Colin Kaepernick, 49ers overcome slow start to take down Rams
Injuries continue to mount for the San Francisco 49ers, who lost linebacker Patrick Willis, cornerback Jimmie Ward and guard Mike Iupati on Monday night. They still managed to survive St. Louis' upset attempt, rallying from an early 14-0 hole against the Rams to grab a 31-17 win.
San Francisco improved to 4-2 on the year, a half-game back of Arizona in the NFC West. St. Louis dropped to 1-4 with a brutal upcoming schedule awaiting.
Three thoughts on the 49ers' latest victory:
1. Brandon Lloyd's touchdown changed the entire game (subtitle: Not great, Janoris Jenkins?)
St. Louis fired appeared headed to halftime with a 14-3 lead after firing on all cylinders early. A breakdown in coverage by Janoris Jenkins -- and a really curious call by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- shifted momentum in San Francisco's favor.
With the 49ers facing a 3rd-and-7 from their own 20 and less than 30 seconds left before the half, Jenkins found himself in man coverage on Brandon Lloyd with no deep help.
Where were the safeties? Well, T.J. McDonald was covering Vernon Davis on the opposite side of the field. Meanwhile, Rodney McLeod stepped up in an apparent robber coverage, hoping to jump a pass across the middle. That scheme left linebacker James Laurinaitis as the deepest Rams defender as Colin Kaepernick let his pass fly. He was nowhere near the Lloyd-Jenkins matchup, nor would he have been able to help much if he had been.
And Jenkins simply blew his assignment, biting on a double move up the sideline when his only real job in that scenario was to prevent a big gain.
"We had Brandon Lloyd on a double move, we liked the matchup," Kaepernick told ESPN after the game. "He did an amazing job running, making the catch, and our offensive line gave us time."
Kaepernick dropped a dime into Lloyd's hands, Lloyd took it to the house and San Francisco scored again to open the third quarter. By the time St. Louis' offense hit the field again, the 14-3 advantage had vanished into a 17-14 deficit.
2. Colin Kaepernick played a whale of a game
Before we go anywhere on this topic, a moment to ruminate on what in the world has gone wrong with the Rams' pass rush. The St. Louis front was shut out again Monday, leaving it stuck on one sack in five games -- the least productive start to a season in NFL history, according to Mike Tirico on ESPN's broadcast.
Chris Long's injury early in 2014 was a killer, but there is still way too much talent up front (i.e. Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald and William Hayes) to be that awful. Williams tried to supplement the problems by dialing up blitzes. They didn't get home ...
... which led to Kaepernick picking apart the St. Louis secondary.
I already mentioned Jenkins' issues -- not only did he inexplicably allow Lloyd to beat him on a double, he later left Anquan Boldin just long enough to allow Kaepernick to lob in a brilliant touchdown pass. The Boldin TD put San Francisco on top for good.
Kaepernick also rushed three times for 37 yards. It was his ability to keep his eyes downfield when he felt pressure, though, that added to the Rams' sack-deprived misery and allowed him to make plays like the one to Boldin. Time and again, Kaepernick either stepped up in the pocket or escaped outside the tackles to make plays.
As a result, he finished with 343 yards passing, the second-highest total of his career.
"I thought he was really on his game tonight," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Kaepernick did make one boneheaded decision: tossing up a jump ball inside the Rams' red zone as Hayes tried to drop him for a sack. Somehow, the pass fell incomplete and Hayes was flagged for a horse-collar tackle.
The 49ers QB caught a couple of breaks on that play, but he made his own luck throughout the rest of the evening.
3. Brian Schottenheimer and Austin Davis started hot. But then ...
Schottenheimer has taken (and earned) his fair share of criticism in three seasons as the Rams' offensive coordinator. So it had to be a welcome sight for Rams fans when he opened Monday night's game with a clever, diverse set of scripted plays.
St. Louis took the opening drive and marched 80 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, with three different players -- one being WR Tavon Austin -- running the football and rookie Tre Mason making a catch out of the backfield. Two possessions later, the Rams found paydirt again thanks to a perfectly executed play-fake and rollout by Davis, who hit a wide open Lance Kendricks for a TD.
Everything was clicking. The 49ers' defense was on its heels.
All the positives vanished in the second quarter. A key turning point came come when tight end Jared Cook was flagged for an extremely questionable pass interference penalty, which negated a 21-yard gain on third-and-9. St. Louis wound up punting there and then the Kaepernick-to-Lloyd bomb happened.
However, the real issue for Schottenheimer's offense from the second quarter on was its inability to protect Davis. San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio repeatedly brought extra pressure via blitz, serving to discombobulate the Rams' line and to force Davis from his comfort zone. Davis had done a solid job escaping the pocket to make plays in the first quarter, but he could not sustain the success.
The Rams had no other answers once the 49ers defense turned the tide. Schottenheimer may have overextended his playbook early, leaving nothing notable left to use when Davis really needed it.