By Morris Phillips
SANTA CLARA–Los Angeles’ professional football renaissance–23 years in the making–will have to wait one more week. The 49ers saw to that.
A stifling defense effort, packed with strategical wrinkles courtesy of new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, kept quarterback Case Keenum and dynamic running threat Todd Gurley under wraps for 60 minutes in the 49ers 28-0 victory.
The Rams, bereft of points, had to settle for first downs instead, managing just 10 of those on the night. Keenum failed to keep his offense on the field, throwing for just 130 yards and converting 3 of 15 third down opportunities. Forced to beat the 49ers through the air with Gurley (17 carries, 47 yards) bottled up, Keenum failed miserably. Afterwards, the veteran quarterback tabbed by coach Jeff Fisher over Sean Mannion and No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff, credited the 49ers and their crafty looks.
“Especially on third down, a lot of looks we hadn’t seen before,” Keenum said.
Maybe the most effective of those looks schemed by O’Neil had safety Eric Reid crashing the line of scrimmage in search of Gurley and others. While credited with only three tackles, Reid was a focal point, along with linebacker NaVorro Bowman, for a defense that swarmed to the ball and was rarely caught out of position.
“He is physical and he is fast,” O’Neil said of Reid. “He did a good job of timing it up. We tell our guys that we are only going to blitz the guys that are going to win. Eric is a guy that can go win.”
While Reid starred along with Bowman, the San Francisco defensive line with emerging stars Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial did the dirty work, staying in their lanes to combat Gurley, and getting enough penetration to bother Keenum. Armstead was declared a guy to watch early on in training camp, but rarely played in the pre-season because of a shoulder injury. On Monday, O’Neil deployed his 6’7″ disrupter sparingly, but effectively.
“We had a game plan for how to use me in the game,” Armstead said. “I played a lot of passing situations and I rotated in there on first and second downs, too.”
Dial played directly in front of Bowman and kept him “clean” as radio color man Tim Ryan described. But Dial did even more, deftly splitting double-teaming linemen in run situations. First round draft pick DeForest Buckner rotated with college teammate Armstead, giving the 49ers an edge in combating the Rams’ top offensive tackle Rodger Saffold.
“I think that’s a good thing about the players we have on our team. We can give you different personnel and give you different looks. Guys can play their positions well. It’s definitely going to pay dividends for us in helping us disguise our looks for opposing quarterbacks,” safety Antoine Bethea said.
The shutout was the team’s first since 2012, and they protected it fiercely as the satisfied Levi’s Stadium crowd headed for the exits in the fourth quarter. The Rams longest drive of the night–11 plays–brought them to the 49ers 24-yard line. But with no interest in a face-saving field goal attempt, Keenum was flushed and scrambled unsuccessfully on 4th-and-10 with 2:41 remaining.
For O’Neil, it had to be a redemptive moment. Picked after several higher profile coordinators rejected the 49ers, the former Browns OC accepted the unenviable task of working opposite Kelly’s high octane offense that frequently leaves its defense fatigued from too many stints on the field. But on Monday, the mix was just right as Kelly was politely upstaged in his debut.
On Sunday, the 49ers travel to Carolina with, for now, the NFL’s top-ranked defense for a more telling meeting with Cam Newton and the reigning NFC champion Panthers.