As punter Andy Lee and long snapper Brian Jennings playfully practiced their golf swings in the…
49ers vs. Rams: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs down: Watching rookie Greg Zuerlein boom a 54-yard field goal through the uprights with only seconds remaining in overtime must have felt like a dagger through the hearts of the 49ers and their hopes of NFC supremacy before the playoffs begin. Playoffs? The Niners lead in the NFC West slipped to 1½ games over Seattle – which hosts San Francisco in three weeks after the Niners make a tough trip to New England – and they're currently holding on to the conference's No. 2 playoff seed by a thread with some tough games coming up.
Thumbs down: What the heck are the 49ers doing trying to get cute on a third-and-3 play deep in their own territory while protecting an eight-point lead late in the fourth quarter with victory seemingly at hand?
Thumbs down: Having quarterback Colin Kaepernick make a deep pitch to wide receiver Ted Ginn on a read option play was not only a dangerous call with three minutes remaining in the game, it was a ridiculous call. And it cost the 49ers dearly when all they had to do at that point was hold on for the win. Instead, Kaepernick's pitch went awry, Ginn was lazy trying to get on top of it near the goal line, and St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins zoomed in to grab the loose football and slide into the end zone with it for a shocking touchdown. After a penalty, the Niners then allowed the Rams to succeed on a two-point conversion try from the 7-yard line to turn a 10-2 San Francisco lead into a 10-10 tie.
Thumbs up: The disturbing final outcome aside, it was another step in the progression of Kaepernick as San Francisco's starting quarterback. Kap's quick release is impressive and there was notable velocity on his passes, which got where they were going in a hurry. Kap completed nine of his first 10 passes, and he played well enough to win, leading the Niners downfield in the final minutes of regulation after the Rams tied the score to a go-ahead field goal.
Thumbs up: Kap displayed his great escapability in the pocket throughout the game, and the threat he possesses with his feet was on vivid display on his 50-yard scramble before the regulation two-minute warning – the longest run by the 49ers this season and the longest regular-season dash by a quarterback in franchise history. With the game on the line, Kaepernick – the game's leading rusher with 84 yards on nine carries – looked pretty special breaking down the right sideline, running like the wind in the open field, then dancing past defenders to set up the 49ers with a first down at the St. Louis 14.
Thumbs down: The 49ers could have put the game away on the next play, but Delanie Walker dropped a sure touchdown pass that Kaepernick put right on his hands at the goal line. On the next play, Walker then was flagged 10 yards for holding, pushing the Niners backward and out of touchdown range, where they settled for a 33-yard field goal by Akers to take the lead with 1:34 remaining.
Thumbs down: Dashon Goldson's aggressive play is a hallmark of San Francisco's ferocious defense, but Goldson has to think better on his feet – or off his feet, in this case – when a quarterback is sliding in front of him. It doesn't matter if Goldson already was committed and shied away from a big hit at the finish when he was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness when diving into a sliding Bradford with 59 seconds to play. Goldson has to know better than to lead with his helmet and even hit the quarterback at all on that play. That pivotal penalty moved St. Louis from its own 34-yard line to the San Francisco 40, and the Rams were able to get five yards closer to give Zuerlein a shot at a 53-yard field goal, an attempt the rookie drilled with two seconds remaining to send the game into overtime.
Thumbs up: There's not a better textbook defensive play than Patrick Willis filling a hole, breaking down in model fashion, then stuffing 240-pound Steven Jackson short of the first down on a third-and-1 play to force the Rams to punt near midfield on the game's first offensive series. Willis and NaVorro Bowman combined for 12 tackles and spearheaded a strong defensive effort that limited the Rams to 85 yards on the ground and lead back Steven Jackson to a 2.3 average on his 21 rushing attempts.
Thumbs up: It's always a pleasure to see the Rams wear the throwback blue-and-gold uniforms with horns on their helmets and shoulder pads that the team adorned when it was based in Los Angeles, bringing back memories of the great rivalry between the Rams and the 49ers when both teams were based in California. They're also much better than the updated version of uniform the Rams have been wearing in St. Louis over the past decade.
Thumbs up: Andy Lee punting in a dome is practically unfair to the opposition. Lee began his day with a soaring 61-yard punt and put four of his kicks inside the St. Louis 20-yard line to help the 49ers hold an edge in the battle for field position throughout the day.
Thumbs down: Ted Ginn Jr. just no longer looks quite like the game-breaking kick returner he was last year or earlier in his career. After taking a booming 63-yard punt from Johnny Hekker in the second quarter, Ginn had a lot of open space ahead of him to rip of a decent return. But instead, he slipped making his first cut without being touched and was covered up after a six-yard return. On his next return opportunity, Ginn took a kick near the sideline, then ran backward as he tried to cross the field before being stopped for a return of zero yards. That was Ginn's day returning kicks – a 3.0-yard average returning two punts. And then he let the ball roll on the ground to give St. Louis its only touchdown of the game. Not good.
