Entering the season, I assumed the Rams’ identity would consist of two things: a strong rushing attack and a relentless defense. But for nearly two months, neither of those characteristics showed up in the Rams’ play.
Until Sunday, that is.
The Rams were due for a market correction when it came to their sack numbers. Through the first five games of the season, their vaunted pass rush delivered just one sack as the team sputtered to a 1-4 record. Things got so bad that the media and fans made the PR-driven “#sackcity” slogan into a weekly punchline.
But consider the script officially flipped. Over their last three games the Rams’ defense has produced 13 sacks, including eight against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the team’s shocking 13-10 victory in Santa Clara on Sunday. With that, it’s only appropriate that we start with one of those sacks.
Play 1: The Tide Changes.
In the first game between these two teams, the Rams generated a ton of pressure but failed to sack Kaepernick in the Niners’ 31-17 victory on “Monday Night Football.” In that game, Kaepernick hit Brandon Lloyd for an 80-yard touchdown right before halftime that proved to be the tipping point in a game the Rams once led 14-0.
While the Rams never built a two-touchdown lead on Sunday, the game started to take on a familiar feeling for Jeff Fisher’s squad. Nursing a 10-3 lead with 2:32 remaining in the first half, the Niners faced a second-and-2 following a Kaepernick 9-yard run.
San Francisco was set up at its own 49-yard line, and one got the feeling that if the Niners could take a double-digit lead into halftime, the Rams might wilt given how poorly their offense was playing.
On that second down, the Niners came out in a no-back set with three receivers to Kaepernick’s (who was in shotgun) left and two to his right. The Rams countered with a single-high look and three down linemen (Eugene Sims, Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn from left to right).
Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald flanked the three defensive linemen while Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis lined up side-by-side at the second level.
At the snap, Ogletree rushes off the edge while McDonald jams Vernon Davis at the line. Dunbar, who had walked toward the line of scrimmage pre-snap, blitzed through the A gap to center Marcus Martin’s right while Donald crosses Martin’s face and engages left guard Mike Iupati.
Quinn then beats left tackle Joe Staley around the edge, but the key to the play is Sims, who takes a few steps inside and then bull-rushes right guard Alex Boone. As Kaepernick tries to set his feet in order to hit Stevie Johnson on a quick slant, Sims pushes Boone into the quarterback’s face. Then, as Kaepernick tries to retreat by breaking the pocket to his right, Quinn bursts past Staley and is in perfect position to swat the ball out of the quarterback’s hand. As the ball flops on the ground, it was none other than Sims who jumped on it for the recovery.
Three plays after Quinn’s strip and Sims’ recovery, an offense that had been stuck in neutral for most of the afternoon finally shifted forward.
Play 2: Rams Capitalize.
Following a 17-yard pass completion to Benny Cunningham and a negative 2-yard run by the aforementioned running back, the Rams faced a second-and-12 at the Niners’ 21-yard line with 1:11 remaining in the half. What transpired would be the first and final time the Rams would reach the end zone.
The Rams come out in a spread formation with Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey lined up to the left of the formation and Kenny Britt lined up to the right. Austin Davis is in shotgun with Cunningham as the single back to his left.
Before the snap, Britt goes in motion and then runs a crossing route, while Givens takes an inside release and runs vertically to the end zone, Bailey runs a curl, and Cunningham runs a sneak.
With Britt and Cunningham both crossing his face while heading in opposite directions, linebacker Chris Borland blows his assignment by breaking toward Cunningham.
He tries to recover, but it’s too late as Davis gets the ball out of his hand right before defensive end Justin Smith crushes him for a would-be sack.
The end result is an easy 16-yard touchdown reception for Britt, who waltzed into the end zone to tie the game at 10-10. Who knew it would be the only touchdown the Rams would need?
Play 3: Why Not Gore?
There’s really nothing to break down when it comes to the deciding play of this game – Kaepernick doesn’t field the snap cleanly while diving into the end zone and instead of scoring the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds, Laurinaitis emerges from the pile with the football in hand.
What’s interesting about that play, at least in my eyes, is the Monday water cooler discussion about why Jim Harbaugh didn’t put the ball (and the game) in Frank Gore’s hands. The consensus is that Gore was the better option considering the Niners only needed a yard and the team’s identity under Harbaugh has been power football (at least until this season).
But honestly, who could blame Harbaugh for wanting to run a simple quarterback sneak? How many times do fans complain about a running back getting stuffed in the backfield in a crucial short-yardage situation when “all the team had to do was give it to the quarterback on a sneak?” Had Kaepernick fielded the snap cleanly, chances are that he would have been lying across the goal line when the officials started peeling bodies off the pile.
Personally, I would have run play-action again. The Niners had just attempted a play-action pass on second down, and the result was an incomplete pass. But with linebackers and safeties so worried about a run in that situation, there seemingly is always a tight end or receiver open for an easy touchdown off play-action. And at the very least, another incomplete pass would have stopped the clock to preserve a last-second field goal attempt from PAT range.
Nevertheless, the results worked out favorably for the Rams, who will head back on the road this week to take on the red-hot Cardinals in Arizona. If the same defense that showed up in Santa Clara makes its way to the desert, I like the Rams’ chances to pull off another stunner.