, and his longest run went for 10 yards.

I could list more numbers that show how much Gurley was erased, but a rushing comparison with Blaine Gabbert says it all.

Blaine Gabbert vs. Todd Gurley on the ground
RunnerAttemptsYardsYards/carry
Blaine Gabbert9434.8
Todd Gurley17472.8
Source: NFL.com

That's the same Gabbert who finished 2015 with only 185 rushing yards, yet in the first half he outpaced Gurley and nearly bested him over the game.

Blaine Gabbert on the move.
Blaine Gabbert on the move.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

A young and maturing 49ers defensive front seven will be the team's source of energy and one of San Francisco's few strengths. The unit made life miserable for Keenum, who finished with two interceptions and a per-attempt average of 3.7 yards. It makes you wonder how long it will be until we get a Jared Goff sighting.

The 49ers' shutout and thorough squashing also included forcing the Rams to punt 10 times and giving up a minuscule 3.1 yards per play.

The celebration ends when we look beyond the 49ers defense and start to imagine what would happen to their offense against a real team. Sure, the Rams' offensive totals were grimy, but in many critical areas the 49ers were only marginally better.

Consider, for example, the offensive-yardage scoreboard midway through the third quarter, as Tim Kawakami from the San Jose Mercury News noted:

Tim Kawakami @timkawakami

49ers yards in the second half so far: -7. Rams yards in the second half so far: 9.

Remember, the Rams were alive at that point.

Gabbert was his usual draft-bust self as he sprayed routine throws, failing to put the ball in a place where his receivers could catch and run.

The worst cringe-inducing mistake came on 4th-and-1 at the Rams' 34-yard line in the second quarter. Had Gabbert elevated the ball to even knee height on the quick wide receiver screen intended for Torrey Smith, the chains would have moved effortlessly. Instead, the ball bounced before it reached Smith's fingertips.

The 49ers defense showed up Monday night.
The 49ers defense showed up Monday night.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There's nothing surprising about the 49ers offense. They need to have a lead, and those will be hard to come by this season. When they're ahead, they can pound away with running back Carlos Hyde, who thunders forward like a runaway beer truck.

But whenever they're behind, the 49ers are stuck with a quarterback who lacks accuracy, particularly when throwing to intermediate and deep areas of the field. That's why Gabbert averaged 4.9 yards per attempt Monday, and his career completion rate sits at a mediocre 56 percent.

The 49ers can win a handful of games through defense and defense alone. But soon they'll come up against an offense that isn't bent on setting "football back 50 years," as Herm Edwards put it. That will happen next week when they face the Carolina Panthers on the road. Oh, and in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers' young and hungry defense will keeping clawing, fighting and growing, even as the opponents get tougher. Those 11 men will also keep dealing with despair as a Gabbert-led offense threatens to ruin their work.

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