Reading the keys: 49ers/Rams

Here's how the 49ers fared Sunday in keys to the game identified by NinersDigest before San Francisco's 26-0 blanking of the St. Louis Rams that clinched the Niners' first NFC West championship and playoff berth since 2002.

Get ground game going again with Gore's record run
Frank Gore finished the game as the all-time leading rusher in 49ers history, but he had to work for it, finally getting his 22nd rushing yard on his seventh carry to push past Hall of Famer Joe Perry on the franchise's career list. Gore had an explosive 20-yard burst and finished with 73 yards rushing, but he averaged just 3.5 yards a carry against a St. Louis team that ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 159 yards per game on the ground. The 49ers ultimately finished close to that figure with 144 yards rushing, a statistic that was padded by reverse runs by receiver Kyle Williams (25 yards), receiver Ted Ginn (16 yards) and tight end Delanie Walker (14 yards). But after three consecutive games of struggling running the ball, this was definitely progress for the Niners.

Fluster A.J. Feeley
The Niners did an excellent job of pressuring St. Louis' fill-in signal-caller, who had to pull the quick trigger often and missed open receivers several times with errant throws. Feeley was sacked four times and hit six other times by a San Francisco defense that turned up the heat on him throughout the afternoon. Ray McDonald knocked the ball out of Feeley's hands for a lost fumble that set up points for the 49ers in the second quarter, and Feeley also was pressured into an interception on one of the few times St. Louis drove into 49ers territory, leaving the Rams with nothing to show for a 44-yard drive – their longest of the day. With St. Louis going nowhere on the ground, the Rams needed a lot more from Feeley to stay in the game, and he didn't come close to delivering, finishing with a passer rating of 58.1.

Test Rams suspect secondary early and often
The Niners started off hesitantly but finished with a flurry against the NFL's 29th-ranked passing defense. Quarterback Alex Smith mostly threw short and underneath coverage early in the game, but that began to change in the second quarter, and the third quarter became an all-out assault as Smith hit Michael Crabtree with a 52-yard touchdown pass and later added a 56-yard scoring pass to Kyle Williams early in the fourth quarter to complete the scoring. They were the two longest passing plays and scoring plays of the season for San Francisco, and the latter was the Niners' longest offensive play of the season. Smith also found tight end Vernon Davis behind coverage and hit him on the hands with what would have been a 60-yard scoring pass, but Davis dropped the ball in the end zone. As it was, Smith had a brilliant day, completing 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards and finishing with a passer rating of 142.3, the highest of his seven-year career.

Gang up on defense to stop Steven Jackson
San Francisco's dominant, NFL-leading rushing defense was incredible – and that was even after All-Pro leader Patrick Willis had to leave the game in the first quarter with a hamstring injury that kept him out the rest of the game. Even without Willis, there was nowhere for Jackson or the Rams to run. Jackson was swarmed over and bottled up the entire afternoon, finishing with just 19 yards rushing on 10 carries, and that included a nine-yard run. Jackson came into the game averaging 4.7 yards per carry as a marked man on a lousy St. Louis offense, but he went for just 1.7 yards a pop against San Francisco's unyielding pack of defenders. Backup Jerious Norwood actually had one more carry than Jackson, but he could do no better, also finishing with 19 rushing yards on his 11 totes. The other two St. Louis players to carry the football both lost yardage, and the Rams finished with just 31 total rushing yards, averaging a paltry 1.3 yards per carry. Rushing defense simply doesn't get any better than this.

Give Alex Smith time to pass and direct the offense
This was close to being a no, because Smith was sacked four times and hit on five other occasions. But in the final analysis, Smith had time to unleash his two long touchdown throws and compile the best passer rating of his career, so the 49ers ultimately hit on this key despite some shaky moments in pass protection. And considering the 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks allowed per game after their nine-sack debacle last week against the Baltimore Ravens, this ended up being a step in the right direction.

Improve in red zone and on third-down conversions
The 49ers entered the game ranked 30th in the NFL with a 30.6 rate of success converting third downs, and they couldn't even reach that low figure, converting on just four of their 14 third-down tries against the Rams (29 percent). The Niners were a dismal 0 for 4 in red zone efficiency, settling for David Akers field goals on their four trips inside the St. Louis 18-yard line – including two drives that got inside the St. Louis 10 and one that got down to the 1-yard line. San Francisco's point total surely would have climbed into the 30s and perhaps into the 40s if the Niners had been better in these two categories. Instead, they incurred their usual struggles in these problem areas.

Don't get beat deep by Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd was about the only game-breaker the 49ers really had to worry about Sunday, and he had burned them for 169 yards receiving and a touchdown in last year's game against Denver in England when Lloyd was playing for the Broncos. But the Niners did an outstanding job in the rematch of keeping him in check as the Rams inexplicably sent only two passes Lloyd's way the entire afternoon. Lloyd did beat cornerback Tarell Brown for a highlight-reel 34-yard catch down the left sideline on the third play of the second half, but Feeley was intercepted on the next play to end that threat and Lloyd was never heard from again the remainder of the day.

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