Sacks and replay reviews. Those were the two main themes coming out of the 49ers' ugly 13-10 loss to the Rams on Sunday and the two areas I watched (and re-watched and re-watched and re-watched ….) to try to get some sense of what went wrong.
First the sacks. During the game, many people suspected the issue was rookie center Marcus Martin, who was making his first start. They figured that the Rams were exploiting a suddenly soft middle of the 49ers’ offensive line. Martin certainly did not have a great game. He had some exchange issues with Colin Kaepernick, including on the team's final offensive play at the end zone. And he at least had a hand in three of the sacks.
But the blame can spread evenly around from this one and Martin certainly was not the root of the issue. The 49ers were beaten physically on some plays (Alex Boone), they didn't pick up pass rushers on others (Anthony Davis) and the scheme is a question mark as well (coaches).
1. Defensive end William Hayes beat Anthony Davis for a seven-yard sack in the first quarter. Kaepernick can evade one defender, but Alex Boone also allowed his man to beat him off the line and Kaepernick had nowhere to go on the play.
2. The Rams sent two blitzing linebackers from the right side of the formation. Frank Gore was able to pick up one, but the other, James Laurinaitis, tripped up Kaepernick for sack no. 2.
3. Hayes got his second sack of the game midway through the second quarter when no one picked him up and he had a straight shot at the quarterback. That Davis blocked no one on the play suggests he is the culprit.
4. The Rams brought seven pass rushers on the play. Robert Quinn, who was working against Mike Iupati, got credit for the sack, but Laurinaitis, who was on a delayed blitz and who was unblocked, had the first shot on Kaepernick.
5. Sack No. 5 also went to Quinn. Joe Staley rode Quinn out and behind Kaepernick on the play. But Eugene Sims pancaked Boone and put pressure on the quarterback from the middle. This forced Kaepernick backward and to the outside, and he did not see Quinn behind him. The defensive end chopped at the ball, causing a fumble the Rams would turn into their only touchdown.
6. Late in the second quarter, Kaepernick saw no one open and took off out of the pocket. But he ran right past Sims, who came off a block by Martin for an easy tackle. It's hard to blame the rookie on this one, however, as he was never truly beaten by Sims.
7. Midway through the third quarter, the 49ers called a play that was supposed to end up with Kaepernick throwing a short pass in the flat, perhaps to Bruce Miller. Iupati started blocking Aaron Donald but quickly passed him off to Martin. Donald is so quick, however, that he was past Martin before the exchange could take play and he sacked Kaepernick for a nine-yard loss.
8. The eighth and final sack came just a few feet from the 49ers' goal line. Quinn got around Staley and Michael Brockers beat Martin, sacking Kaepernick just as he got out of the end zone. The Rams rushed five on the play.
No one reading this blog (outside of Missouri) will like this, but none of the replay reviews was conclusive. It was impossible to tell where the ball was when Derek Carrier hit Tavon Austin and drove him into the end zone on the would-be safety. It's very hard to tell whether Kaepernick broke the plane of the goal line before the ball started to slip from his hand on the would-be touchdown with two seconds left.
The one that seems most evident is Michael Crabtree's catch. He seems to lock the ball in place just as it's over the goal line and, despite the corner of the ball hitting the ground, it doesn't move. The officials ruled it a catch but not a touchdown. It probably was a touchdown, but again, the replay doesn't show that conclusively and officials never overturn themselves unless it is obvious.
However, why 20 seconds was allowed to tick away still hasn't been explained. Crabtree went to the ground on his own volition and he went out of bounds with 39 seconds left. The clock, however, ticked down to 19 seconds before Jerome Boger stopped it to review the play. After the game, the 49ers sloughed this off because they still had a time out remaining to stop the clock. But it's evidence that Boger's crew wasn't exactly on top of everything in this game.
The Rams also were victimized by the officials. In the second quarter, Frank Gore appeared to fumble and the Rams recovered it for what would have been a long return for a touchdown. Boger's crew, however, ruled that Gore's progress had stopped and the play was not reviewable. Gore's progress was stopped even less than Ahmad Bradshaw's was in the 2011 NFC Championship (which, as you’ll recall, created a hue and cry in Northern California). It was a bad call, and one that aided the 49ers.
Remember, this was a defense that didn't have Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman or Aldon Smith, and it held the Rams to 193 yards. Two of the Rams' three scores came after they took over the ball at the San Francisco 36- and 29- yard line after a fumble and a bad punt respectively.
Austin Davis is not great quarterback, or at least he did not have a great day on Sunday. On Perrish Cox's interception, Davis had Kenny Britt wide open on the sideline but inexplicably threw the ball 15 yards short. The Rams also had Lance Kendricks open on a well-designed, third-down play in the fourth quarter. Davis, however, was pressured and threw the ball away. He was not very good outside the pocket.
I thought Antoine Bethea was the best player in the game followed by Chris Borland, who seemed to get better as the game went on. The 49ers might have a conundrum on their hand when Patrick Willis returns to action. Should Borland step in for Michael Wilhoite? Wilhoite certainly has not been bad, but Borland looked good to quite good most of the time Sunday.
Pro Football Focus gave Crabtree two more drops. The second one was on a fastball slant-pattern pass from Kaepernick, and it would have been a difficult ball to catch. Still, Crabtree leads the team with seven drops, trailing only Cincinnati's Mohamed Sanu (eight) in that category.
The drops certainly haven't dulled Kaepernick's interest in targeting Crabtree. He went in Crabtree's direction nine times. He caught five for 40 yards. Anquan Boldin, meanwhile, caught six of his seven targets for 93 yards and Stevie Johnson caught three of five targets for 41 yards.
Finally, Bruce Miller played 17 snaps, the third fewest of the year for him. The four games in which Miller has played the least this year all have resulted in ... say it with me ... 49ers losses. The 49ers seem to think they are obligated to use all the weapons at their disposal. But while that has resulted in a few positive plays here and there, it has resulted in even more mistakes. When it comes to fancy schemes, all that glitters is not gold.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.