Three and Out: 49ers' OL depth; defense, special teams step up
Michael Crabtree played 42 of the 49ers’ 67 offensive snaps in his return from Achilles surgery. (AP)
Programming note: Watch Monday’s 49ers press conference with head coach Jim Harbaugh live on CSN Bay Area and streaming live online right here at 12pm
What you need to know: The big one was still a week away, but there were no indications of the 49ers looking ahead to the showdown against the Seattle Seahawks.
That’s because the St. Louis Rams had the 49ers’ full attention on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
It started even before the opening kickoff as both teams jockeyed for the coveted ground at midfield for their pregame breakdowns.
Linebacker Patrick Willis yelled to his teammates, “They want to compete with us! They want to compete with us! They can’t do that! They can’t do that!”
And, truth be told, the Rams had a very difficult time competing against the 49ers for the second time this season. Things got heated on the field, but the 49ers always had the last word.
Led by another strong defensive performance, the 49ers rolled to a 23-13 victory over St. Louis to take a one-game lead in the race for the sixth and final spot in the NFC playoffs.
The game featured the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who came back after sustaining a torn Achilles tendon in May. He provided a big play with a 60-yard reception, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick continued working with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis with great success.
So the 49ers added some star power on offense. But, really, the star of this game was the defense.
Some of the 49ers’ defensive starters were off the field late in the game when the Rams scored a meaningless touchdown with 18 seconds remaining. The 49ers did not allow a touchdown over 150 minutes, 40 seconds of game action – the equivalent of 10 quarters.
“A lot of our backups were in there, and they actually need some experience,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “But at the same time, we understand that as a starting defense, we actually haven’t give up a touchdown and we don’t want to give up touchdowns. We want to give up three (points), if that.
“So we’ll be ready this week against Seattle. And it’ll be a good game.”
Ah, yes, Seattle. . .
The Seahawks have seemingly broken the 49ers’ two-year stranglehold on the NFC West with a 10-1 record (entering their game Monday night against the New Orleans Saints). The 49ers (8-4) are three games behind in the loss column with four games remaining.
The 49ers settled for two Phil Dawson field goals while the Rams could get nothing going against the 49ers’ stout defense. Finally, running back Frank Gore broke through with a 3-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter, and the game was never in doubt again.
In his postgame comments, coach Jim Harbaugh got a bit long-winded as he singled out the performances of Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Donte Whitner. He also talked about Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis, and mentioned special teams, including punter Andy Lee.
“That sums it up, I think,” Harbaugh said.
In other words, all phases of the 49ers made contributions to this one.
Clearing a hurdle: Tight end Vernon Davis first exhibited his hurdling skills against the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago. On Sunday, he twice jumped over Rams defensive backs to get extra yards.
Early in the fourth quarter he went up and over St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins at the goal line to cap a 17-yard touchdown play – his 10th scoring pass from Kaepernick this season.
“Pretty much my whole career, any time that I get the ball in my hands, defenders are coming for my knees and ankles,” Davis said. “But it was just in the moment. At that moment, I said, ‘I’m going to jump over that guy.’”
Davis was the central figure in another memorable play when Rams safety T.J. McDonald grabbed onto a – shall we say – sensitive region of Davis’ body on a third-quarter tackle after a 22-yard reception.
“Oh, that tackle,” Davis said when asked about the play in question. “I’m still thinking about it. As soon as I got the ball, the guy was grabbing me, uh, there . . . in that space . . . in that area.”
Crabtree’s contribution: Rams coach Jeff Fisher said during the week that his team would prepare for a full-speed, full-go Crabtree. And, yes, Crabtree did catch a 60-yard pass in which he got wide open deep on a double-move against cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
But the biggest benefit of Crabtree’s return appeared to be the kind of impact it had on Anquan Boldin, who caught nine passes for 98 yards. It was Boldin’s most-productive game since Week 1 when he had 13 catches and 208 yards against the Green Bay Packers.
Said Kaepernick, “It feels great. I mean, it’s always good to have these two (Boldin and Crabtree) at your disposal, on the field, to make plays.”
