While providing the opening statement for his press conference on Monday night, it didn’t take Jeff Fisher long to cite the tipping point in the Rams’ 31-17 loss to the 49ers.
“We got up and got some points, and then obviously the chain of events that happened before half were pretty much hard for us to overcome,” Fisher said. “One was the offensive pass interference call on (tight end) Jared (Cook). That’s a points swing. We’re in field-goal range, we have a pretty good kicker, might even be seven (points).”
Play 1: The Momentum Shift
With just under three minutes to play in the first half and the Rams in possession of the ball and a 14-3 lead, St. Louis moved into San Francisco territory at the 49ers’ 46-yard line, where they faced a third-and-9. Although it was third-and-long, the Rams put the 49ers’ defense on its heels for most of the first half and were looking to strike again.
At the snap of the ball, Jared Cook ran a crossing pattern from the right side of the line of scrimmage and engaged with San Francisco defensive back Perrish Cox roughly five yards into the route. There was some minor hand fighting between the two players but nothing excessive, as replays would later verify.
When Cook disengages from Cox, he successfully creates separation from the San Francisco defensive back and catches a pass from Austin Davis while heading toward the left sideline. Cook then fights through a failed Cox tackle and rumbles for 21 yards to the 49er 25-yard line.
The problem is that Cook was flagged for offensive pass interference and instead of increasing their lead (as Fisher noted in his press conference), the Rams were moved all the way back to their own 44-yard line due to the penalty. They would then run Benny Cunningham up the middle for five yards before punting the ball on fourth down and pinning the 49ers at their own 5-yard line.
The fallout from the play proved critical, which is why Fisher felt the need to mention the penalty while unprovoked in his press conference. Momentum is a fragile thing in sports and once it shifts, there’s no guarantee that it’ll return to the team that once possessed it. The Rams once again found that out on Monday night.
Then again, while the bogus penalty on Cook was a momentum shift, it wasn’t the momentum shift, in my eyes.
Play 2: Here we go again.
The Cook penalty was bad – atrocious, actually. Cook barely pushed Cox in effort to create separation and make a great play to pick up not only a first down, but also put the Rams in scoring range right before half. There’s no way of knowing if the Rams would have scored had the flag not been thrown, but their odds certainly increased significantly once Cook set them up deep into San Francisco territory.
But the penalty on Cook didn’t make me think, “Same old Rams” or even, “Here we go again.” No, that moment came just a few minutes later.
After being backed up to their own goal line, the 49ers successfully moved the ball to their own 20-yard line before facing a third-and-6 with 29 seconds remaining in the half. Fisher admitted that he considered calling a timeout to preserve time in case he wanted his offense to try to get into scoring range again before halftime. But he didn’t, and disaster struck.
The 49ers came out in a 3×1 formation with three receivers to Colin Kaepernick’s (who is in shotgun with a single back aligned to his right) right and one receiver, Brandon Lloyd, to his left. The Rams are in basic zone coverage with two safeties 15 yards off the ball and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis aligned roughly 10 yards off the ball. With only 29 seconds left on the clock, the Rams would happily concede a short pass over the middle that would force the Niners to either burn one of their remaining timeouts or let the clock run out the half.
But the Niners didn’t have to settle for something short because Lloyd burned Janoris Jenkins on a double move down the sidelines. It’s fair to ask why the Rams didn’t provide safety help over the top, but it was inexcusable for Jenkins to be caught looking into the backfield given the situation. Had he stayed over top of Lloyd, there would have been no need for safety help because Jenkins would have been in the right situation. (Speaking of fair, it’s also worth noting that Robert Quinn was mugged by Joe Staley on the play, but alas, no flag was thrown.)
Given the coverage that was called and the situation the Rams were in, the only reason Jenkins would fixate on Kaepernick and play underneath Lloyd would be because he wanted an interception. Jenkins could have explained his reasoning for taking the approach that he did on that play, but as Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com pointed out after the game, Jenkins refused to talk to the media.
In my eyes, that play sums up the game and, on a macro level, the Rams’ season up to this point. Do the Rams have talent? Unquestionably, as does Jenkins. Is he or are they disciplined, technically sound and/or focused enough to overcome self-inflicted wounds? The answer to that question lies in the team’s current record.
The 49ers went on to score 21 points in the second half, so pinning the loss solely on that play or on Jenkins is unfair. He simply played a role in the Rams’ demise, which featured a disappearing offense, a coaching staff that once again lost the chess match with its opponent and yet another night where the pass rush failed to get to the quarterback.
Play Three: Welcome to last week. And the week prior.
Holding on to a 17-14 lead with 19 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the 49ers face a second-and-8 from the Rams’ 32-yard-line. San Francisco comes out in an offset I formation with two receivers to the left of the formation and Michael Crabtree lined up as the lone receiver wide to the right. Before the snap, Vernon Davis goes in motion as the outside receiver to the left and winds up in the slot. Safety Rodney McLeod follows him, indicating that the Rams are in man-to-man coverage.
Jon Gruden provided great insight on the route the Crabtree used to beat rookie E.J. Gaines for a 32-yard touchdown, indicating that Crabtree ran a post-corner-post (or “dino” according to Gruden). Gaines, who has done a terrific job filling in as the starter for Trumaine Johnson this year, bit on Crabtree’s corner fake, and Kaepernick hit Crabtree in stride for an easy touchdown (which has become a common occurrence over the last three games for the Rams).
Crabtree is a veteran receiver, so one would think that he could execute that type of route on a corner playing in just his fifth professional game. But I chose to highlight this play because once again, the Rams failed to get to the quarterback despite sending extra rushers.
Credit must be given to San Francisco’s offensive line, which picked up a pair of blitzing linebackers in Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Still, despite sending six defenders to crash the pocket and disrupt the timing between the quarterback and his receivers, Kaepernick still had functional space to throw a perfect spiral to Crabtree as the receiver finished his move on Gaines.
It’s not as if Gregg Williams is trying to hold the Rams to just one sack this year, which is now a record for the lowest total for a team through five games in a NFL season. He’s rushing extra defenders in attempt to get to the quarterback, and his blitzes simply aren’t landing. Yes, the three-step drops employed by teams like the Vikings and Bucs early in the season have had an impact on the Rams’ low sack total to this point. But the Crabtree touchdown provides evidence that this team isn’t getting pressure when quarterbacks are taking deeper drops, either. Granted, William Hayes provided outstanding pressure throughout Monday night’s game, but the results remain the same: one sack.
As always, Fisher and the Rams will look to turn the page this weekend against a new opponent. Unfortunately for them, that opponent is a pissed-off Seattle team fresh off a loss at home to the Cowboys. The schedule won’t provide this team with any favors, so it simply needs to get better or watch as the rest of the season unravels.