Image Credit: 49ers
Seventy years ago, before the Giants and the Dodgers battled for the California crown, a professional football rivalry was born.
A crowd of just over 27,200 people piled into Kezar Stadium to watch the San Francisco 49ers take on the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams won the first game handily, and maybe that has always stuck in the craw of the 49ers. Since then, the 49ers and Rams have met 143 times, with the 49ers leading the series with 73 wins.
Indeed, some of those wins were important, others a 49er steamrolling of their hated neighbor to the south. If someone looks back on the Week 12 victory over the Rams, I am hopeful he/she will note that it was a huge statement win for the 2020 49ers.
I had noted in previous work: “… the 49ers’ offense and defense tend to seize like an engine without oil. Deep in the recesses of the 2020 49ers is ability and fight - but the team lacks the roster talent to finish the job.”
I have no problem eating those words and getting a round of Twitter mockery. While the 49ers’ offense may have struggled, the 49ers’ defense set the team up for a big win against the Rams.
Finally, Doing the Little Things Right
Too often, fans and the so-called experts want to see a defensive line bring great violence and commotion on every play. Sometimes, we do see that.
But often, the battle in the trench is won in inches and feet. The man who can beat his opponent to the punch, winning an inch of turf or body position, can make or break a play.
1st Quarter: 2nd and 3 at the LAR 33 (12:20)
Maybe fans of other teams have gone through a similar education, but it feels like 49er fans have had gone through a master’s level course in edge defense over the last few seasons.
First, there were the 2017 and 2018 seasons when the 49ers lacked any real talent at the edge. In 2019, the 49ers were graced with rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford to collapse the pocket. Both men immediately impacted overall defensive play and what defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s system could produce with capable players.
This year, the defensive line has still been the 49ers’ north star, but at times has failed to create pressure or win the battle of inches.
On Sunday, veteran defensive lineman Arik Armstead set the tone early for the 49ers.
At the snap, Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff had just opened his hips to give the ball to running back Darrell Henderson when 49ers’ defensive lineman Kevin Givens was blowing through the A-gap.
On the open side of the formation, Armstead took two advancing steps - a short one with his right foot, and a long step with his left. He pushed Rams right tackle Rob Havenstein vertically and held his ground.
A split second later, Armstead separated from Havenstein and forced a panicked Henderson to look elsewhere for running room.
Armstead’s work on the edge, combined with Givens inside and linebacker Fred Warner looping around the edge bottled up Henderson. Givens and Armstead dropped the lost running back for a three-yard loss.
The Calming Influence of Richard Sherman
1st Quarter: 2nd and 7 at the LAR 32 (8:34)
On the Rams’ second possession of the game, Goff found wide receiver Robert Woods on a 16-yard bench route that gained 30 yards. For whatever reason, the 49ers’ secondary felt it necessary to send three defenders to the left flat and leave a large chunk of fake turf uncovered.
Cornerback Richard Sherman saw the throw and immediately went after Woods.
Maybe Goff, despite some of his inefficiencies, was going to find these soft areas of the secondary and pick apart the 49ers’ defense.
It would not be so. Goff’s throw to Woods was the second-longest pass play for the Rams on Sunday.
Obviously, I am not in the 49ers’ defensive huddle, so I have no idea what was said after the play. But I’d like to think that Sherman had a calming influence on the team after the Woods catch-and-run and throughout the afternoon.
Jimmie Ward and his Forced Fumbles
A few years ago, it appeared that defensive back Jimmie Ward was destined for a lackluster career. His injuries were becoming more reliable than a California rainstorm, and he looked utterly lost in Saleh’s system.
Ward has proved everyone wrong and has become one of the best defensive backs on the 49ers.
Goff completed a short pass to running back Malcolm Brown on the Rams’ first possession of the game. Unfortunately for Brown, Ward was there to deliver a jarring hit and forced Brown to lose the football. The 49ers recovered but were unable to convert the turnover into points.
Goff scrambled up the middle with 43 seconds left in the second quarter and was met by Ward. Once again, Ward forced a fumble, which defensive lineman Kerry Hyder returned for 14 yards. And once again, the 49ers’ offense could not turn Ward’s work into points.
“Imagine if” is one of the lower forms of sports conversation, but I do wonder what the score would have been if the 49ers’ offense was more than just average.
The 49ers’ defense refilled my 2020 professional football cup on Sunday. They don’t have to finish in first place or even make the playoffs. The defense again showed its fight and its ability to disrupt a good offense, but it also proved it does have the grit to carry the 49ers to victory.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
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