We take a closer look at the 49ers' loss to the Rams in St. Louis. Colin Kaepernick played more like a QB making his third start than one leading a team to a Super Bowl and the 49ers' offense gave up more points than the defense (10-6). This also marked one of the few times Coach Harbaugh and his staff were outcoached.
The 49ers' played a baffling game once again. This marks the fourth time this season that the 'wrong' 49ers' team has shown up for a game. It would appear they either bring their 'A' game or their 'F' game, with nothing in between (maybe the Seahawks game is the exception). The A game beats every team in the league while the F game gets outclassed by the Vikings, blown out by the Giants, and manages to lose the season series to the Rams. Which team will show up and when is a mystery, although the good, good, bad pattern has held to form so far this season. You don't need a genius to tell you that good, good, bad won't win a Super Bowl.
There's a lot of blame to be meted out following this game, but one area that truly deserves none of it is the 49ers' defense. They held the Rams scoreless until Greg Zeurlein kicked the 53-yard game-tying field goal as time expired in regulation. The Rams also kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime for a total of six points scored against the impressive 49ers' defensive unit over nearly 75 minutes of play.
Justin Smith led the team with 8 tackles and added a sack for good measure. Aldon Smith added a sack to up his league-leading total to 17.5 and is still on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5. The front seven also held the Rams to 85 yards rushing, their lowest output since a Week 4 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Steven Jackson was held to just 48 yards on 21 carries after averaging 107 yards per game over the previous three contests.
The pass defense faired just as well. Sam Bradford needed 39 passes to get 221 yards, good for 5.7 yards per attempt. That figure is down 1.2 yards per attempt from his season average, or to put it in perspective, 0.2 yards per attempt less than John Skelton's season average. Chris Culliver gets singled out by Pro Football Focus as having arguably the best game for the defense. He was targeted seven times, giving up four catches for 28 yards. In fact, 10 out of the 11 defenders graded positively for PFF.
For the offense, on the other hand, it's hard to find a positive. Michael Crabtree caught 7 balls for 101 yards and that's probably where it begins and ends. The Rams' defense held the 49ers, who scored 32 and 31 points in the two games since their first meeting, to 13 points and 339 yards. The 13 points scored is tied for the second-worst output of the season for the Niners.
Mario Manningham caught 5 passes but only managed 37 yards on them before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Frank Gore gained 58 yards on 23 carries, though he did manage to get into the end zone for only the sixth time this season.
One of the main issues during the game was the play of the 49ers' offensive line. The unit had been the best run blocking line in the league but was consistently beat off the line against the Rams. Mike Iupati is singled out by PFF for being the worst among the starting five. The Rams' linebacking corps, specifically James Laurinaitis and JoLonn Dunbar, also contributed heavily to shutting down the 49ers' running game.
Colin Kaepernick was brought back to Earth after having an exceptional debut against the Bears on Monday Night Football and a solid second start against the Saints, both victories. He was kept out of the end zone in this one, both in the air and on the ground. His final stat line of 21/32 for 208 yards with zero interceptions and a QBR of 83.9 would, on the surface, appear respectable. But QBR doesn't account for non-passing errors and Kaepernick made two glaring mistakes.
First, he gave away two points on a safety in the third quarter. On a play starting at the 17-yard line, Kaepernick was pressured back all the way to the end zone before throwing the ball away out of bounds. The ball appeared to travel past the line of scrimmage, but only after it went out of bounds. The referees erred and called it intentional grounding. Whether the call was right or not doesn't take away from Kaepernick's error of dropping all the way back to his own end zone. It shows the lack of situational awareness you would expect from a man making his third start in the NFL.
The second mistake was far more costly. On 3rd-and-three from the 49ers' 10-yard line with 3:11 left in the game, Kaepernick attempted a pitch to Ted Ginn Jr. with his off hand and sent the ball over his target's head. Janoris Jenkins, of the Rams, recovered the ball and rolled two yards into the end zone for what was the game-tying score. This was another lack of situational football, but this time, it wasn't just the quarterback's fault.
The coaches also deserve plenty of criticism for the outcome of this game. The play call on Kaepernick's errant pitch was truly baffling. It was a play I can't recall seeing this season and should never have been called. The Rams' offense had scored zero points at that point and with a ten-point lead, there was no reason not to hand the ball off to Gore and let your defense continue to do what they were doing.
Another crucial mistake at the end of the game was on the 49ers' final scoring drive, a 33-yard field goal by David Akers. An incomplete pass and a Colin Kaepernick run that went out of bounds allowed the Rams to get the ball with 1:34 on the clock and a timeout remaining. Three straight kneel downs would have given the Rams the ball with about 40 seconds and zero timeouts. Clock management hasn't been a problem for the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh but they mismanaged the end of this game and it very likely cost them a victory.
David Akers missed another overtime, game-winning field goal. There were rumors of him being injured during the week but he was deemed fit enough to play. Some questions have to be raised about his ability to kick with the game on the line. His accuracy on kicks over 40 yards is not good this year. He is 6/10 from beyond 40 and an unacceptable 1/5 from beyond 50. One has to wonder when the coaching staff will cease to rely on him for big kicks.
The repercussions of the loss are far reaching. The loss, combined with Seattle's overtime victory in Chicago allowed the Seahawks to remain in the NFC West race. A victory would have put it all but out of reach. The 49ers' remaining games are vs Miami, at New England, at Seattle and vs Arizona. Losing two of them, especially if one of them is the Seahawks' game, would likely cost them the division.
The loss is just as costly in the race for the 2nd seed in the NFC and the first-round bye that goes along with it. The Green Bay Packers are now 1/2 game behind them in the hunt for a bye week and hold an easier schedule than the 49ers. It's very conceivable that the Packers run the table over the last four weeks, based on ease of schedule and their hot play of late. The Pack has won 6 of their last 7 games.
If the first-round bye is not secured, I don't think it matters too much if the 49ers win the division or get in as a wild card. They haven't shown the ability to win three in a row all season and a Super Bowl title will require three or four straight victories. They need to get hot over the last four games and maintain the high level of play or this season could end more disappointingly than last season's heartbreaking NFC Championship Game loss to the Giants. There are quite a few things that need to be addressed at this late stage in the season, especially for a championship contender. Recent history has shown it's just as likely for a wild card team to win as a top-seed. Tweaking a few problems, getting Colin Kaepernick ready for the postseason and maintaining consistency still gives the team as good a shot as any at tasting glory.