Three and Out: 49ers' OL depth; defense, special teams step up
Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers are 8-4 and in sole possession of sixth place in the NFC. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
As a matter of aesthetics and import, the 49ers’ 23-13 win over St. Louis lacked . . . well, either. They performed a stirring homage to the 2011 team if they did anything at all, creating a lasting tribute to the art of doing just enough enough times to prevent a game from becoming dramatic.
And good on them for that. It’s December, and style points are for fantasy owners and fools. The 49ers are a wild card team, barring collapses from either the Seattle Seahawks in the best-case scenario or themselves in the worst, and their universe actually boils down to Arizona, Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia.
That’s a drive and two long irons from Seattle, to be sure.
But the games must be played, and the tasks are victories and health . . . which leads us to Sunday’s vortices:
1) The win: The 49ers did not do anything that would amaze you statistically save devour the Ram offense. They forced six drives to die inside of five plays, allowed only a garbage time touchdown pass from Kellen Clemens to Brian Quick, and in general reminded the Rams why they are, well, the Rams.
2) The health: Tackle Joe Staley, the one offensive lineman who can honestly say he was having a better year than he did a year ago (when the entire unit was having a better year than the year before), injured his right knee barely three minutes into the game, and was almost immediately declared out for the game, a pretty reliable sign that the injury is a serious one.
[RELATED: Staley"s injury not a season-ender]
True to their corporate vision of releasing no news before its time, the 49ers did not advance any information on how long Staley would be out or what corrective measures might have to be taken to repair the damage. But assuming it is as serious at it seemed – at least a couple of weeks and maybe more -- it means that the 49er offensive line is now down to two regulars – center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis.
More news on that is expected by midweek, as head coach Jim Harbaugh usually doesn’t drop any news at his day-after-the-deed pressers, and his usual tell, “We dodged a bullet there,” was absent from his postgame media mixer. As for Staley, he knew what the diagnosis was, but told a few reporters, “I’m not going to tell you,” which is more indication that his news is, if not bad, then at least under-good.
But in the larger, less personalized picture, the 49ers got all they wanted Sunday.
They got the expected win over an injury-tortured and eliminated team while the Cardinals were being deconstructed in Philadelphia.
They saw Crabtree’s season debut as an unfettered triumph, with him moving free and easy in catching two balls for 68 yards, including a 60-yard stop-and-go while dry-roasting cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
They saw Davis hurdle safety Rodney McLeod, and then Janoris Jenkins later, one for a 20-yard gain that set up their second field goal and the other on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick three plays into the fourth. His striking imitations of world 110-meter hurdle champion Aries Merritt suggest among other things that defensive players will now complain even more that their striking area on ball-carriers has been even more greatly reduced – a problem St. Louis safety T.J. McDonald took into his own hands in the third quarter.
Davis took a 22-yard completion from quarterback Colin Kaepernick toward the 49er sideline when McDonald, trying to secure a hold somewhere, inadvertently found the one place between the helmet (which is illegal) and the knee (which is unscrupulous) that ends a play every time.
To be blunt, McDonald accidentally grabbed Davis by his wedding tackle, and Davis stayed down awhile and missed a play while he assessed his future – if you know what we mean, and we think you do.
But he survived, although “I’m still feeling it now,” as he said afterward, was a harbinger for a difficult evening of enforced lounging.
And survival is the essence of December football. The 49ers met their weekly burden, and host Seattle next Sunday in a game that most people thought would have meant much more back in September.
Then, it was for the best record in the conference. Now, it is just a much better version of the Ram game – a grudge match that doesn’t change the division much but may alter their personal outlooks between now and the final table.