Physical San Francisco 49ers find identity in victory over Rams

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For the first nine weeks, the San Francisco 49ers have been a team without an identity.

There was little doubt who the Niners wanted to be -- an approximation of the 2019 squad that leans on a physical run game and dominant defensive front -- but there were few signs they could recapture that form. Until Monday night.

Whether it's some sort of curse, pure coincidence or something else entirely, playing against the Los Angeles Rams has a certain way of allowing the Niners to find themselves for at least one night.

Such was the case Monday at Levi's Stadium as coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers maintained their hold over Sean McVay and the Rams with a convincing 31-10 victory. It was the 4-5 Niners' fifth straight win against the Rams.

For a team that hasn't had an answer when asked what, exactly, it's all about this season, it was the type of performance that offered a resounding response.

"Honestly, it felt pretty similar to the Super Bowl year," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "That year that we, it felt like we ran the ball 30 times every time that year. When we can do that and be successful on third down, that's a good recipe for us."

The 49ers pushed the Rams around from the opening snap, taking their first possession 93 yards on 18 plays in a whopping 11 minutes and 3 seconds. It was the longest drive of the season by any NFL team and the longest opening drive by any team since 2002, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

"Anytime we get to sit there and drink Gatorade when they're running that ball, that's great football right there,” linebacker Fred Warner said.

That drive set the tone as San Francisco followed with a 91-yard drive on 11 plays in just 7:52. In a normal game, Shanahan says he'd like to reach 30 rushing attempts but he challenged his team on Saturday to get to 40, something it had done just six other times since Shanahan took over in 2017. All of those came in 2019.

After two drives, the Niners were already at 21 rushing attempts. By the time it was done, they had 44 rushes for 156 yards. Excluding kneel downs, the Niners ran by design on 68% of their plays, their highest in a game in the past 20 seasons.

Call it 3.5 yards and a cloud of fog.

"That's kind of us," left tackle Trent Williams said. "We like to stay balanced but we really lean more towards the run. So, whenever we can keep the chains moving, average 4-to-5 yards a carry, that's us. That's 49ers football."

And while the defense had a couple of hiccups, it came up with two takeaways as the offense avoided any turnovers, and got after Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford upon taking the lead.

As the cherry on top, 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel continued to assert himself as a legitimate superstar. He finished with five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown and added another 36 yards on five carries with another score.

In an NFC where the final two spots look increasingly up for grabs, the Niners are right in the thick of the race with an upcoming stretch against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Those teams are a combined 9-18 through 10 weeks.

"It gives me a lot of confidence," tight end George Kittle said. "This is the team that we believe that we have and we haven't been playing up to that standard. Whether that's not being able to run the ball 30, 40 times or turnovers, the fact that we eliminated the turnovers and were able to get two, changes the football game. And it gave us an opportunity to not kind of take our foot off the gas pedal and just continue to roll."

Now the Niners have to prove this wasn't more of their Rams voodoo magic and the team that showed up Monday night is here to stay.

Describe the game in two words: Must have. After an embarrassing loss last week to Arizona, the 49ers looked more like a team set to spiral into irrelevance than one about to make a statement on national television, but they deserve full credit for bouncing back in such impressive fashion.

Buy Jimmie Ward's performance: It had been 1,800 days since Ward had an interception. Ward ended that drought when he intercepted Stafford to end the Rams' opening drive.

Ward didn't wait nearly that long for an encore. On Los Angeles' next drive, a Stafford pass slipped through tight end Tyler Higbee's hands and into Ward's as he raced 27 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

Entering Monday's game, Ward had two picks in 85 career games. He matched that in about 11 minutes while returning from a quad injury.

QB breakdown: Garoppolo's final numbers -- 15-of-19 for 182 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating of 141.7 -- won't wow anyone, but he did everything asked of him.

Garoppolo got rid of the ball quickly and accurately, was excellent on third and fourth down (7-of-9 for 123 yards and two touchdowns) and, perhaps most important, took care of the ball.