Thumbs up: Big Brandon Jacobs looked bullish battering the Rams on his first carry as Frank Gore's new top backup, taking a third-and-1 snap in the red zone and blasting several St. Louis defenders as he powered over the right side for a three-yard gain to keep San Francisco's first touchdown drive moving.
Thumbs up: It was classic Aldon Smith on the play during which the Niners' wondrous pass rusher recorded the sack that tied Fred Dean's team record for a season. Lining up on the left side, Smith charged into Rams tackle Barry Richardson, used his hands to push Richardson back in the pocket, then simply overpowered a man than outweighs him by more than 60 pounds to take down Sam Bradford in the second quarter and raise his sack total to a NFL-leading 17½ with a quarter of the season still remaining.
Thumbs up: What a fantastic game in coverage by nickel back Chris Culliver, who protected his edge on just about every pass imaginable and allowed St. Louis receivers to have very little success when they were matched up with him on passing downs. Culliver also contributed six tackles to his fine day on defense.
Thumbs up: The gain was wiped out by a holding penalty on tackle Joe Staley, but Frank Gore running over Cortland Finnegan at the end of a 16-yard run and knocking the helmet off Finnegan's head as he churned forward was a thing of bruising beauty. Gore also powered up the middle on a goal-line play to score San Francisco's only touchdown of the day.
Thumbs down: Goldson is a fearless and fantastic hitter, but the 49ers need their free safety to tackle Jackson for a short gain after a catch in the flat instead of bouncing off Jackson and letting him rumble for a 22-yard gain that gave the Rams their first trip into San Francisco's red zone in the third quarter.
Thumbs up: But the Niners got tough in that red zone, forcing the Rams into a fourth-and-1 situation at the 4-yard line and forcing them to burn a timeout to think over their options. The Rams decided to go for a touchdown rather than the sure three points, and the 49ers were all over the play as Bradford rolled out to his right and had no open options before throwing incomplete in the end zone.
Thumbs down: Kaepernick is displaying great field awareness and pocket presence, but he has to be more aware of where he's throwing the ball when he scrambles backward out of the pocket and into his own end zone. Though it might have been a bad call by the officials, as replays suggested, they ruled Kaepernick's throw-away pass to the right side never made it back to the line of scrimmage, thus flagging Kaepernick for intentional grounding and tagging the 49ers with a safety that gave St. Louis its first points.
Thumbs up: Backed up inches from their own goal line and needing breathing room on a second-down play, Michael Crabtree made a great hands catch while diving for Kaepernick's pass with a cornerback draped on his back. That play gave the Niners a first down, and Crabtree came up with another big first down a few plays later to keep the drive moving. Later on the 13-play, 94-yard drive that led to Akers' breathing-room 23-yard field goal, Crabtree had a 30-yard reception on third-and-8 to move the Niners into St. Louis territory.
Thumbs up: If anyone's still questioning Crabtree's emergence and progression as a No. 1 wideout, that series alone should answer any doubters. He always seems to play his best against the Rams, too, and this was yet another example as Crabs led the 49ers with seven receptions for 101 tough yards.
Thumbs up: Rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins got schooled by both Crabtree and Mario Manningham, particularly Manningham, who beat him off the line and raced into his slant patterns to catch a few key third-down passes in front of Jenkins. Manningham complemented Crabtree on the other side of formations with five receptions.
Thumbs up: Justin Smith's sack total is down compared to last year, but his considerable impact hasn't changed much from his All-Pro performance last season. Smith powered into the pocket for a sack of Bradford and was an absolute beast throughout the day, leading the 49ers with eight tackles, with three of the stops coming behind the line of scrimmage.
Thumbs down: Second-year offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore doesn't get on the field often, but when he did as an extra blocker on a first-and-10 play from the San Francisco 35-yard line in overtime, he commits a holding call that stymies San Francisco's first drive in overtime after the Niners had stopped the Rams cold on their first drive of the extra period.
Thumbs down: The 49ers still are the frontrunners in the NFC West, but they no longer are the leaders within the division after falling on their faces in crunch time Sunday. The Rams still trail the Niners and Seahawks in the division standings, but St. Louis is undefeated in divisional play with a 4-0-1 record against NFC West opponents. The Niners limp in behind them with a 2-1-1 divisional record – both blemishes coming against the Rams, obviously – and the Seahawks and Cardinals have a 1-6 record in NFC West games between them.
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