After a weird few weeks to open the season, the 49ers looked a bit more like their vintage selves on Monday night. At least, Deebo Samuel did enough things to carry the offense to a much-needed win, and the defense was nonsensically good. It resulted in a 24-9 win that puts the 49ers, at 2-2, tied for the NFC West lead.
Even without Javon Kinlaw, and with Arik Armstead playing very limited snaps (and eventually being ruled out for the game), the Rams could not find their way into the end zone. The tone was set early; bend, don’t break.
It’s one of those football coach cliche catchphrases, but the 49ers defense exemplified it.
It was a fairly classic start for the Rams. They have a tendency to open with well-scripted drives against San Francisco. But after six completions, split evenly between Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee, the Rams offense was shut down.
There was a false start from Joe Noteboom and two plays later, Samson Ebukam sacked Matthew Stafford, forcing the Rams into an opening field goal. It was one of seven for the 49ers on Monday night and one of two Ebukam would have.
Los Angeles ran into that situation thrice, coming up with just nine points deep into the fourth quarter.
The 49ers offense, meanwhile, leaned on a heavy dose of screens. There were three defining offensive plays, if not a fourth missed one.
It began with a retort to the Rams’ opening field goal, as the 49ers checked to a run play and Jeff Wilson Jr. stormed untouched into the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown.
That opening 49ers drive was also marked by a departure from last week’s third-down woes. Garoppolo found Jauan Jennings — who’s taken on that third-down stud role from Kendrick Bourne over the last few seasons — twice for third-down conversions.
But the play of the game, at least on offense, was Samuel pulling out all the stops. He’s an underrated high-point catcher of the ball, and highlighted that skill before all the others he’s known for so well.
It changed the feel of the game from a situation like last Sunday night, when the offense failed to separate from the Denver Broncos.
Samuel was everything the 49ers paid him to be; athletic, aggressive, and an all-out, elite, instinctual football player.
That set the 49ers up with a 14-6 lead at the half. It should be mentioned that San Francisco was pressuring Matt Stafford in that half and the one to follow, with Nick Bosa picking up two sacks for a league-leading 6.0 on the season.
He was not alone. Deommodore Lenoir secured his first career sack on a blitz, and three other players (Ebukam, Ridgeway, Omenihu — his first regular season sack since 2020) got on the board.
That’s not to mention the outrageous linebacker performances from Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner. Greenlaw had a game-high 14 tackles, including one for a loss, and Warner was second on the 49ers with eight tackles, and his elite coverage. He put the clamps on Cooper Kupp on an end zone attempt.
But even with that elite performance, the game hung in the balance late.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Kyle Shanahan, after a 3rd-and-1 at the Rams’ 1-yard line, opted for a field goal to put the 49ers up 17-9. The play that preceded it was a near George Kittle touchdown. It was a perfect pass from Jimmy Garoppolo, but it looked like he missed Brandon Aiyuk in the flat.
That left a bit of an uneasy feeling for a while. After a defensive stop, the 49ers offense went for a 42-yard field goal and missed. It put Shanahan’s decision to kick at the 1 in line for further scrutiny.
But that proved meaningless thanks to the efforts of a defense that was determined to avoid a similar fate to last week.
With 6:36 on the clock and LA trailing by just eight, Talanoa Hufanga read a screen pass to perfection, housing it for a 52-yard touchdown, icing the game.
It was a punctuation mark to a near-flawless defensive performance.
There was an extra exclamation to come a bit later in the fourth, when Samson Ebukam strip-sacked Stafford for his second sack of the game. The 49ers recovered, then sat on the ball.
Ebukam’s been a tremendous bookend to Nick Bosa thus far and has 3.0 sacks already. He’s topped out at 4.5 sacks over each of the last three seasons and made it clear he had a goal to exceed that this season.
This was a defensive performance that still left some plays out there. There were two eyesore drops from Tashaun Gipson Sr. and Fred Warner that were both easy picks.
It’s a fascinating to think that there’s more the defense can do. It’s clear the offense can be a lot better, and the reliance on short throws to Samuel and co., while productive, can’t be the only option going forward.
That said, with a defense like the one San Francisco has, the offense doesn’t have to do all that much for this team to remain competitive.