Disclosure: I am participating in the Verizon Fans Voices program. I've been given a device and six months of service in exchange for my honest opinions about the service. [Details]
Say this for Sam Bradford, he was the Rams offense tonight. Say this too: the Rams offense was not at all good tonight.
On a night just five days removed from a brutal thrashing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys, there was a hope – an insane, illogical hope but a hope nonetheless — that the short week would actually help the St Louis Rams wash their hands of all the awfulness that has infected their football program.
There was literally no time to look back. When you kick off on a Thursday after playing on Sunday, there's no time for film review. You have to immediately start game-planning for that Thursday opponent and installing that gameplan in practice.
Stoking that hope: the 49ers were coming to town, wounded and embarrassed and seemingly out of mojo against Jeff Fisher's team. The Rams owned Jim Harbaugh's club last season. They took the fight to San Francisco on both sides of the ball, both at home and at the Dome.
And for a full quarter of football, that illogical hope had wings.
Tim Walton's defense was sugaring its front by dancing around the line, refusing to let the 49ers set their protections, and the gimmick stymied their offense. Cornerbacks were lining up at the line of scrimmage! Amazing! Even without a legitimate running game, Sam Bradford was moving the chains. A gorgeous playcall and a throw almost (but not quite) stepped into came thisclose to a touchdown connection to Austin Pettis. A Greg Zuerlein field goal boinked in off the left upright for an early 3-0 lead.
But then, the suck started creeping back in. Missed tackles on defense. Foolish penalties on special teams (and more phantom calls by the officials). A complete absence of a running game. An offense that dissolved into a zero-protection nightmare of checkdowns, hits and fumbles. Cortland Finnegan single-handedly putting points in Harbaugh's pocket to give SF a 7-3 lead and all the momentum they would need.
And the suck went deeper than it had yet gone this season, tapping into a deep-rooted vein of awfulness that hadn't been seen in the dome since Steve Spagnuolo was fired. Run-run-sack-punt became the drumbeat of the offense. Rare moments of good fortune were immediately and soundly squandered. Defensive turnovers were rewarded by fruitless three-and-outs. Successful replay reversals of big plays were just a prelude to giving up even bigger ones.
And then came the injuries. Oh, the injuries. But that's part-and-parcel of playing two games in five days. Players are beat up, tired, too slow to protect themselves, too fatigued to protect anyone else. None more so than the shambles of the Rams' offensive line.
An illustrative stat:
After his 190+ no-sack snap streak was broken, Sam Bradford has been sacked 11 times and hit 16 more in just five days.
— RamsHerd (@RamsHerd) September 27, 2013
And we wonder why he's regressing.
Things that worked
On offense, not much of anything. If you twist my arm, I'll say Jared Cook.
On defense, the combination of an active, unsettled defensive front and tight coverage (gasp!) did make Kaepernick temporarily uncomfortable. It also goaded the crowd into one legitimately LOUD pre-snap eruption that led to Robert Quinn's first-quarter sack. James Laurinaitis also made several plays downfield in coverage, getting his hands on two deep balls that could have been interceptions.
High above the field in section 427, a Droid Maxx on Verizon's network had a spotty but serviceable data connection while in the end zone of the Dome, enough for me to stay somewhat connected during the game. More on this later in the post.
Things that didn't work
The offensive line, for one.
The maligned San Francisco run defense got well in a hurry against the Rams. Our OL generated absolutely zero push in the run game. Daryl Richardson, getting the start despite a bad foot, did nothing. Isaiah Pead, despite being fairly productive Sunday, got benched in favor of Zac Stacy. Stacy didn't get a single touch. As bad as they were in the run game, the OL was worse against the pass. Brian Schottenheimer did them and his quarterback no favors by going with a lot of empty backfield sets, leaving Bradford bereft of blocking help.
The quarterback, for another.
Even when moving the chains, Sam was up to his old tricks, staring down receivers, holding on to the ball too long, failing to throw with anticipation, failing to step into critical throws, and most frustratingly, failing to throw for the chains to keep drives going. All of the signs of improvement we saw in preseason and through the first two weeks of this season were gone.
Total QBR on 3rd down tonight: Kaepernick 99.5, Bradford 2.1.
— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) September 27, 2013
That's not to say everything Bradford touched turned to lead. Atrocious play-calling did him in during the first half, as Fisher mandated a return to the running game. You don't find runs more predictable this side of Pat Shurmur's playbook. When he was allowed to throw early and often, the results improved somewhat.
Total QBR on first down: Bradford 91.4, Kaepernick 46.4. Overall: Kaepernick 83.6, Bradford 24.6. 1st down: Sam 13-18, 131 yards, TD
— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) September 27, 2013
Also in the "not working" category? Whatever it was that Tavon Austin is doing. Aside from the sideways punt return, Austin caught only two of eight balls thrown his way, and picked up only six yards. OROY? Oh boy. Not like this.
The defensive gameplan also fell apart as the game went on.
The Rams stopped sugaring their fronts, which allowed San Francisco's offensive line to establish more of a rhythm in the game. Once they found that rhythm, they started dominating. Frank Gore found his customary running room, Anquan Boldin was able to separate deep in his route tree, and the scoreboard lit up like a pinball machine. And once the 49ers started dominating, our defense — our coaches — had no answer. At all.
However, I would hate for the coaching to point to this game as an example of a scheme that didn't work, and go back to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts defense with 10- and 15-yard cushions given up to receivers. This defense played tired, and hurt, and got overwhelmed, but they lined up right. And for a while, it was working. Obviously, Walton still needs help in real-time game-planning and play-calling. But schematically, they are moving in the right direction.
Finally, and I hate to say it, but even the Rams' "Legends Tribute" fell flat tonight.
Early on, great. nice applause for oldsters that few local fans have any connection to, and a big hullabaloo for Jackie Slater. But by the time the stars of the Greatest Show on Turf took the field, the worm had turned. Fans were starting to boo the incompetence of the team. You could see the sour look on Isaac Bruce's face, the cold reserve on Kurt Warner. They remember the bad old days just as well as we do. And they don't wish them back any more than we do either.
Anyone with a smartphone who goes to games knows the drill — getting data is a total nightmare. 50-60 thousand people all stand up and yell at the same time, and then they all sit down and want to tweet or text or instagram what they just saw. Cell networks get flooded, people get kicked off, and battery life gets destroyed trying to reconnect.
Through the Verizon Fan Voices program, I've had the opportunity to put down my Sprint smartphone (an HTC One, which I still love device-wise) and pick up a fully tricked-out Droid Maxx. It comes with the ability to watch live NFL games, which is undeniably sweet, and its 4G LTE data connection is faster than my DSL at home or the public wifi at BreadCo. I know this because I can use it as a wireless hotspot and stream Game Rewind films to my laptop with better resolution than either the house or the free wifi can provide.
But the gameday experience is the true acid test for a network. And while it wasn't perfect, it passed. My connection slowed down at the usual bandwidth crushes — timeouts, punts, halftime — but it was so much better than what I had grown used to with Sprint's pitiful 3G service. I would still like to see Verizon, and all the cell companies, beef up their live event coverage, but having experienced both services, I came away fairly impressed.
After everything that went wrong with tonight's game, having something to come home with that just works is refreshing.