SANTA CLARA If you give the 49ers coaches enough time, they're bound to come up with something clever. Something like Rhino Texas, perhaps.
Following last year's bye week, the 49ers were leading Cleveland by a touchdown in the fourth quarter when a key third-down call was made. It was Rhino Texas, a pass play to 330-pound nose tackle-turned-fullback Isaac Sopoaga. It ended up gaining 18 yards, the only reception of Sopoaga's career and his first since he was a high schooler in American Samoa.
That game also included left tackle Joe Staley's first and only catch for 17 yards in six NFL seasons. Both surprise plays led to field goals in a tight game the 49ers ultimately won 20-10.
San Francisco is coming off another bye today and, on top of that, the team has played only one game in the last 24 days.
All of which has linebacker James Laurinaitis, the player tasked with lining up the St. Louis Rams on defense, expecting the unusual.
"I'm sure coming off of a bye week, they're going to have a lot of stuff that they can throw at you still," he said. "They do a lot of unbalanced (formations) or they'll put three extra big boys in there and do a bunch of stuff. You'll see the, 'We've got Staley eligible right here, we're going to do a little play action and throw to an offensive tackle.' You just have to be very focused every time you're on the field."
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who called Rhino Texas a year ago, hates the term "trick plays." His calls are well within the rules, he said, and to him are merely "football plays." If you have to distinguish them, you might want to call them "mixers."
"They're plays you might want to mix in from time to time," Roman said.
Whatever they're called, the plays fit the 49ers' overall philosophy of trying to keep the defense guessing all the time.
Another way the 49ers do this is by being balanced.
San Francisco is one of just five teams in the league that has called more running plays than pass plays through the first half of the season 239 to 218. The others are Seattle, Houston, Washington and Chicago. Of that group, only the 3-6 Redskins have a losing record.
The 49ers' 218 pass plays are the fewest in the league, but quarterback Alex Smith isn't complaining. So far this season, the team has achieved its goal of having a balanced offense and for the most part has kept opposing defenses wondering if any given play is going to be a run or a pass.
"I feel like we're not predictable," Smith said. "Sometimes, stuff's coming in the week and we're going out and running it a little bit and learning it there. Don't feel like (defenses) are out there knowing what we're doing. We do a lot. We run inside, we run outside. We run all the schemes that there are. It's fun."
Two years ago, before head coach Jim Harbaugh and Roman arrived, opponents indeed, everyone in the stadium knew the 49ers would open games with a draw up the middle to Frank Gore.
That's not the case anymore.
Laurinaitis said he's never seen a team line up two running backs at the same depth a split backfield like the 49ers. That type of formation was in vogue in the early 1980s, but nearly every team, both in the NFL and in college, use I-backs now.
Asked if he played against that type of formation in college, Laurinaitis laughed and said it's a concept he hasn't seen since he was a kid playing video games that were out of date even then.
"They run some weird running plays now," Laurinaitis said of the 49ers. "You'll see some running plays I don't think I've seen since Tecmo Super Bowl, that video game. They throw the house at you."