By all reckoning, the Rams were fortunate to come away with a win against the 49ers. If not for eight points put on the board by an opportunistic defense – with help from the referees, the NFL's arcane challenge rules, and a bizarre and poorly executed option play – the Rams lose. And if that had happened, one play would have stood out above all others as the crux of the loss:
Here, with a brief rant on the play, is new writer Chad Yuhnke (@squick3n on Twitter).
Please forgive but it's been awhile since I did one of these little rant things. So this is the Rams lone TD opportunity. 4th down and a yard to go after Austin Pettis comes up short on a third-down pass.
To start, bad personnel group. Jackson is the lone back that can pass protect. For some reason they took him out of the game once they got inside the 10. With Pead in the game, if he's in the backfield, it means run.
Which leads to the bad play call. Schotty decides to pass, so Pead must be sent out of the backfield. If he stays in, it's just another pass rusher, only he will not be blocked. They ran this exact play earlier in the year on a failed goal line play. If I remember it then I'm sure the SF coaches and players knew of it too. And as you can see, they all react to Pead.
You could argue that had Bradford immediately targeted Gibson, there could have been a score. But watch the play. A stacked group, they switch on release, then Gibson turns toward Pettis cutting him off a bit. You could say Gibson is open, but watch Navarro Bowman (53). He's jogging under the route playing possum and he brings his hands up as Bradford throws, thinking he's got a pick 6 coming.
So the read is to Pettis, but he has no separation of course.
It actually still ends up almost being a score. You see Pead raise his arms because the pass hits Pettis in his hands, only Tarell Brown rakes it out. Some were saying lol Bradford run it in, but it's not there. If he steps up Bowman and Brooks are right there. I really have no problem here. Three step drop, goes through his full progression, and puts the ball where the WR can make a play.
It's the league's worst WR corps w/o Amendola playing. Whatever you think of Sam, the next guy in will still not succeed with these guys. The only Rams WR that I have seen win a contested pass was Danario Alexander, and he could never stay healthy. Probably the Rams' biggest curse is that only the good players get hurt. The bad ones never get hurt and continue to inflict their awfulness.
This play generated a lot of discussion, so here are a few more notes:
* The Rams originally had Jackson in the backfield, and a wholly different formation, as they lined up to run. I actually preferred this jumbo formation, as I think the Rams can be very deceptive out of it with TE releases, and force the defense to think a bit more. But having already showed it, I can understand why they backed out.
* I looked through the play archives for failed goal-line plays, and came up with two examples where the Rams ran very similar route combinations. Both times, Bradford targeted the WR running along the goal line – Danny Amendola, in both cases.
* The play appears to be designed to work against a zone defense, flooding an area with more receivers than a defense should be able to account for. With two targets in front, widely spaced (Gibson in the flat, Pead at the sideline) and one deep (Pettis), Bradford should have his pick of targets against a zone look. But the Niners adeptly recognized the play and rotated all of their coverage to that side, leaving one lone defender to the weak side to spy on Bradford. It was an incredibly well-defended play.
* Bradford does a good job avoiding a bad outcome here, and even placing the ball in a spot where his WR can make a play, even though he didn't come away with points. But with the benefit of hindsight, he had two possible alternatives that could have gained the necessary yard: a quick one-step drop and pass to Pead, whose cover man is well behind the line of scrimmage, or hold the ball and bootleg against the grain with Mulligan in front to help block.
* A final note on Isaiah Pead's usage: As Chad points out, if Pead is in the backfield, his position and motion immediately telegraphs the play call. If he's in the backfield, it's a run. If not, it's a pass. Looking at snap counts, Pead's 27 snaps have overwhelmingly come on pass plays – 23 of 27 times, Bradford threw the ball. (By contrast, Daryl Richardson's 249 snaps have been split 60/40 between pass and run.) The Rams clearly don't trust Pead as a runner, and his pass-blocking ability isn't anywhere near good enough to sell a play-fake with him in the personnel group. Was he a liability on this play? Yes, I think so.
Again, the Rams were fortunate to be able to win the game, after coming up empty here. But football is a game of shifting momentum and strange bounces. By aggressively going for it here, Jeff Fisher set the momentum. And fortunately, he got the bounces afterward to set the Rams up for the win.