It looked like the Los Angeles Rams might take control of the game early on.
Wunderkind coach Sean McVay dialed up seven consecutive runs — none of which went to star running back Todd Gurley, who was out with a thigh injury — and the 49ers’ previously stout defense was missing tackles and needed a re-calibration after allowing an opening touchdown to receiver Robert Woods on an end around less than six minutes into the game.
But things changed dramatically for San Francisco’s defense after allowing its first rushing touchdown of the season Sunday. The 49ers throttled the defending NFC champion Rams, allowing 101 yards over the final 10 series.
“There’s no panic,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, making his first post-game podium appearance since he was hired with coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017.
L.A., which entered the weekend with the NFL’s fifth-ranked offense, had just 41 yards after halftime. The 49ers kept the home team from converting on third down (0-9) and fourth down (0-4) en route to a 20-7 victory at the Coliseum.
It was a statement win for Shanahan’s team, which remains atop the NFC West and with the New England Patriots as the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten teams. San Francisco entered as 3 1/2-point underdogs against the team that won the division the last two seasons.
“I’m very happy with how we played,” Shanahan said. “We’re 5-0, which is a great thing. We’re not playing our best ball. We could do a lot of things better than that. Our defense played at an extremely high level, obviously.”
It looked like an even game for most of the first half.
The 49ers gave away points near the goal line in the second quarter when Jimmy Garoppolo’s fade to tight end George Kittle was thrown well short, allowing cornerback Marcus Peters to make an easy interception. The Rams immediately drove the other way, looking to break the 7-7 tie.
But the 49ers stopped running back Malcolm Brown from the 1-yard line on back-to-back plays, on third and fourth down, setting the tone for what became an ugly second half for the high-flying Rams’ offense. It catalyzed the rest of the afternoon.
“We really had to bow up right there,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “It was a great feeling. Guys were just playing their tails off, man. From start to finish, it didn’t matter what the circumstances were.”
Added Saleh: “(It) completely swung momentum. And the grit and the fight that those guys have, that push, it just goes to show the will of this football team.”
The Rams had 22 net passing yards in the first half. Their first three possession of the third quarter went for minus-7, minus-15 and minus-7 yards, respectively. They had just one first down on their six second-half possessions before garbage time.
In many ways, the 49ers answered questions of their skeptics who believed they hadn’t played any worthy opponents during their previous four games.
They played Sunday on a short week after hosting the Cleveland Browns on Monday night, as the Rams (3-3) had 10 days to prepare after playing previously on a Thursday night. San Francisco was without two starting tackles (Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey), their fullback (Kyle Juszczyk) and cornerback (Ahkello Witherspoon).
“We could make every excuse, but we don’t,” cornerback Richard Sherman said.
The momentum swung further in the 49ers’ favor on the first play from scrimmage in the second half. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who had just 78 passing yards Sunday, pitched to running back Darrell Henderson Jr. and he dropped it. Arik Armstead made the fumble recovery deep in Rams’ territory and Garoppolo punched it in with his second career rushing touchdown on a quarterback sneak.
San Francisco then had back-to-back field goal drives to make it 13-point game, which was more than enough, given the way the defense was playing.
Solomon Thomas had a third-quarter sack, his first legitimate sack since his rookie season. Dee Ford had a strip sack late, Armstead had a half sack, giving him 2.5 on the season, and Ronald Blair III was credited with a sack when Goff tripped over an offensive lineman trying to block linebacker Kwon Alexander.
Safety Jimmie Ward, making his second consecutive start after missing three games with a broken finger, had a fourth-down pass breakup of Cooper Kupp, who finished with 17 yards on four catches (tight end Tyler Higbee led the Rams with 25 receiving yards).
“We love Jimmie,” Shanahan said. “I’d wear his jersey on the sideline if I could. I love his mentality. I love watching him play. He’s had some unfortunate things, not being able to stay healthy. But when he is healthy, he’s one of the better players.”
The team’s decision regarding Ward is a microcosm of a many offseason decisions the 49ers made that appear to be working out. The team stuck with Ward despite a lengthy injury history which included ending four his five seasons on injured reserve, and he’s played well since rejoining the starting lineup.
The front office decided against making significant investments in the secondary, instead rolling with the players they already had despite mightily struggling in 2018. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch elected to bolster the pass rush. Ford has three sacks and two forced fumbles. Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, had his coming-out party last week and was disruptive against the Rams, though he didn’t register a sack.
The results: the first 5-0 start in 29 years and fans flocking to a road stadium in massive numbers. San Francisco fans were far louder than Rams supporters at the Coliseum throughout the second half, with many players noting their impact on the game. A 50-50 split in the first half seemed more like 70-30 when the 49ers were in victory formation.
“When the crowd erupts like that, and something good happens, it sparks our whole team,” Garoppolo said. “It turned into a home game pretty quickly. It was a lot of red out there and we knew it before the game. It’s just awesome to see The Faithful travel like that. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s awesome.”
The same could be true next week when the 49ers travel to play the Washington Redskins, who won their first game of the season Sunday by beating the Dolphins in Miami.