SANTA CLARA — If the 49ers’ 31-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams Monday night looked familiar, that’s because it was familiar.
Go back to 2019, the year they went to the Super Bowl. Or even last season when they beat the Rams twice.
So maybe it wasn’t all that shocking that for all the 49ers’ issues, the mere sight of playing the Rams served as a defibrillator for the 2021 season.
Make a couple of plays on defense. Get a lead. Run the ball early, often and late. Complete just enough passes for a semblance of balance. This is 49ers football, and for all the talk of finesse in their Super Bowl history, at their best the goal is to beat their opponent to the punch. That goes back to the Bill Walsh days, where he’d compare the 49ers’ style to boxing.
When the 49ers were good under Jim Harbaugh they were physical. In Kyle Shanahan’s lone winning season as a head coach, they were physical. ESPN analyst Louis Riddick reminded me of that during a Saturday conversation when breaking down their Monday night game against the Rams.
“This is a physically tough team,” Riddick said. “This is a very mentally resilient team. The games they played against the Rams last year they physically beat them up like a bully. And that’s how they’ll have to play it on Monday.”
Their dominance was written all over the final gamebook. Shanahan wanted 40 rushing plays. The 49ers ran it 44 times for 156 yards. The relentless short- and medium-yardage gains kept third downs manageable and behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo the 49ers converted eight of their first 10 third downs opportunities. (They finished 8 of 14). The 49ers kept the ball for 39:03 to 20:57 for the Rams, with Matt Stafford and Co. helpless on the sidelines.
It was a necessary statement from a team that was embarrassed the previous week against Arizona, although it’s a stretch to consider the 49ers’ cured and a contender.
Tight end George Kittle said the 49ers kept their foot on the gas pedal, but this was no Ferrari. It was a road grader, and something the 49ers desperately needed to re-establish their persona. The 49ers averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, their longest run was 17 yards and no other run was in double figures. It was a steady procession of body blows to the kidneys and liver.
“It’s been our identity,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “We like to stay balanced but really we lean toward the run.”
For whatever reason, the Rams under coach Sean McVay have been susceptible to the 49ers and their physicality. In two close wins last season that Riddick spoke of, the 49ers had time of possession advantages of 37:55 to 22:05 and 34:03 to 25:57. The 49ers have beaten the Rams five straight times.
This was the most extreme, given that the 49ers took up almost the entire first quarter with an 18-play, 93-yard that took 11:03 off the clock in the second quarter for the game’s first touchdown.
“I don’t want to say it took their soul away, but it definitely did something,” Garoppolo said.
Then, after Jimmie Ward got his second interception and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown for a 14-0 lead and the Rams countered with a score of their own, the 49ers went on another time-consuming march. This one covered 91 yards in 11 plays and ate up another nine minutes and change.
“They were able to churn out yards and were very efficient on third downs,” McVay said.
The tone had been set, and the Rams were helpless to change it.
“It felt good. Honestly, it felt like pretty similar to the Super Bowl year, when it was like we ran the ball 30 times every time,” Garoppolo said.
And while it was nice to feel like a good team again, the 49ers are 4-5 and the team of which Garoppolo speaks finished 13-3. Shanahan’s goal was 40 rushes against the Rams, something the 49ers did four times in the 2019 regular season as well as in the playoffs against both the Vikings and the Packers.
There was one wrinkle, as Deebo Samuel shifted into the backfield on occasion and ran five times for 32 yards, which Shanahan called in terms of scheme “a different way of doing the same thing.”
As in running the ball, with Garoppolo serving as a handoff machine to fuel rushing yardage and completing enough short- and medium-distance passes to set up yet another run.
Replicating what the 49ers did against the Rams will be difficult, even unlikely, over the last eight games, although their week 11 road game against Jacksonville looks promising.
You can’t take anything away from the 49ers because imposing will is not easily done in the NFL. But the 49ers have proven capable of this against the Rams before. And let’s face it, the Rams were pretty bad Monday night with an alarming number of mistakes and dropped passes.
And while the 49ers defense played well, and got the two turnovers they needed from Ward, the pick six was essentially gift-wrapped out of the hands of tight end Tyler Higbee for a free seven points. That’s not going to happen every week.
The 2019 49ers were a top-shelf on defense on all three levels. The 2021 49ers have question marks at all three levels, the Rams’ result notwithstanding.
The whole 49ers formula worked perfectly and it made for a great night to snap an eight-game losing streak before the home crowd.
Whether it’s sustainable for another eight games to climb out of a serious hole in terms of the playoff chase is another story still to be written.
No amount of nostalgia over what happened two years ago or a target amount of rushing attempts is going to change that.