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Upon Further Review: 49ers Roll Over Rams

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Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams drops back to pass in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Edward Jones Dome on September 26, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images.
Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams drops back to pass in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Edward Jones Dome on September 26, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images.

Thursday night’s game was more of an indictment of the St. Louis Rams than it was a masterful performance by the 49ers, but that’s not going to stop me from heaping praising on Jim Harbaugh and his team. Sam Bradford looked like a deer in the headlights, but Vic Fangio ratcheted up the pressure without Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, and it worked to a tee. The offense turned back the clock to a performance that was reminiscent of 2011.

Offense

There were some issues with the offense. When Greg Roman didn’t commit to the run on a given drive, they struggled to move the ball. Vernon Davis played nearly every snap until the fourth quarter, when most of the first team offense came out. His presence was important, both for the running game and Colin Kaepernick, but he didn’t have a huge impact on the game. When the Niners committed to running the ball, the Rams couldn’t stop them. As destructive as Chris Long and Robert Quinn can be in the passing game, they were equally rubbed out when Greg Roman dialed up some power runs. On multiple runs in the first half, the offensive line blocked down the line of scrimmage, left guard Mike Iupati pulled right into the hole, tight end Vance McDonald provided a “wham” block on the backside, and fullback Bruce Miller went through the hole, leaving Frank Gore with huge holes. But, Gore wasn’t done. He used masterful vision at the second level to pickup extra yards. He ended up with just 20 carries on the night, which would have been more if the Rams actually put up a fight.

Joe Staley and Mike Iupati played about as well as they have all season last night, which only bodes well for the running game going forward. With their 22 personnel on the field, with two tight ends and two running backs, Greg Roman has made it next to impossible for opposing teams to stop the run unless they put 9 men in the box. With the elite run blockers on the offensive line, Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, and Bruce Miller, the 49ers can dominate 8 men fairly easily. I shudder to think what may have happened in the Colts game if they had committed to the run in the second half and ran the ball right at Indianapolis.

Colin Kaepernick struggled for much of the opening quarter, unable to find any open receivers and on the run against Quinn and Long. However, once the running game started to find its legs, Kaepernick made some plays to help the Niners start pulling away. He still has an issue with dropping his head after two reads, but his athleticism and arm will allow him to deal with those issues in time. And when he gets some reinforcements, including Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, later in the season, the Niners will be that much more dangerous. One thing that is evident is the play action they run needs to continue. Everyone knows that you run to set up the pass, and with a resurgent running game, the play action bootlegs were available all night. Kap continues to have eyes for Anquan Boldin, and that will work in some games. Their connection may suffer when Boldin has difficult matchups, for example against Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman. With Vernon Davis returning to full strength, there will be more opportunities for him as well. It is troubling that the second-leading receiver on the team last night was Bruce Miller. Quinton Patton left in the first half with an injury, and Jonathan Baldwin picked up some snaps in the second half. Baldwin secured both of his third down targets, picking up a first down on one of them. The Niners need a deep threat, but they’ll take just about anyone who can catch passes. We likely won’t know the extent of Patton’s injury until next week, but with Kyle Williams just not showing up, Baldwin might be making his push for the #2 spot.

Defense

Let’s be clear about one thing: the Rams’ offense was an utter disaster on Thursday. Offensive coordinator is not putting their players in positions to make plays. GM Les Snead moved up in the draft to grab Tavon Austin with the #8 overall pick, and yet, they are not featuring the diminutive playmaker. However, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio stepped his game up. Without All-Pros Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, Fangio had to mix and match guys who could make some plays and get some pressure on Bradford. First, it was about stopping the run. After getting gashed by the Seahawks and Colts in consecutive weeks, there were questions about the once stout defensive front. But, Justin Smith and company allayed the questions by yielding just 18 yards on 19 attempts. Glenn Dorsey, former Chiefs draft bust, specifically had a brilliant game, both against the run and pass. If the coaching staff continues to get the most out of the former LSU Tiger, the worries about Ian Williams’ loss will be relieved. Now, the Rams showed zero willingness to commit to the run, and often were trying to run in three-wide sets, but it’s a performance that should strike fear into teams who think they can run all over the Niners.

The passing game also showed up to play as well, with certainly a different look than year’s past. Without Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, Vic Fangio had to find creative ways to bring the pressure to Sam Bradford. When Bradford struggles, it’s often with pressure in his face. His accuracy will drop severely, he’ll dance in the pocket, and he’ll make mistakes. So, Fangio made do with his makeshift defensive front. The Niners were often in their base defense on early downs, with second-year undrafted free agent Michael Wilhoite playing next to NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker.  Another undrafted free agent Dan Skuta filled in at outside linebacker for Aldon Smith. Both performed about as well as could be expected, but when it came to the sub-package look, Fangio threw out a wrinkle that we haven’t seen from him.

With Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman usually on the field for every snap, the 49ers have never really needed to use 6 defensive backs. However, with Willis sidelined, that’s what Fangio employed on a dozen occasions on Thursday night. With rookie Corey Lemonier entering the game to rush the passer, and Ahmad Brooks, Ray McDonald, and Justin Smith usually staying on to rush the passer, the Niners could pressure Bradford with 4 or 5 guys. According to Pro Football Focus, Bowman rushed the passer 13 times, and came away with 7 total pressures, including 2 sacks. He was abusing running backs and interior lineman alike. Fangio threw in another wrinkle as well. With his six defensive backs, he dialed up some corner blitzes as well, which is something that we’ve rarely seen from the Niners’ defensive coordinator. Bradford, as we saw, could not handle the pressure.

With 10 days off, the Niners will have a distinct advantage over the Texans, who face another stern test in the Seahawks on Sunday. While things are certainly looking up, one week is always different from the next in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh had his team ready for Thursday night matchup, but he’ll have to get them up for another primetime game against Houston next week.