SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Before the 2014 season began, much of the St. Louis Rams' success was said to hinge on the week-to-week performance of new coordinator Gregg Williams' defense.
After seven weeks of floundering in the same vat of mediocrity, Sunday's 13-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers came on the backs of a defense, especially a front seven, that finally lived up to its billing.
"Coming into this hostile environment, it was going to have to be up front," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "This team thinks they can bully people up and down the field. We were saying they weren't going to do that to us."
It was the Rams' defense that did the vast majority of the bullying, with Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick on the receiving end. The oft-laughed-at hashtag #SackCity began to populate right away with six first-half sacks, the most in a first half by a Rams team since sacks became an official statistic. They finished with eight, led by a pair each from ends Robert Quinn and William Hayes, the first time the Rams had that many in a game since 2003.
Those eight sacks were the most Kaepernick had suffered in his career, coming on seven drives, all of which ended with no points for the Niners. For a team that had all of six sacks in the first seven games, Sunday's performance represented something much closer to the avalanche that Quinn said would follow the first snowflake (sack) just a few weeks ago.
"To have six sacks throughout the first seven games and to have eight today is a heck of a pass rush, especially against a quarterback like Kaepernick who can get out of the pocket fast," Quinn said.
Beyond the finally-in-rhythm pass rush, the Rams held Niners running back Frank Gore to 49 yards on 14 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. The Niners finished with 263 yards of offense and St. Louis found a way to get off the field consistently by holding the Niners to 3-of-12 on third down.
More important than all of that, the Rams found a way to get the stop to win the game when they absolutely had to have it. It's something they couldn't do in home games against Dallas and San Francisco. This time, it happened in most unusual fashion.
Given just three weeks between meetings with the 49ers, Williams and the Rams didn't have much time to look for idiosyncrasies in San Francisco's offense. With such a familiar opponent, adding unseen wrinkles can be difficult. But as Williams studied the Niners' goal-line tendencies and compared them to his own, he recognized something in his group that could be exploited if he didn't tweak it.
Williams saw a Niners' offense that liked to attack a gap between the tackles that the Rams usually left open as they often favored a look that overloaded the defensive line to one side. But the Niners often would attack that gap with fullback Bruce Miller, leaving a guard head-to-head against a linebacker.
To combat that look, Williams tweaked things to allow the Rams to attack the A and B gaps, leaving a more balanced defensive line and asking the Niners to attack on the edge.
With San Francisco at the Rams' 1 and only 9 seconds to play, Williams called for the changed look upfront.
"We really have three or four fronts in goal line that we have and go into every week, so it was just a great adjustment by Gregg and great instincts," linebacker James Laurinaitis said.
The call worked to perfection as Kaepernick took the snap with the intent of going up over the top for the game-winning touchdown on a sneak. Sensing the sneak before the snap, Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar crashed over the top of the middle of the line with the idea that Kaepernick would have to go high with the sneak.
Kaepernick mishandled the snap, lost the ball and Laurinaitis smothered it to end the game.
"It feels great for the game to be on our shoulders and for us to win the game," Dunbar said. "We haven’t been able to close those games in those types of situations and we have given up big plays, and we didn’t do that today. It feels good to do that and I think it’s something we can build on."
Upon coming up with the ball, Laurinaitis quickly showed it to an official. In his hands was the Rams' third victory of the season. It was a fitting bit of symbolism for a defense that was supposed to have games in its hands all along.