LOS ANGELES — It was a plot made for Tinseltown: The moment of reckoning for a cast of upstarts awash in hype but, in the eyes of many skeptics, short on substance.
If the undefeated San Francisco 49ers were finally going to be exposed, it seemed quite plausible that it would happen on the second Sunday of October at the Coliseum, where the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams were stinging from consecutive defeats and geeked up to vanquish their visiting rivals.
And sure enough, a mere five minutes and 43 seconds into Sunday’s showdown, the Rams had put the Niners and the football world on blast. After forcing a three-and-out, L.A. got the ball at its own 44-yard-line and powered through a seven-play touchdown drive without even throwing a pass, all with star running back Todd Gurley nursing a quad contusion on the sideline.
To the untrained eye, the 49ers were on the verge of coming apart. In truth, it was merely a choppy welcome to their coming-out party.
“They hit us in the mouth,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, now in his second year with the Niners after seven stellar seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. “You’ve got to give them credit — their first 15 (plays) are scripted and they’re always tough, and (Rams coach Sean McVay) had us pegged. We had to make adjustments and straighten it out. So that’s what we did.”
Sherman is not known for his understatements, but this may have been an exception. The Niners didn’t just adjust to the Rams‘ scheme; they swallowed up McVay’s offense and spit it out for 75,695 fans and the entire football world to see. As impressive as it had looked six nights earlier in a 31-3 thrashing of the Cleveland Browns, the 49ers‘ defense cranked it up to 11 like Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel in L.A.
By the time San Francisco’s 20-7 smackdown was complete, this much was loud and clear: These Rams (3-3) aren’t close to resembling the fast-paced, prolific operation that made it to Super Bowl LIII, and they’ll have to rally to make a run at the Niners (5-0) and Seahawks (5-1) in the NFC West, or even to compete for a playoff berth.
The 49ers, meanwhile, now have their long-awaited signature victory — really, their biggest since a 2013 divisional-round playoff win over the Carolina Panthers in the penultimate season of the Jim Harbaugh Era — and they don’t seem to be going away.
“Before this, we played some good teams, but this is a turning point,” said rookie defensive end Nick Bosa, who had another impressive outing despite being virtually shut out of the stat book. “I think people are starting to realize how good we are.”
If San Francisco’s defense is as good as it looked on Sunday, the rest of the league should be very afraid. Consider these absurd numbers:
**After surrendering that first touchdown drive, the Niners allowed only 48 net yards over the Rams‘ next eight possessions. L.A. finished the day with just 165 total yards, by far the lowest of McVay’s three-year tenure.
**The Niners terrorized Rams quarterback Jared Goff (13 of 24) all day, sacking him four times and limiting him to a career-low 78 passing yards. Goff’s longest completion was 12 yards, to tight end Gerald Everett; his longest pass to a receiver was an eight-yard hookup with Brandin Cooks.
**The Rams, who were limited to 10 first downs, were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions and 0-for-4 on fourth down. That marked the last time the Niners had held an opponent without a third- or fourth-down conversion in 31 years, since a road victory against the Rams (then in Anaheim) on Oct. 16, 1988.
For the Niners, two of those stops stood out above all others. With the game tied at 7 and four minutes left in the first half, the Rams took a pair of snaps from the San Francisco 1-yard line and twice slammed into a red wall. On third-and-goal, running back Malcolm Brown ran up the middle and was stuffed by linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive tackle D.J. Jones.
On fourth-and-goal, Brown tried the middle of the line again, and this time he was rebuffed by essentially the entire 49ers‘ defense.
The stop just short of the end zone, which evoked memories of the famous goal-line stand in Super Bowl XVI that propelled the franchise to its first championship 38 years ago, prompted a spirited celebration — most notably by clean-shaven defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose fist-pumping, body-gyrating sideline gesticulations have become a symbol of the unit’s 2019 heroics.
“Oh my god — that was amazing,” Saleh said of the pivotal sequence as he stood in the tunnel outside the 49ers‘ locker room. “I thought I busted a blood vessel.”
During his first two seasons in San Francisco, Saleh could have provoked similar celebrations from numerous Niners fans by removing his headset and leaving the stadium. As the team struggled in Kyle Shanahan’s first two campaigns, going 6-10 and 4-12, it was the first-time defensive coordinator who drew the bulk of the criticism, with many fans and some media members calling for his firing. In Shanahan’s end-of-season press conference last December, he and general manager John Lynch were asked if Saleh would return as defensive coordinator.
Shanahan strongly disagreed with that line of questioning, and he isn’t shy about explaining his rationale.
“Because I know football?” he asked rhetorically as he walked up the tunnel to the team bus. “Look, Robert is very smart, he knows what he’s doing and he’s a very good leader of men.”
Said Saleh: “Kyle knows that the system works; he knows how it looks when it works and he knows how it looks when he’s coached properly. Last year, we were 13th in total yards (allowed) and 11th in yards per play (allowed). We weren’t explosive enough to create takeaways, and we weren’t good enough to overcome being put in bad situations, but the overall structure of the defense held up to where we were able to play functional defense, whereas I feel like a lot of (other teams) would’ve had a rough time doing it.
