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Rams defense struggles out of the gate, but lives to tell the tale in win over 49ers

Regular season ends in storybook fashion, playoffs offer a sequel

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers
Mr. Irrelevant, Round 7 rookie Desjuan Johnson makes his first NFL sack one to remember
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Although both coaches treated the action like a preseason game, the Los Angeles Rams hung on to knock off the San Francisco 49ers 21-20 in the regular season finale. The victory gave L.A. a closing 10-7 record, a trip to Detroit for next Sunday’s Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs, and last but not least, ended a three-game losing streak to the rival ’Niners.

For the Rams defense, the rivalry game didn’t quite reach the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities”, it was much closer to “A Tale of Two Halves” by compulsive gambler and tout Chucky “Teaser” Dickens. In the first half, San Francisco rolled to 274 total yards, 168 passing and 106 rushing on their way to a 20-7 lead and huge advantage in time of possession (TOP) 21:29 to 8:31.

But in the closing half, the L.A. defense was suffocating. Bolstered by a ground control offense, the Rams defense shut out the 49ers and permitted only 26 total yards. Those paltry gains came from a mere 16 plays on four drives, ending in three punts and a lost fumble that squelched a final-drive come back attempt. TOP flipped in the Rams favor 22:34 to 7:26.

Here’s how the drive chart broke down.

Drive #1

The opening sequence played right to form, for both teams. The ‘Niners used a balanced attack to move steadily down the field, while the Rams played soft and allowed the underneath pitch/catch game. Quarterback Sam Darnold navigated the pocket to elude a decent L.A. pass rush and completed five of passes for 49 yards, none more than 10 air yards, on his way to a 12 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. From the Rams five, running back Elijah Mitchell ran three consecutive dives for the score 49ers 7, Rams O.

Drive #2

After the Rams opened with an answering scoring drive of their own, San Francisco continued right where they left off. This time it was 16 play touchdown drive that ate up a touch over eight minutes. L.A.’s tendency towards sketchy tackling reared its head as S.F. ran the ball 11 times on the drive. Although they bent all the way down the field, the Rams used good third down pass rush pressure for a nice stop inside the five, but safety (S) John Johnson was called for defensive holding. QB Darnold snuck it in two plays after. 49ers 14, Rams 7.

Drive #3

A first play interception by L.A. QB Carson Wentz Rams gave S.F. good starting field position at the Rams 36. A short run and sloppily defended swing pass put the ’Niners at the edge of the red zone. The game could have easilygotten away here, but the defense stepped up and stood fast at the red zone. A holding penalty pushed the 49ers back, but a missed tackle let them quickly gain 12 back on an underneath pass. Two consecutive passes were well-covered and the incompletions forced a field goal. Astonishingly, the short kick leaked right for a miss. 49ers 14, Rams 7.

Drive #4

The Rams allowing scoring on the final drive of the half is not new to Rams fans, nor is cornerback Derion Kendrick getting burnt, but this time it never should have happened. With 1:38 left in the half, San Francisco took over at their own 10 yard line after good coverage of a high punt by Ethan Evans and it appeared they were content on running out the clock. Even though they sandwiched runs around a underneath pass, L.A. called time outs after each. A couple more quick outs and then boom!, a 48 yard completion and short off tackle run had the ‘Niners at the Rams five, having traversed 85 yards before having to use a timeout. On the big play, L.A. had single-high coverage over man, CB Kendrick was beaten by a little inside fake/outside break and he compounded it by taking a poor recovery angle that allowed an extra 30 yards of yards after catch. The touchdown was well-covered by S Quentin Lake but trumped by a fine throw and catch. 49ers 20, Rams 7.

Drive #5

Half two began with typical 49ers balance, chipping away with the run and undeneath passes. After an opening first down, edge (E) Byron Young kept working and good coverage gave him time to secure a sack. A short completion made it third and long. The ‘Niner receiver found a soft area between CB Derion Kendrick and S John Johnson in what looked to be some sort of Cover2 defense, but the pass was high and incomplete forcing a punt. 49ers 20, Rams 13.

Drive #6

On the first of consecutive three-and-outs, S.F looks to kill a little clock, two short runs brought about third and short. The ‘Niners call pass and good coverage forces QB Darnold to break the pocket. There is running room, but E Michael Hoecht is aware of it, breaks off his blocker, and tackles Darnold before he can convert. Hoecht misses a sack by a half-yard, S.F. punts and does not call another run play. 49ers 20, Rams 13.

Drive #7

The Rams jump to their first lead of the game and San Francisco faces the pressure of mounting a game winning drive with 4:56 to play. The first play doomed the ‘Niners. E Keir Thomas chased QB Darnold from the pocket and he launched up a lollipop against his body. The Rams defender got his feet tangled up with the 49ers WR and fell to the ground. As the WR reacted to the underthrown ball, he double-clutched the catch and this allowed S Russ Yeast time to fly over from his high safety position and deliver a crunching hit that sent the ball tumbling harmlessly to the ground incomplete. Second down saw the 49ers try to block defensive tackle Jonah Williams with a tight end, which ended badly for QB Darnold. He just kind of just flung the ball, as Williams crashed into him and it dropped a few yards from where released. After being stiffed out of a sack earlier E Michael Hoecht snuck untouched around the corner and struck paydirt, Another three-and-out. Rams 21, 49ers 20.

Drive #8

The ‘Niners weren’t going to go down without a fight. Starting from their own 22 with 55 ticks on the clock, the first play mirrored the last drive. QB Darnold again found an open WR between the CB and S and yet again, Russ Yeast closed the gap from his deep cover role, jarring and stripping the ball loose and incomplete. QB Darnold came right back with an 18 yard completion into the middle of the field and followed with a spike. On second and 10 from the S.F 40, Round 7 rookie Desjuan Johnson bullrushes deep into the backfield, forcing QB Darnold to bail through a gap. Mr. Irrelevant makes a sweet spin move off his blocker and reverses field to get the first sack of his career. It’s a strip sack to boot and L.A. recovers to salt away the game. Rams 21, 49ers 20.

How big was the victory?

For Sean McVay, the Rams victory over the ‘Niners had to be extremely satisfying. There’s no longer an elephant in the room to be addressed, the monkey’s off his back, and the albatross is no longer around his neck. His old friend, Kyle Shanahan does not own him.

As for the defense, it closes out a regular season much the way it started, with both an unexpected strong on-field performance and a victory. Between those bookends, it certainly has been a collection of page-turner’s, not always ending happily, but always keeping fans interest.

The defense’s saga continues on next Sunday against the Detroit Lions and all the elements of a classic are there. Love, hate, familiarity, possible scandal, and redemption. Will the playoffs be a companion edition, a standalone story with new characters taking the spotlight? Or a sequel to the regular season and its lightening rod theme?

But I will let Charles Dickens have the final word on the 2023 regular season,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

Rams fans wouldn’t have it any other way.