After their display at home to the Colts on Sunday, you had to think there was going to be a reaction coming from the San Francisco 49ers in this game. While this performance was far from flawless, and the opposition didn’t really offer much resistance, this was along the lines of what you would have expected.
After their uncharacteristic performance at home on Sunday, the defense responded with a stellar performance, with NaVorro Bowman leading the way at inside linebacker in the absence of Patrick Willis. The offense still wasn’t the polished unit we saw late last season, but there were signs of certain members of the offensive line re-finding their form, and the ground game was far more involved than against Indianapolis. The 49ers weren’t going to make the same mistake twice in five days.
For the host Rams, however, this was a second flat performance in as many games. Of most concern is that the offense, but for a possession gifted to them by Colin Kaepernick, produced almost nothing of note in the entire game. The defense couldn’t rescue them either, as they struggled to get to grips with the 49ers’ power running game and the pass rush again fell short against better tackles for the second game in a row. At 1-3 with only a slender victory over the Cardinals to their name the Rams need to turn things around fast.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Bowman Leads the Way Inside
This was without doubt the best game of this young season for NaVorro Bowman, and it was built largely around an impactful day as a pass rusher. Though he had his problems in coverage with a missed tackle and a missed opportunity (dropped interception) to go with a touchdown allowed, when he went at Sam Bradford he was productive at almost every turn. On his 13 blitzes (more than the first three games of the season combined, and a career high for a single game) Bowman recorded pressure seven times (2 Sk, 2 Ht, 3 Hu), and added a batted pass and a forced fumble in for good measure. Three of Bowman’s seven pressures came against Rams’ running backs, with neither Benny Cunningham nor Daryl Richardson really able to slow his progress to Bradford. The ground game was a dwindling part of the Rams’ offense, but Bowman was productive there as well, registering three stops on 15 run defense snaps.
Mixed Form on Offense
The 49ers’ offensive performance on Sunday was a real head-scratcher, with the lack of focus on the ground taking their best unit (their line) out of the game. No such mistake this time with Joe Staley (+4.1 run block) and Mike Iupati (+3.1 run block) returning to form with the focus on the ground game returned and the 49ers making much better use of their pulling linemen to get the Rams’ defense on the back foot. Frank Gore benefited from this focus, showing what he could have done on Sunday with more than 11 carries — though his fumble that came at the end of a solid gain blotted his copybook a little.
The return to form on offense wasn’t universal. however. as Kaepernick’s fumble on an attempted handoff to Kendall Hunter with less than seven minutes to go capped-off another mediocre performance. With the read option seemingly under lock and key for the time being, Kaepernick has struggled in recent weeks to hit his straps as a passer, and again showed scattergun accuracy and forced a couple of throws that James Laurinaitis broke up which could’ve ended up worse than an incompletion.
Dorsey Thriving on the Nose
New signing Glenn Dorsey didn’t feature at nose tackle for the 49ers until Ian Williams went down through injury in Seattle not yet two weeks ago, but since that unfortunate event Dorsey has flourished in spite of the losing streak. For the third straight game Dorsey was a force in run defense (+3.8) and even chipped in a sack, getting quickly past Scott Wells early in the second quarter to take down Bradford. His other two stops were in the ground game, registering his pair of stops on 14 run defense snaps which, for the most part, came in the first 20 minutes of the game. Beyond registering stops, Dorsey was a persistent nuisance for Wells in the ground game, giving no ground or even gaining ground to squeeze running lanes in a Rams ground attack that was quickly laid by the wayside due to its inefficiency and the lead San Francisco built.
St. Louis – Three Performances of Note
Bradford Stuck in Neutral
After an inconsistent start to the game ,things only got worse for Bradford, who at this point is surely in a make or break season. His -6.1 passing grade is the joint worst of his career with a performance marked out by hesitance and wild inaccuracy, with the night snowballing almost from the point that he missed Austin Pettis wide open on a corner route midway through the first quarter (check out a detailed breakdown of the play with Sam Monson). After the 49ers missed a field goal on the previous drive, Bradford had a gilt-edged chance to put the Rams up 7-0, but instead he too missed and Greg Zuerlein could put the Rams up only 3-0. Would things have been different had Bradford hit Pettis on that play? Considering how he and the Rams’ offense played in the second half that seems unlikely, but who knows what effect an early 7-0 lead might have had on the morale of the Rams and the crowd at the Edward Jones Dome.
Long and Quinn Beaten to Submission on the Edge
Just after Zuerlein gave the Rams that 3-0 lead the team’s defensive ends teamed up to set the 49ers subsequent drive off with a sack. On an attempted screen, Robert Quinn was let loose on time but the back’s release was disrupted by Chris Long on the other side and Quinn was able to chase Kaepernick down for his fifth sack of the season. That was a rare moment of impact, however, in a game that saw Quinn and Long worn down by the physicality and persistence of the 49ers’ ground attack. Both set season highs in run defense snaps (34 for Long, 31 for Quinn) and they rarely had an answer for the down blocks from the 49ers’ tackles, as they used those blocks to set up pull blocks coming around the corner on power runs. Their best success tended to come against Adam Snyder (used as a sixth linemen while the game was live) rocking him back to disrupt pull blocks, but against Anthony Davis, and in particular Quinn up against Joe Staley, they rarely had an answer. Both players, in particular Quinn, got off to stunning starts by maximizing their matchups against weak tackle pairings from Arizona and Atlanta, but in two games since both Quinn and Long have failed to build off that momentum against better tackles.
A Nod to Johnny Hekker
You know you’ve played poorly when arguably the best player on your team was your punter, and he gets called upon 11 times. Such were the Rams’ struggles on offense in this game, failing to get yards but not resorting to turnovers to hand the ball back to the 49ers, Hekker was that busy and he did punt the ball extremely well, and consistently so. At a +6.7 grade, this was Hekker’s highest mark of the season as he consistently boomed out punts that set the 49ers back to start their drives, with the hang-time of his punts consistently impressive. His best punt of the game probably came late in Q3 booming, as he got off a 60-yarder that went directly out of bounds to the 49ers’ 4-yard line. As well as Hekker is punting the ball this season, Rams fans will be desperate to see less of him in future weeks.
– Yet again, Rams’ middle linebacker James Laurinaitis played every defensive snap. He has not missed a defensive snap since the Rams visit to Denver in Week 12 of the 2010 season.
– Notching four pass defenses, you might think that’s a career high for Tarell Brown, but it falls short of the five pass defenses he registered against the Cardinals last season.
– Rookie linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong recorded the first defensive snaps of his career. Armstrong notched 17 snaps in Will Witherspoon’s stead, and registered two defensive stops.
PFF Game Ball
Seven pressures (and a batted pass) on 13 blitzes is stunning production from an inside linebacker, and combined with solid work against the Rams oft-unseen running game, saw NaVorro Bowman lead the way as the 49ers defense rebound with a divisional win.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben