The 49ers won their third straight game Monday night, and it took their third straight comeback.
San Francisco gave the St. Louis Rams and young quarterback Austin Davis a 14-0 head start in the first half thanks to a slew of penalties, defensive mistakes and a turnover that led to a touchdown.
But it took just one play to turn the game on its head, and it allowed the 49ers to turn their misfortune to dominance, outscoring their division rival by 28 from the second quarter on to win 31-17 and improve to 4-2 on the year.
Brandon Lloyd, coming off a key 76-yard performance in last week’s win over the Chiefs, executed a stop-and-go on Rams’ third-year corner Janoris Jenkins to perfection with :14 remaining in the first half down 14-3. Lloyd sped down the left sideline and was hit perfectly in stride by Colin Kaepernick for the 80-yard score giving the 49ers momentum after what had been dreary opening 29 minutes.
”With the touchdown, it allowed everybody to just take a deep breath, get back to playing football,” receiver Anquan Boldin said. “The defense was on the field a lot. First half, time of possession was completely upside down in favor of the Rams. But with that touchdown we were able to play football.”
The 49ers won the opening toss and elected to defer, taking the ball at halftime. And entering the half down 14-10, getting the long touchdown before the break and receiving the kickoff to open the third quarter swung the game.
”(Lloyd’s touchdown) definitely gave us momentum,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We were just talking about coming back and keeping it.”
San Francisco kept that momentum and scored on the opening drive in the second half, when Kaepernick made one of his most impressive plays of the season to find Boldin in the back of the end zone down 14-10.
It came on a third-down-and-1 from the Rams’ 11-yard line, on a designed pass to tackle Joe Staley, who was an eligible tight end. Staley was spun down by defensive end Robert Quinn, drawing a flag for holding, allowing Kaepernick to improvise. He rolled left, and lofted a throw from the 23-yard line to the back of the end zone just over the outstretched arms of Jenkins and into Boldin’s lap for the go-ahead score.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Harbaugh said. “That was another one that’s, ‘what is he doing with the ball?’ And it floats in to Anquan. How he saw him, I don’t know.
”...To have his eyes downfield like that and see Anquan coming from the far right, that seemed like out of his peripheral vision. But to be able to pick it up was huge.”
Coming in, the Rams had the league’s 29th-ranked run defense and was No. 1 defending the pass. It was clear from the outset St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher was going to take away the run and force Kaepernick to beat his team through the air.
The Rams loaded the box for most of the game, allowing a combined 52 yards on 27 carries to Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, who never got in a rhythm.
That forced 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman to continue dialing up passing plays, and it led to Kaepernick’s best statistical performance of the season. He completed 22 of 36 for 343 yards and three touchdowns, all to different receivers. He found Michael Crabtree on a well-run 32-yard post route in the third quarter to give the 49ers a 10-point lead.
But as well as San Francisco played in the second half, they were life-less for the majority of the first. The defense allowed Davis and the Rams to march 72 yards on 11 plays for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, with the help of two key penalties. Ahmad Brooks’ illegal hands to the face, his fifth penalty of the year, wiped out a Dan Skuta sack that would have forced a third-and-long from outside of field goal range. Instead, the Rams received an automatic first down at the 49ers’ 27.
And on second-and-goal from the 6, Eric Reid’s illegal contact penalty gave the Rams another first down at the 3. Three plays later, running back Benny Cunningham scored the game’s first TD with a run over left tackle.
After the teams traded punts, the 49ers appeared energized on offense, and were kick-started by a 28-yard completion to Boldin that put San Francisco in plus territory. Then, second-year tight end Vance McDonald fumbled away a 21-yard gain, giving the ball back to St. Louis. Four plays later, the Rams scored on tight end Lance Kendrick’s 22-yard, play-action reception after corner Chris Culliver bit hard on the fake.
But the Rams wouldn’t score again until late in the fourth quarter. The 49ers defense clamped down on the third-year quarterback, getting creative with stunts and pass rushing schemes to move Davis out of the pocket and his comfort zone. St. Louis came into the game averaging 283.5 passing yards per game, sixth in the NFL.
”I think they did some things a little differently and brought a little pressure. I’ve got to look at this film and see what I could do better,” Davis said. “I thought there were times when I could have stayed in the pocket and done a better job. I’m obviously not looking forward to seeing the film, but I need to learn from it.”
Davis entered his third pro training camp as the No. 3 quarterback behind Sam Bradford and former 49er Shaun Hill. Bradford suffered his second ACL tear in as many seasons in August, and Hill was demoted after suffering a calf injury midway through the season opener, paving the way for Davis to emerge as the starter.
“He did a great job,” Brooks said, who finished with two sacks. “That’s an excellent job … for a (third) year guy, and play the way he did, it’s amazing. He’s only going to get better.”
The 49ers’ defense doubled its sack total of the season by getting five on Davis, including two from Skuta and one from safety Antoine Bethea on a blitz. Davis finished with 236 yards on 21 of 42 completions and a touchdown.
After getting a 38-yard field goal from Greg Zuerline with 2:24 remaining to cut the lead to 7, the Rams got the ball back after a San Francisco three-and-out with just over a minute left 91 yards away from tying the game. But Davis was intercepted by rookie Dontae Johnson on a short pass over the middle, who returned it 20 yards for the game’s final points.
The win moves the 49ers to second place in the NFC West behind Arizona after the Seahawks lost to the Cowboys 30-20 Sunday. The Rams (1-4) remain in the cellar of the division.
With the win, Kaepernick improves to 4-0 on Monday Night Football, becoming the 49ers QB to win his first four starts on the national stage. And with his third-quarter score, Boldin has touchdowns in five-straight Monday night games. He’s the NFL’s active leader with 10.
”They really came after us,” Harbaugh said. “We had some mistakes, some adversity early. Our guys really showed championship character, I thought. And really proud of the way they stepped up.”
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