On Sunday we saw something that rarely happens in the NFL. By now you know that the San Francisco 49ers and St Louis Rams played to a 24-24 tie, the first one in the league since 2008. Since this recap goes live on Wednesday morning, you've already heard all of the "sister-kissing" references, Donovan "Tie?" McNabb references and statistics on the subject that you can handle. You'll be glad to know that the previous sentence will be the extent of said references. The topic I'd like to tackle is the 49ers' defense. They were next to awful. Yes, the 49ers' lost Alex Smith to a concussion and the fan base should feel grateful to escape with a tie in this one, but the offense wasn't the issue, the defense was.
In my Saturday morning preview of this game, I figured the 49ers offense was good for 20 points. I thought they would employ a conservative gameplan, allowing the defense to slowly constrict the Rams into submission, as they had done in their previous division matchups this season. When this works, it usually means a 17-24 point showing by the offense. That, by my calculations, was good enough for a win. The Rams are (following this weekend's game) 28th in the league in points and first downs, 24th in yards and had shown little to know life throughout the season, until now. What they did to the 49ers' top-ranked defense was nothing short of astonishing. They put up their second highest total of the season in both yards and points. For the 49ers' defense it was a season worst effort in yards and first downs surrendered. Their previous worst in yards allowed was 344 against the Minnesota Vikings. Even if you average it out for a four quarter game, it's still the worst effort of the year. The 24 points allowed was the second highest total of the season. Not great omens for a top-flight defense.
How did it get to this? Danny Amendola's return from injury was expected to be a boon to the struggling Rams offense but what he did against the 49ers was extraordinary. He had 11 receptions for 102 yards, with 60 of them coming after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. He had, what would have been the game-sealing play, an 80-yard gain down the right side that took the Rams to the goal line called back for an illegal formation penalty. Let's face it, whether or not the X-receiver lines up half a yard off the line of scrimmage or not had no bearing on that play. The 49ers' defense was beat badly on the first play of overtime and should have lost the game. It was week 2, 2011 against the Cowboys all over again. Thankfully the Rams played as sloppy a game as they did.
Sam Bradford, with his security blanket back in tow in Amendola, played one of his best games of the year. He finished with 275 yards on 67% accuracy, with two touchdowns, and a 104.1 rating. It's just the type of play you'd expect from a No. 1 overall draft choice. After the Rams gave up two touchdowns in the span of 17 seconds to start off the fourth quarter, Bradford calmly orchestrated a 14-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that chewed up over seven minutes which would have been the game winner had the 49ers not kicked a field goal to force overtime.
Against the run, the 49ers didn't fare much better. They surrendered 101 yards on the ground to Steven Jackson, by far his highest total of the year. They made him work for it, as Jackson needed 29 carries to get the yards. But on one notable play, Jackson carried "Mr. All-Universe" Patrick Willis for a first down on a third-and-long. This marks the third time in four games that the 49ers have surrendered a 100-yard rusher, having surrendered the century mark to both Marshawn Lynch and Ahmad Bradshaw recently. Only the Cardinals, marching out a 3rd string running back, failed to hit the mark in the last four games.
Aside from the defense, the special teams deserves some singling out for the outcome of this game. David Akers missed a 41-yard field goal in the extra period that would have given the 49ers the win. The time for saying "the usually reliable" David Akers in highlights is long gone, as he's been anything but reliable this season. The special teams unit was also burned twice on fake punts. Twice! It cannot be stressed enough that both teams did all they could to lose this game.
It would be wrong to not mention some of the positives, but let's face it, this tie felt like a loss. On the good side of things, Colin Kaepernick, filling in for the concussed Alex Smith led the team back to force the tie with 17 fourth-quarter points. He started slowly before getting into the rhythm. The special teams also made what would have been the play of the game had the 49ers won. After their first touchdown of the fourth quarter, Tremaine Brock caused kick returner Isaiah Pead to fumble the ensuing kickoff, which the 49ers recovered, setting up a Frank Gore touchdown run on the next play. That's two touchdowns in 17 seconds when they were needed most. After surrendering the previously mentioned drive to Sam Bradford and the Rams to relinquish the lead, Kaepernick led the team 63-yards in 8 plays to set up the game-tying field goal that sent the game into "sister-kissing" territory (I couldn't resist).
All in all, the game should be viewed as a disappointment. Yes, the 49ers did lose Alex Smith to a concussion, but Kaepernick played admirably in relief, even leading the team on the game-tying drive. 24 points should have been more than enough to beat the Rams, but the defense wasn't up to the task. Kaepernick's play gives some hope that he can lead the team if needed, especially with an entire week of planning and first-team practice reps. The problem is that the schedule gets harder from here. There are very few 'easy' wins and, with a massive game against Chicago looming, second place in the NFC will be on the line, not to mention games at New Orleans, New England and Seattle, now is not the time for team to be having a defensive identity crisis. They've shown that they can dominate any team in the league on any given day, but now we see they can lay an egg on any given Sunday. Frankly, that's not good enough in the NFL. There is plenty of season left, and Harbaugh and Co. will no doubt be working on these issues and we can expect to see more of the team that laid waste to the Cardinals than the one that laid eggs on Sunday.