— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) October 13, 2019
LOS ANGELES — Robert Saleh screamed at the ground. He punched the air. He pumped both his fists. The Los Angeles crowd of over 75,000 roared. “I blacked out,” said the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator.
Saleh had just watched as Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones stuffed the Los Angeles Rams’ second-straight goal-line run. After allowing Los Angeles to score on their first drive, San Francisco held the Rams scoreless for the rest of Sunday’s 20-7 win. “That goal-line stand sparked everything,” said defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
In a game matching two of the sharpest offensive play-calling minds in the NFL, it was San Francisco’s defense that set the tone. Behind a crowd largely clad in red and gold, the 49ers dominated the reigning NFC champions in a win that solidifed them as a legitimate contender.
“If you called us pretenders in the beginning, call us pretenders now,” said defensive back Richard Sherman.
With wins over a Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers team and a toothless Bengals squad, San Francisco’s 4-0 start was, to many, a mirage. Now 5-0 for the first time since coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1990, San Francisco has the top rushing attack in the league and the second-best defense, holding a team that averages over 413 yards per game to just 165.
“They’re going to give a lot of teams some problems,” said Rams quarterback Jared Goff.
“5-0 is a great thing, but we’re not playing our best ball,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
After Los Angeles (3-3) rushed seven straight times for 56 yards and an opening-drive touchdown, even without Todd Gurley, Saleh sat, stock-still, on the bench with a tablet in his hand. On his headset, Shanahan said, “Don’t panic. Get it fixed. Get these guys right.”
Saleh didn’t look up for a full series. Rams head coach Sean McVay, who’d had Goff throw 110 times in the previous two weeks, hadn’t called a pass, and used misdirection and pulling blocks to open up gaping holes. Saleh made adjustments.
— Ryan Gorcey (@RyanGorcey) October 13, 2019
After that initial drive, the 49ers allowed only 56 more yards to the Rams through the end of the third quarter for a total of 112 — the second-fewest in three quarters since McVay was named head coach. Los Angeles finished having gained 3.1 yards per play, their lowest under McVay, as the 49ers racked up seven tackles for loss and five QB hurries. Goff — the league’s fourth-leading passer — went 13-for-24 for a career-low 78 yards.
The same defensive coordinator that presided over a unit 13th in total defense, 28th in scoring defense and 22nd in sacks a year ago dialed up a variety of edge pressures on the league’s highest-paid quarterback, leaning heavily on Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa and forcing McVay to call quick screens and leave the vertical game unused. That allowed a 49ers offense missing three crucial pieces — fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley — to find its rhythm, despite some stumbles.
Jimmy Garoppolo went 4-of-5 for 50 yards en route to a two-yard Tevin Coleman TD run on the 49ers’ first drive, and looked to have a chance to add on with the second, but threw an interception to Marcus Peters in the end zone as George Kittle got held up by a defender
On the ensuing Rams possession, a big Jaquiski Tartt hit on a screen to tight end Gerald Everett, followed by a big stop by Armstead and Dee Ford to bottle up Cooper Kupp, forced a punt.
The goal-line stand with 3:23 left in the half — which included a touchdown-saving stop by Sherman and two stops by Armstead — brought many in a decidedly San Francisco-leaning Los Angeles crowd to their feet.
“It felt like a home game,” said Sherman, who played USC twice at the Coliseum while playing under Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.
Out of halftime, Armstead — who finished with six tackles, a QB hurry, a tackle for loss and a sack — got vertical and recovered a fumbled pitch on a crack toss, and then ran up the 49ers sideline, clutching the ball to his chest. He high-fived teammates and staff members as the crowd once again rallied to the 49ers. It was San Francisco’s 12th takeaway this season. They had seven in all of 2018, last in the NFL.
“When the crowd erupts like that, and you know something good happeend, it sparks our whole team,” Garoppolo said. “It turned into a home game pretty quickly.”
San Francisco’s offense easily covered the 17 yards to the Rams’ end zone for a Garoppolo QB sneak, taking a 14-7 lead.
An illegal shift penalty on a muffed third-quarter Rams punt pushed the defending NFC West champions back to their own 10, as once again the Coliseum crowd cheered San Francisco’s good fortune.
Garoppolo then quickly and easily guided the 49ers back down field after the re-punt, hitting Levine Toilolo for eight yards, Kendrick Bourne for 11 and then Dante Pettis for 21. For Pettis — a 2018 second-round pick who had been challenged by Shanahan in the preseason — it was his third catch on six targets for 45 yards. He nearly had a fourth soon after — a leaping grab in the back of the end zone — but he was pushed out of bounds as he came down, and the 49ers had to settle for a field goal.
San Francisco’s next drive, straddling the end of the third and start of the fourth, was a will-breaking grind, with seven straight running plays before Garoppolo hit Kittle underneath for nine yards to bring up third-and-one. That gave Kittle — questionable before the game with a balky groin — 103 yards on eight catches (on eight targets), and brought up another Robbie Gould field goal, this one from 34 yards.
“George is an animal,” Garoppolo said, inadvertently referencing WWE Hall-of-Famer George “The Animal” Steele while praising his wrestling-obsessed tight end, who hauled in a 45-yard catch and dragged five defenders for five yards. “I don’t know how he does what he does.”
Aaron Donald stripped Garoppolo with six minutes to go, but despite a return by Corey Littleton that included a lateral to Nickell Robey, the 49ers defense once again held. With the then-almost-entirely 49ers crowd howling, Jimmie Ward broke up two straight passes to force a turnover on downs at the 49ers’ 28.
“I’d wear his jersey on the sideline if I could,” Shanahan said.
During an animated postgame press conference, Sherman repeated the names of Tartt, Ward and Jones. “Those are people you should probably keep track of,” he said.
“This game was a lot of fun,” Armstead said. “This is a testament to the group we have. We’re relentless.”
It was the seventh straight time San Francisco had stopped the Rams on third down. They finished 0-for-9. The 49ers also held Los Angeles 0-for-4 on fourth down. It was the first time San Francisco had held a team 0-for on both in 31 years, since doing it to the Rams in Anaheim in 1988.
Saleh, again, rejoiced, punching at the ground and screaming at the turf.
“The Rams have run this division for a while,” Armstead said. “It was important for us to get that turned around.”