By Bruce Macgowan
Special to The Examiner
The 49ers were an angry team going into Monday Night’s game against the rival Rams. They were tired of being pushed around. They were tired of being hit. They wanted to do the hitting. And they did.
It’s amazing how fortunes can turn around so quickly in the NFL. A week ago Sunday, the Niners played one of their worst games of the last five years, getting blown out at home against an injury-plagued Arizona team.
But with a nationally televised audience of millions looking on Monday night, with their traditional rival in town and with their playoff hopes withering, the 49ers eviscerated one of the best teams in football, 31-10.
So many good things happened for the 49ers, but three huge plays stand out.
It’s the first quarter, and the 49ers are up 7-0 and L.A. is starting its second drive of the game. Rams quarterback Mathew Stafford tosses a short pass out in the right flat to tight end Tyler Higbee. The only problem? Higbee cannot get a handle on the ball, but 49ers defensive back Jimmy Ward, who had picked off an earlier pass, does it again, snatching it out of the air and shocking the Rams with a quick 27-yard run for a touchdown. Suddenly the 49ers, which haven’t scored 14 points in the first quarter all season, are stunning the mighty Rams 14-0 and the crowd at Levi’s Stadium is going berserk.
The 49ers are leading by just a TD at 14-7 midway through the second quarter but are closing in for another possible score at the Rams’ eight-yard line. The explosive Deebo Samuel takes a handoff from Jimmy G. then races around the left corner, eludes three defenders and toe dances just inside the left pylon for a TD that puts San Francisco up 21-7. The fans at Levi’s Stadium are starting to believe that they are going to see a win on the home turf for the first time in over a year.
Now it’s early in the fourth quarter and S.F. is leading, 24-7. The game hasn’t been decided yet, but the 49ers are one big play away from putting it out of reach. On fourth down and 5 at the Rams 40, coach Kyle Shanahan decides to roll the dice. He has the Niners’ offense line up rather than punt the ball and the gamble pays off. 49ers guard Justin Skule, who was beaten like a drum by the Cardinals the week before is the key man. Skule does a great job holding off the Rams’ most dangerous pass rusher, Aaron Donald.
Garoppolo has just enough time to spot Deebo Samuel in the middle of the field between three Rams. Garoppolo throws, Samuel catches and it’s off to the races. Samuel glides into the end zone well ahead of everyone for what turns out to be the game-breaking score. NFL fans around the country watching this game are slack jawed, but once again, the win-starved fans at Levi’s Stadium erupt into frenzy.
Here are three things we learned Monday night about the 49ers:
Any team that has stars such as Samuel, tight end George Kittle, linebacker Fred Warner and defensive tackle Nick Bosa has to be considered a dangerous team. And all four men made big plays against the Rams. They lead a 49ers club that has been decimated by injuries, but they’ve inspired many of the backups and rookies. Take 22-year-old defensive back Tananon Hufanga, who had a coming out party against the Rams. He made two particularly nasty hits on Rams’ receivers that broke up passes. Those bone-jarring shots would have made former star Ronnie Lott proud.
We know Kyle Shanahan is a very creative and innovative guy but like all coaches, he likes to see his team establish ball control. The 49ers did just that. They held the ball for nearly twice as long as the Rams. Reliable Rookie Elijah did most of the dirty work, grinding out 91 yards on 27 carries. Look for this trend to continue in the weeks ahead.
Given the time to pass, Jimmy Garoppolo proved once again he is an excellent quarterback. All that clamor about starting highly touted rookie Trey Lance will have to wait. Garoppolo nailed 16 completions in 19 attempts for 192 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. He’s not heading to the bench.
Bottom line: The 49ers defense can still put a chill into opposing teams. Ward picked off two passes, Rams quarterback Mathew Stafford was hounded and sometimes pounded and the high-scoring Rams were held to just one touchdown and a meaningless field goal.
The Rams came into Monday night with seven wins in nine games, but were completely overwhelmed. And remember, this is a club who’s defense features such stars as sack specialist Aaron Donald, newcomer and future Hall of Famer Von Miller, highly regarded linebacker Leonard Floyd and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is considered one of the best in football.
The big question going forward: After such an important win, will the 49ers experience a letdown when they face the lowly Jaguars this coming Sunday in Jacksonville?
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.