Sunday’s 49ers-Rams game was all kinds of weird. San Francisco is usually stout at home, especially against NFC West teams. They’ve won 11 straight divisional home games since the infamous “I want winners” speech, and when they shut out St. Louis at Candlestick a year ago.
This year wouldn’t prove to be so easy. Alex Smith was 7-for-8 for 72 yards and a score before leaving with a concussion. All the people who cried for Colin Kaepernick got what they wanted, and his best effort led the 49ers to a tie.
While Kaepernick led a comeback which resulted in a “no decision” of sorts, the 49ers’ defense wasn’t its usual stout self. Sam Bradford (and punter Johnny Hekker) passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns on a unit that had given up only six scores through the air leading up to Sunday’s game. What was even scarier was the run defense, which Stephen Jackson and Daryl Richardson dismantled for 159 yards and a score.
It’s been startling to watch teams chip away at this front seven and make them look mediocre at times this season. The 49ers defense seems to be being handled in pass protection and blown out in the run game more often than anyone thought they would before this season, and the tape confirms it.
Stephen Jackson’s second rushing attempt: a 10-yard gain
Rams coach Jeff Fisher sent out a pretty interesting formation here — notice how tight end Matthew Mulligan (82 on the left) is lined up off-kilter, with tight end Lance Kendricks (88) lined up behind him to the right. Still, this is a formation that screams run, and the 49ers are daring them to.
When the ball is snapped, the center releases out to block Patrick Willis (upper-right), Mulligan chips Aldon Smith and Kendricks cuts across the line to block Isaac Sopoaga. Steven Jackson takes the handoff, and the 49ers look to be in good shape, because Sopoaga should be able to shed Kendricks easily, right?
Whoops.. Guess not. That’s Sopoaga getting pancaked by Kendricks, leaving a wide open hole for Jackson’s ball-of-knees-and-anger to barrel through. Notice how Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Navorro Bowman and Willis are all engaged in blocks. Aldon Smith is behind the play, leaving only the corners and safeties to make the tackle. This is a textbook example of the 49ers being beaten at their own game — clever formations and blocking schemes.
Daryl Richardson gains 32 yards
Here’s the Rams’ pre-snap formation for what would turn into the longest run a team has accomplished against the 49ers all season. There’s Kendricks again, lined up behind the offensive line to the right. He’s ready to make life really difficult, this time for Ahmad Brooks.
Richardson takes the handoff and scampers to the strong side of the defense. Brooks tries to get upfield to contain, but Kendricks is knocking him too far into the backfield to make a difference. It’s up to Ray McDonald to shed the right tackle’s block and make this tackle.
Unfortunately, Richardson proves to be too quick for McDonald, who sheds the block a split second late. Carlos Rogers (upper right) is unblocked momentarily, but he overpursues and gets left in the dust by one quick cut from Richardson.
I can count three 49ers on the ground and two engaged in blocks. Meanwhile, Richardson has lots of open space to run, and he would have taken it to paydirt had Aldon Smith not covered an insane amount of ground to make a shoestring tackle 30 yards downfield.
Bradford vs. the 49ers pass rush
The Rams rallied back in the fourth quarter with a 14-play, 80-yard drive that ended in a touchdown to take the lead. At one point in the drive, the 49ers weren’t prepared on a 3rd-and-8 and Bradford snapped the ball early, completing a pass to Danny Amendola for a first down. Two plays later, the Rams were facing 2nd-and-8, and this time the 49ers were ready for the snap. That doesn’t mean that they were able to stop them.
This is a pretty clear passing situation, with the clock quickly draining and the Rams behind on the scoreboard. The 49ers’ pass rushers should have their ears pinned back on this play, ready to have Bradford for an early dinner.
Bowman and Willis blitz. With Willis holding a block from the center, Bowman appears to have a clear line to Bradford, but fullback Brit Miller (remember him?) steps in at just the right time.
The 49ers taught you well, Brit. Here’s a few things you aren’t used to seeing: Patrick Willis is actually being pushed backwards, and the pass rushers are being blocked into a perfect pocket for Bradford. Without any pressure, he completes a 14-yard pass to Brandon Gibson with ease.
That is one cozy pocket.
This was one of the worst games that I’ve seen Vic Fangio’s defense play, especially when you consider the opponent and environment. I narrowed the team’s struggles to three plays, but you could really pick and choose from several defensive sequences to find some sort of failing from the front seven. San Francisco could chalk this up to some bye week rust, but the problems may run deeper.