The 49ers’ vaunted defense found itself being seriously outplayed in the first half Sunday.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, having healed up from the elbow miseries that ruined his season a year ago, was slicing, dicing and getting rid of the ball before the 49ers’ pass rush could do any damage.
But the 49ers pushed across a late touchdown on a 1-yard sneak by Brock Purdy on the last play of the first half, tying the game 17-17, and a defense that feels it should be one of the best in the NFL played closer to that standard in a 30-23 win at SoFi Stadium.
A week ago, the 49ers defense came out breathing fire in a 30-7 win at Pittsburgh, forcing five consecutive three-and-outs and taking control of the game early.
So how is it that the 49ers might have even learned more about themselves against a mostly no-name Rams team that nonetheless looks much improved from last year’s 5-12 disaster?
Because they got off the deck against an elite passer and turned the game in their favor with two takeaways and an improved pass rush.
Stafford was 14-of-18 for 143 yards and a 6-yard touchdown pass to Kyren Williams in the first half. The Rams had only three possessions, scoring on all of them.
“I think it all started with Stafford, with him getting so hot at the beginning, especially the way they came out on that opening drive,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He was attacking our zones and looking pretty effortless. He did a good job keeping us off balance and I thought once we timed up a bit in the second half things started to go better.”
After going field goal, touchdown, touchdown and running 32 plays in the first half, the 49ers allowed the Rams just two field goals in the second half — and the last one sailed through the uprights as time expired on a drive that added clock-eating yardage that actually hurt the Rams more than it helped.
The Rams’ second-half possessions were as follows: punt, interception by Isaiah Oliver, punt, field goal, interception by Deommodore Lenoir, turnover on downs and finally the end-of-game field goal.
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The 49ers sacked Stafford just once — on a Fred Warner blitz in the second half — but at least made him uncomfortable and altered a rhythm that in the first half had the 49ers reeling. The Rams had just 92 yards rushing on 40 carries in their Week 1 win over Seattle, but were making more headway against the 49ers (13 carries for 53 yards) in the first half.
“Overall, we were trying to get stickier in coverage, trying to pressure Stafford a little more and trying to eliminate the running game,” Warner said. “In the first half that running game kept them ahead of the sticks a lot. They were taking what we were giving them. We had to time things up in the back end and try and make it a little tougher on Stafford.”
Oliver, signed as a free agent from Atlanta to replace nickel back Jimmie Ward, came up with his first big play on the Rams’ first possession of the second half, tackling Williams on a 3-yard pass from Stafford on third-and-5 at the 49ers’ 49-yard line. It forced the Rams’ first punt of the game. With 2:23 to go, Nick Bosa made a fourth-and-1 stop.
A shaky three-and-out from the 49ers was followed by Oliver’s interception of a Stafford pass after it glanced off the hands of Williams. It set up a 57-yard Jake Moody field goal for a 20-17 lead.
Warner’s 10-yard sack of Stafford aborted the Rams’ ensuing possession, with the 49ers countering with a seven-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Deebo Samuel’s 11-yard run with a Purdy lateral.
“I kind of wrapped around and the B gap opened up like the Red Sea,” Warner said.
The Rams closed within 27-20 on a 48-yard Brett Maher field goal, but the 49ers defense wasn’t done. With 4:58 left, Lenoir stepped in front of Van Jefferson with Bosa providing the pressure on Stafford, an interception which led to Moody’s 26-yard field goal that essentially ended things.
Oliver also stopped Puka Nacua a yard shy of a first down bid in the fourth quarter when the Rams turned it over on downs.
“I thought he was a stud today,” Shanahan said. “I know he made some huge plays. With some of our DBs banged up, he had to step it up because they were kind of all over the place. He did a great job back there.”
To their credit, the 49ers outwardly expressed not a shred of overconfidence despite having won the last nine regular-season meetings against the Rams, having won the previous eight by an average of 14 points per game.
Maybe it’s because the Rams won the big one — taking the NFC title following the 2021 season. Or maybe it’s because of how sore they are after each game against Los Angeles.
“People want to talk about our record against them in the regular season, but it’s always a hard-fought battle like it was today,” Warner said. “They know us, we know them. They had a great game plan for our defense. There are some things we’ve got to shore up for sure.”
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While Bosa had no sacks, he did draw a pair of holding penalties and made a difference late. After missing all of training camp while his agent negotiated a contract extension, he should only get better.
“I think I needed a couple of games to get my body into football shape for sure,” Bosa said. “You can’t simulate it. I’ve been through two. I had some good output in this one. I think it’s only going up from here.”
A week after a dominating performance from beginning to end in Week 1, the Rams had more questions for the 49ers’ defense than the Steelers did. The 49ers ended up having the right answers.