It was the first game in which the 49ers’ top two wide receivers have been on the field at the same time. And in his first game, Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards. It was the most production the 49ers have received from a wideout other than Boldin this season.
“It’s about time he gets double-teamed now,” Boldin said. “It feels good. When you have a guy like that on the other side, it definitely relieves pressure off of you. It frees you up to just go out and play ball. It’s good to have him back.”
Crabtree played 42 (or 63 percent) of the 49ers’ 67 offensive snaps. He regained his starting job from Mario Manningham, who played just 16 snaps in the game.
Staley avoid serious injury: Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley is expected to miss only a game or two with a right knee injury to his medial-collateral ligament, source said. The injury does not require surgery, and it is expected to heal quickly without any need for surgery.
Staley went down in the first quarter with the injury. The 49ers immediately ruled him out for the remainder of the game. The 49ers compensated for Staley’s loss by moving right guard Alex Boone to left tackle.
“It’s like riding a bike,” said Boone, who played left tackle throughout his career at Ohio State. “I’m back home, baby.”
Joe Looney replaced Boone at guard to see his first significant playing time of his two-year career.
“It’s a sad thing that happened to Joe, and hopefully he’ll be back soon,” Boone said. “But I thought Joe Looney did a great job stepping up today – a helluva performance, coming off the bench and kicking some (butt). I can’t be more proud of a guy than that. I know he’s going to be ready for this week.”
The 49ers were already playing without left guard Mike Iupati, who has missed two games with an MCL sprain. Adam Snyder has filled in for Iupati during the back-to-back victories over Washington and St. Louis.
“Those are big shoes to fill for us, but we’re excited about the challenge and the opportunity to step up,” Snyder said.
Quick-hitters: Dawson made each of his three field-goal attempts to run his streak to 16 consecutive successful kicks. He ranks in a tie for third in 49ers history with Wade Richey and Gary Anderson. Mike Cofer had a streak of 17 in a row, and Joe Nedney has the record with 18 straight made field-goal attepts. Dawson’s last miss was a 71-yarder on a fair catch kick on Sept. 26 against the Rams. . .
Carlos Rogers recorded his second interception of the season as he gathered in a Kellen Clemens pass that deflected off receiver Tavon Austin’s hands in the fourth quarter. . .
Gore scored the 49ers’ first touchdown of the game, but it was not a smooth day for the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. As teams have done all season, the Rams loaded up the line of scrimmage to stop Gore. He gained just 42 yards on 15 carries and lost his third fumble of the season. Gore made his 40th consecutive start – the longest active streak among running backs in the NFL . . .
Punt returner LaMichael James muffed a punt for the second game in a row. He recovered it to avoid a turnover. James did not see any action on offense. . .
Kaepernick completed 19 of 28 passes for 275 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions for a passer rating of 111.5. The 49ers are 12-0 in Kaepernick starts when his passer rating is 90 or better. . .
With his 50th career touchdown reception, Davis moved past Billy Wilson and into fourth place all alone on the 49ers’ all-time list behind Jerry Rice (176), Terrell Owens (81) and Gene Washington (59). . .
Anthony Dixon made a contribution when he stuffed a Rams fake-punt attempt in the fourth quarter. Harbaugh gave credit to special-teams coordinator Brad Seely for anticipating the Rams might attempt something on Sunday. "Brad practiced one similar to the fake that they ran, with the multiple laterals," Harbaugh said. . .
Punter Andy Lee averaged 47.8 yards on four punts, including an outstanding net average of 45.3 yards, to limit Rams return man Tavon Austin, the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Month for November.
Quote of the day: ”We’ve got Seattle coming in here and they are sitting on the top of the division. So we’re going to be ready for those guys, and give them what we got.”
--49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith
Looking ahead: Some of the luster is off the 49ers-Seahawks game on Sunday because of Seattle’s commanding lead in the NFC West. The Seahawks led 5-0 at halftime when the teams faced in Week 2, and then cruised to a 29-3 victory. This is more of a grudge match than a must-win for either team. The actual must win scenario could take place next month in the playoffs.