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Rams To The Slaughter
Matthew Gordon. 6th October, 2009 - 11:32 am

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The San Francisco 49ers, picked my many (including yours truly) to win the NFC West this year, were in uncharacteristically ill humor following Week 3?s loss in Minnesota. Redefined under Mike Singletary as one of the hungriest teams in the league, maligned for too long after the greatness of the ?80s and ?90s, this was a team that wanted to prove itself. The game in Minnesota was a perfect chance, especially once Frank Gore was injured, and the 49ers were about to walk away 3-0 for the first time since 1998.

Obviously, that didn?t happen. The 49ers walked away disappointed instead, knowing they should have won the game. Greg Lewis?s touchdown catch in the back of the end zone was too improbable, yet it had happened, and the 49ers knew they had to win their next game to avoid falling to .500 and basically undoing the momentum they?d created in the first two weeks of the season.

The Rams are what they are: a team that had lost its last 13 games going into San Francisco, inching closer to becoming the new Lions. Their starting quarterback was injured, which isn?t the recommended scenario for facing a tough defense like San Francisco?s.

I really, really hope all of you bet on San Francisco in this one.

?Hecatomb? is defined as ?the public sacrifice of 100 oxen?, although it often refers to cattle, and in some cases, you guessed it ? rams. The relevance of that term to football is best learned through watching this game?s highlights. The only image that can describe this game any more vividly than a box score involves the San Francisco Bay running red while red-and-gold pennants flutter in the wind over shattered helmets.

The score doesn?t even express how handily the 49ers won. Some blowouts feel more like 20-point beatings than 30-point ones, and others (like Sunday?s Lions/Bears game) involve a team stealing the second half. This one was a relentless assault spurred by a 49ers defense that?s improved immensely under Singletary.

While many teams this year have botched tackles at key times (one of the major explanations for how the Panthers and Dolphins lost their first six games combined), this is not happening to San Francisco. The team also made a point of creating turnovers and capitalizing on them. Each turnover led to a touchdown on the same play. All of these occurred in St. Louis? own end, which made scoring much easier. More interestingly, they?re all interconnected.

Consider the following:

-Steven Jackson ran the ball 23 times and caught three passes, comprising half of the Rams? 52 plays. However, only one of those 23 rushes resulted in a first down, and he averaged two yards per reception.

-Aside from Donnie Avery, there wasn?t much life to the Rams? passing game. Kyle Boller completed only two passes for more than ten yards that weren?t to Avery, and neither of the receivers who caught those balls (Daniel Fells and Keenan Burton) caught anything else.

-The Rams had 177 yards of total offense, with neither rushing nor passing exceeding 100.

All of these above points were symptoms of a 49ers defense that wasn?t allowing big holes and wasn?t giving Boller receiving options. Whenever a Ram had the ball anywhere near a defending 49er, the latter shellacked the former. Whenever Boller wanted to get some air under the ball, San Francisco responded by either clamping down on his threats (only 13 completed passes all game) or sacking him (five times, half of them courtesy of Patrick Willis ? yes, I said half of five? the NFL?s fun that way).

The 49ers? two defensive touchdowns, curiously enough, came about through opposite strategies:

-When Willis intercepted Boller, there was surprisingly little pressure. Boller had time in the pocket, but no way to find an open receiver or to escape for a rushing play. He was trapped. Forced into throwing across his body, a risky move for any quarterback this side of Brett Favre, he underthrew the receiver. Willis knew what he was seeing, knew how to react, and was ready to take a 23-yard sprint to the endzone.

-Boller?s fumble was the direct result of a punishing hit by Manny Lawson. Unlike the comparably gentler strip or poke-out, Lawson blasted that ball out of Boller?s hands. It?s no mystery why Singletary liked that.

-The 49ers have been doing this consistently, not just against the sad-sack Rams. They now have seven defensive touchdowns in four games. That?s cartoonish, and is only one less than the offense has produced to this point.

The 49ers clearly showed their ability to be a multifaceted defense, which will serve them well against tougher opponents. (Especially in the playoffs ? I?ll keep saying this until I?m proven wrong.) They stopped the run and pass, played man and zone, blitzed and controlled, all so well that the Rams produced what I listed above.

Now consider the Rams? field position:

-Of the team?s 13 drives, only two (own 33 and own 38) started in front of their own 30-yard line. Conversely, seven started inside their own 20, and two started on exactly their own 20.

-This got worse as the game continued. Four of the Rams? last five drives started within their own 15, with two of those (own 7 and own 8) starting inside their own 10.

-San Francisco?s special-teams touchdown didn?t even require a return. Scott McKillop had the presence of mind to fall on a live ball in an endzone. Especially considering he isn?t an offensive player, that?s the easiest touchdown he?ll ever get.

-Both of San Francisco?s defensive turnovers for touchdowns occurred on plays that started in the Rams? red zone. Returning a fumble eleven yards or an interception 23 yards is much easier than running the length of the field.

The connection is simple: through forcing the Rams into terrible field position and playing top-level, mistake-free defense (seriously, the Panthers and Dolphins should be watching tape of how San Francisco?s players wrapped up their men), the 49ers won in a style far more convincing than, say, the Bengals did this week.

Shaun Hill, Glen Coffee and the rest of the 49ers offense played fine. It?s all they have to do until Frank Gore comes back. Minus the turnovers, this was a 14-0 game, and the offensive production on both sides showed it. Hill?s becoming exactly the DLG (i.e. Don?t Lose the Game) quarterback the 49ers need ? the team?s zero turnovers is probably the most impressive stat that can be ascribed to him for this game. With a little team improvement, a little time and a little luck, the best case is for him to be San Francisco?s equivalent of what Trent Dilfer did for the Superbowl champion Ravens.

San Francisco?s performance also ties into a prevailing theme in the NFL that could produce a future article: the utterly wacky records teams have been amassing, and the seeming lack of correlation with team prowess. For evidence, ask the supposedly ho-hum 4-0 Broncos or the once-favored 0-4 Titans.

Dividing San Francisco?s results this season into halves, there?s been 2-0 (Arizona/Seattle) and 1-1 (Minnesota/St. Louis). Even though the latter half has a worse record and has its only win over the possible worst team in football, it?s still more impressive. Wins and losses are hard to judge on this basis; who was a more deserving winner, Week 1?s Denver or Week 4?s Baltimore? (The fact that Baltimore didn?t win is the entire point of this question. Except for Mark Clayton attempting to impersonate Larry Centers? catching style, the Ravens might be 4-0 right now.)

Through it all, San Francisco is still 3-1. They?ve only beaten divisional opponents in a terrible division, so they?ll need testing, but even the Minnesota game can be viewed as a pass. If the defense keeps playing this well and the offense keeps not playing poorly, this should be a great team to watch.