“So I was never really worried about my job. I just knew that if we could get the right pieces… I know what the system can look like.”
Shanahan and Lynch made some masterful moves over the offseason, trading for Chiefs edge rusher Dee Ford, drafting Bosa second overall and signing former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Alexander to a four-year, $54-million deal in free agency. Ford had 1.5 sacks on Sunday, bolstering a dominant defensive line that includes holdover beasts DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Buckner was a Pro Bowl selection last season, while Armstead, in Sherman’s eyes, “is playing at an All-Pro level. He’s the quiet star.”
On the first offensive play of the second half, Rams rookie running back Darrell Henderson mishandled a pitch from Goff, and Armstead was there to pounce on the ball, giving San Francisco its 12th takeaway in five games. Last year’s Niners forced only seven turnovers all season, setting an NFL record for futility in that department.
After Armstead’s recovery at the Rams‘ 17-yard-line, San Francisco needed just four plays to take the lead for good, with Jimmy Garoppolo‘s 1-yard sneak on third-and-goal giving the Niners a 14-7 edge. Early in the second quarter, Garoppolo (24 of 33, 243 yards, no touchdowns) had thrown a brutal end-zone interception to cornerback Marcus Peters on third-and-goal from the 1, so it made sense that Shanahan would keep it on the ground the second time around.
And though Garoppolo would later lose a fumble on a fourth-quarter strip sack by All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Niners’ offensive performance was commendable given the context: Though starting tackles (Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey) and Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk missed the game with injuries, creative play-calling by Shanahan helped San Francisco keep the ball for nearly 39 of the game’s 60 minutes.
All three of those players are expected to miss multiple weeks, but this Niners defense is fully capable of carrying the team in the meantime. At crucial moments on Sunday, to the delight of a charged-up crowd that seemed to be at least half-filled with 49er Faithful, the San Francisco D asserted itself in an emphatic way.
Bosa pointed to the first play of the Rams‘ possession that began with 4:58 left in the third quarter, after Robbie Gould‘s 25-yard field goal had given the Niners a 17-7 lead: Backup defensive end Solomon Thomas, the maligned No. 3 overall pick of the 2017 draft, charged into the backfield to take down Goff for an eight-yard loss, and L.A. punted three plays later.
“When Solly got the sack, then you started to see the arguing amongst the offensive linemen and all that s—,” Bosa said.
There was also the four-and-out that followed the Rams‘ best chance for points in the second half. After L.A. defenders Corey Littleton (who recovered Garoppolo’s fourth-quarter fumble) and Nickell Robey-Coleman (who advanced it further after receiving a lateral) combined to give L.A. the ball at the Niners’ 36 with 8:40 remaining, the Niners held firm, with free safety Jimmie Ward breaking up Goff passes on third and fourth down.
And, as previously addressed, there was that second-quarter goal-line stand, which caused Saleh to resemble a human corkscrew who looked poised to drill down into the Coliseum turf.
“Oh my goodness — it was definitely a great feeling,” Buckner said. “When you stop somebody on the goal line like that, it’s intimidating. For every single guy on the defense to buckle down and keep them out, it’s intimidating for an offense. That propelled us.”
Agreed Sherman: “When that happens to you, it’s like a gut wrench. I don’t care what they say: No matter who you think you are, when somebody stops you so close to paydirt, and does it two or three times in a row, that shakes you. We hadn’t done that this year. It’s not one of those moments where it’s, ‘I can’t wait to get a fourth-down stop on the 1,’ but it was fun. Everybody trusted each other, and we came together and got it done.”
If Saleh seemed especially animated on Sunday — well, you should have seen him on the first night of the draft, after the Arizona Cardinals officially selected former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray with the first overall pick. That meant Bosa, a former Ohio State star, would be there for the taking at No. 2, and his future defensive coordinator couldn’t hide his enthusiasm.
“Oh man, are you kidding me?” Saleh recalled, laughing. “Getting him was a blessing, man. I was hugging people… Steve Rubio, one of our scouts, was with me, and we were pumped up. We were like kids in a candy store. I had to keep my composure, but when we left the room, I was ready to go… I got my suit off cause I was sweating… got my head all shiny.”
Now, Saleh’s defense is shining brightly, and it’s fair to wonder how good this unit can be by season’s end. I asked Sherman, who played on some of the great defenses of this era — including the 2013 Seahawks, who beat the 49ers in an epic NFC Championship Game before blowing out the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII — if he felt the current Niners’ D could approach that level.
“Sure,” he said. “Sure. Every situation is different.”
Then Sherman smiled broadly and added, “I’m not saying I’m a common denominator. I’m just saying it just happens to go where I go.”
On Sunday, the 49ers‘ defense took the stage in Tinseltown and took apart the defending NFC champions — something few people could have envisioned before the season began.
As he prepared to walk up the tunnel toward the team bus and head out into the Los Angeles night, Saleh insisted he has known for months that his unit was capable of playing at an exceptionally high level.
Then the serial fist-pumper with the shiny head caught himself, dropped the facade and started laughing.
“I mean, I didn’t know we could be this good,” Saleh said.
Now we know this much, after the Niners put their excellence on full display in L.A.: It turns out the hype was justified.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.