The Takeaway: 49ers Hitting Their Stride

The San Francisco 49ers pushed their record to 8-4 with their 23-13 win over the Rams Sunday. They moved a full game ahead of the Arizona Cardinals in the playoff standings, who lost in Philadelphia to fall to 7-5. Michael Crabtree returned after his 11-game absence and contributed right away. Inside we break down Sunday's win in a free preview of premium content.

Michael Crabtree returned, Colin Kaepernick played well against a tough defense and the 49ers gained a game in the playoff race.

With the Eagles' 24-21 win over Arizona, San Francisco (8-4) moves a game ahead of both teams that are on the outside looking in at a postseason berth.

In a game that featured few uncomfortable moments for the 49ers, they handled the Rams the way a good team should against an inferior division opponent.

Colin Kaepernick threw for the second-most yards of the season (275) and put up 200-plus in back-to-back weeks for the first time all year. The defense was its typical self and allowed its first touchdown since the second quarter of the Saints game when the Rams scored with 18 second left.

Crabtree's Return

Any thought the 49ers would play Michael Crabtree sparingly in his 2013 debut are out the window. According to Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group, Crabtree played in 38 of the 49ers' first 54 plays.

And although he only had two catches, the results from the passing game finally met the expectations coming into the season.

"It's about time he gets double-teamed now," Anquan Boldin cracked after the game. "It feels good. When you have a guy like that on the other side of you, it definitely relieves pressure. It frees you up to just go out and play ball, so it's good to have him back."

Boldin finished with a team-high nine receptions for 98 yards after gashing the Rams in Week 4's win for five catches and 90 yards.

Crabtree was targeted just four times and made two catches. But he made one of the plays of the game when ran a stop-and-go route on Trumaine Johnson that ended up going for 60 yards in the third quarter.

In the postgame presser, Crabtree, Boldin and Kaepernick all took to the podium together. Both Boldin and the quarterback ribbed Crabtree for not scoring on the spring down the right side of the field.

"I should have taken that to the house, made the most of my opportunity," Crabtree said laughing. "I tried to make it happen. I came up short but it was a good play."

Crabtree's day didn't start off so well, as he committed two penalties on his first drive. The first was a block in the back that negated a 13-yard run from Frank Gore. Three plays later he committed offensive pass interference on his first target of the season.

But overall, the passing game had an impressive day led by Boldin's clutch performance that included a number of first-down catches. Vernon Davis added 82 yards on four receptions, including two highlight-reel hurdles of Rams defenders. His touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter virtually put the game out of reach for St. Louis.

Contributions Across the Board on Defense

Jim Harbaugh wasn't shy about flowering his team with praise after the game. The defense went nine quarters between touchdowns allowed and St. Louis lone score in garbage time.

"I'm going to start with Glenn Dorsey, because I'm really excited just to watch the tape of him. There was one play where he played a wham and he defeated three blockers. And he had tackles. And he had a hurry. I think it starts there," Harbaugh said.

After missing the last two weeks with a high ankle sprain, Ray McDonald returned to the lineup and played well. He was gifted a sack in the first quarter after Justin Smith forced Kellen Clemens to run into his own lineman.

The Rams ran for just 114 yards after averaging nearly 190 over their last three weeks. Most of their offensive production came in the last quarter when the outcome was already decided.

Through three quarters, St. Louis had just 122 net yards before finishing with 312. NaVorro Bowman and Donte Whitner lead the team with 10 and seven tackles respectively.

A Fake Gone Bad

It was just a 10-point game at the end of the fourth quarter when Frank Gore fumbled deep in St. Louis territory, giving the Rams a shot of momentum and a chance to make it a one-score game.

San Francisco's defense held and forced a three-and-out. And Jeff Fisher, recalling last year's tie in the same building where he called two fake punts, tried it again. Only this time, the 49ers were prepared and Anthony Dixon stopped Matt Giordano cold after he received a direct snap.

"(Special teams coordinator) Brad (Seely) practiced one similar to the fake that they ran, with the multiple laterals, on Thursday I believe," Harbaugh said. "And then leaving our defense in a couple times to anticipate the fakes. I thought our special teams did a great job."

Instead of Gore's fumble costing the 49ers field position, Fisher's decision to run the fake put the 49ers at virtually the same spot it was prior to the turnover.

On the next play, Davis scored his touchdown to make it a 23-6 game.

Shuffling on the Line

If there's bad news coming out of Candlestick from Sunday, it's that Joe Staley suffered what appeared to be a significant right knee injury on the team's first drive. He was announced as done for the day before he even made his way to the locker room.

On the bright side, Alex Boone returned to his college position of left tackle and did not allow a sack to the NFC's leader Robert Quinn.

"Just like riding a bike. Back home, baby," Boone said.

Boone said he only gets three or four reps at tackle each week in case either Staley or Anthony Davis goes down with an injury. But even then, he said he doesn't take them very seriously.

"I kind of b---- and moan about it," he said.

Boone played left tackle during his time at Ohio State before converting to guard with San Francisco after joining the team as a rookie free agent in 2009.

"I thought Joe Looney did a great job stepping up today. Hell of a performance, just coming off the bench and kicking some ass."

Staley's injury meant the 49ers were down two starters on the offensive line. Boone said that the plan was to move him to either tackle spot should one go down, and not Adam Snyder, who was already in the game playing left guard in place of Mike Iupati.

Looney received his first extended play of his career after being drafted in the fourth round in 2012. He had not been on the active 46 until Iupati went down three weeks ago against Carolina.

"People had to step up. And the offensive line was the biggest case. Alex Boone moving to left tackle, I thought he did extremely well. It also appeared Joe Looney did an admirable job. One holding penalty, but other than that, I think he owned his job."

With Staley's status up in the air, Looney might have to be plugged into the starting lineup going forward.

"It's terrible when you see a guy go down, especially Joe Staley who is a pro bowler. But we have leaders on this offensive line and their focus was on winning the game. Everybody felt bad that Joe went down, but we had to focus on the game," Looney said.

Seahawks Looming

San Francisco has a chance at redemption this week with the Seahawks coming to town for the first time since last October.

And at 8-4, they have a full-game lead on Philadelphia and Arizona. They own the tiebreaker against Arizona after their win earlier this season. However they would lose the tiebreaker with the Eagles because of their better conference record.

"They embarrassed us last time we were there," Donte Whitner said. "But we feel like we'll be ready for the test and it's going to be a really, really big game and we're looking forward to it."

But after getting outscored by a combined 71-16 in their last two meetings (both on the road), a win against the NFC's best team could go a long way for their confidence level.

"We understand that when they come here it's a lot more difficult for them. They don't have the crowd noise behind them to mess with our offense. On defense we feel like we can match up with them," Whitner said.

Should the Seahawks lose to the Saints on Monday night, the 49ers would be two games back with four games to play including their match up next week. A division title isn't completely out of the realm of possibility, yet.

"We're gonna go to the next game prepared and know what the stakes are," Harbaugh said. "That's life-giving energy to a football player, a team. And, we're in a position we're in and we control our destiny. And, here we go."


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