Somehow, the St. Louis Rams found a win. Heading into the locker room at halftime, that seemed impossible.
Head coach Steve Spagnuolo's conservative offensive tendencies made it a nail biter that came down to the last minute of play, when it should have been over after a Danny Amendola 84-yard punt return. At that point, with a five-point lead and the ball at the 49ers 12-yard line, the Rams ran it three times before kicking a field goal. Running it the first time, or even the second, wouldn't have been such an issue if the Rams' offensive line had done a better job of blocking today, heck, any blocking would have been an improvement from a front five easily handled by the San Francisco defensive line.
I don't mean to complain. Spagnuolo and Shurmur set aside their fear of success long enough to go with the hurry up offense, i.e. turn things over to Bradford, and switch up the playbook with a deep shot to Danario Alexander that set up the second touchdown and some creative calls like a Danny Amendola end-around, my personal favorite. Nevertheless, the game was closer than it needed to be because for some reason the Rams think that any lead at any point during the game mandates a dried-up approach to possession.
That kind of thinking works when you have playmakers at receiver and road graders in the middle of the offensive line, neither of which the Rams can claim.
Credit the defense for setting an aggressive tempo that kept the 49ers on their heels the entire game, regardless of the decision to switch quarterbacks. Chris Long, bruised thigh and all, and his front four dominated the 49ers makeshift offensive line; all four of the Rams' sacks came from Long and his linemates.
And don't forget the turnovers. Back when the Rams were falling into oblivion in the days of Linehan and Haslett, they used a defense that keyed on the ball to make up for offensive inconsistency. Spagnuolo and Flajole did that today, and it paid off. Of course, this time around, it helps that the Rams have much surer tackling, meaning that forcing turnovers isn't an all or nothing proposition.
Three things and parting words after the jump...
The Rhythm Method
The success of the Rams with the hurry-up offense is telling. It lends credence to that internet meme, started by Trent Dilfer of all people, that defenses are locking down Steven Jackson and playing Sam Bradford in the short passing game. When the Rams run the no-huddle they move the ball; it's that simple. Why? Partly because it forces defenses off their game plan, an easy game plan when the team lacks talent like the Rams do. Think of it like jazz. Jazz is at its best when played off the cuff, when musicians just play the sheet music, it's called Kenny G. Why the Rams don't run this more blows my mind, but at least they go to it enough...or did today anyway.
In the Trenches
San Fran's defensive linemen owned the Rams offensive line...from tackle to tackle. It's embarrassing. As a group their athletic enough to do well in pass blocking, but opening lanes against stout defensive linemen requires power. Personally, the most frustrating thing about the offensive play calling is that they call so many damn runs up through the middle, when it clearly doesn't work. Hell, they did that with two minutes left and gave the 49ers one last possession, a dangerous gambit when they have talented receivers like Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. That's also a good lesson that being conservative is really just redistributing risk. I think that starting, or at least playing, John Greco at RG would help. Probably that's not enough, but it's a step in the right direction. Using the full back more often would help too, but even then there has to be some minimal blocking up front.
Yes, I have a Smith's CD, but my passing fancy for whiny English emo rock isn't what I'm talking about here. I don't know why head coach Mike Singletary lifted Troy Smith in favor of Alex Smith. Yes, statistically, Troy was having a terrible game, but his ability to move outside the pocket could have threatened the Rams at their weakest spots on defense...it did on several occasions in this game. Really, the SF QB situation is just the most obvious instance of the Rams just playing more disciplined, better football than the 49ers. No matter how much we dislike the playcalling, the Rams were technically pretty sound, and that was enough, especially after last week when poor execution added fuel to the fire.
Bradford had a really nice game today, after looking a little shaky early in the game. Completing 28 of 37 passes for a TD and a 107 QB rating, he set the record for completions by a rookie. I think he was pressing a little bit, trying to carry too much of the load and forcing things. It was a much better second half for Bradford and the Rams. Hopefully, that hot streak is a confidence booster, something they'll need in spades in Seattle next week, where the game will determine who wins the NFC West.