Airing it out
The much-maligned 49ers' aerial attack entered the game last in the league in many major categories. And quarterback Brian Hoyer had struggled mightily when attempting to push the ball down the field.
Against the Rams, though, the passing attack that had offered promising glimpses in training camp and the preseason made its first appearance of the season as Hoyer & Co. had what was easily their best performance of the young season. Hoyer finished 23-of-37 for 332 yards with two touchdowns and an interception for a passer rating of 98.0. He stood firm in the pocket despite constant pressure and also added a 9-yard rushing touchdown.
Perhaps most impressive was the step forward Hoyer and his targets took on the deep ball. In the first two games, Hoyer was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws traveling at least 15 yards in the air. Against the Rams, he was 7-of-9 for 227 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Even though it didn't result in a win, it was a much-needed step forward for an offense that seems to be finding its footing after three weeks under coach Kyle Shanahan.
“We had more opportunities, had some better looks, guys made some big plays," Shanahan said. "It’s a matter of time. We went against a couple tough defenses the first two weeks. This was a challenge, too. They have a lot of good players over there. They made plays also, but our guys responded. I think our guys felt pretty strongly that we didn’t play to our capabilities the first couple weeks. By no means did we today, either, but I thought we did improve at least on the offensive side of the ball.”
Capitalizing on mistakes
After narrowly missing on several opportunities for potentially game-changing interceptions against Seattle last week, the Niners really didn't have many chances for takeaways against quarterback Jared Goff. But the Rams did put the ball on the ground on multiple occasions, both on offense and special teams. The 49ers were unable to recover a fumble by Rams running back Todd Gurley, but they did recover Tavon Austin's muffed punt as well as Pharoh Cooper's fumbled kickoff return. In addition, the Niners recovered an onside kick late in the fourth quarter that gave them a chance to win the game in the closing moments.
To their credit, the 49ers turned the two fumble recoveries into points, though they had to settle for a field goal after Austin's miscue gave them the ball inside the Rams' 20. A touchdown instead of a field goal there could have made the difference between winning and losing.
One other area in which the 49ers didn't fare well was getting off the field on third down when they had their chances. The Rams were 8-of-12 on third-down conversions, with Goff going 7-of-9 with three touchdowns and six first downs on third down.
Focus on situational football
On Tuesday, left tackle Joe Staley pointed to the need for the Niners to improve on situational football in order to get their first victory under Shanahan. Third-down conversions, short yardage and the red zone had been sources of struggle for the Niners in their first two games.
Going into the game, the 49ers' offense was 4-of-23 for a league-worst 17.4 percent conversion rate on third down, and they're just 1-for-4 on fourth-down conversion opportunities. Perhaps more maddening for Shanahan and the offense had been the failure to convert in short-yardage situations. With 3 yards or fewer to gain on third or fourth down, the 49ers had converted just 2 of 10. Things weren't much better in the red zone, where the Niners had settled for three field goals and no touchdowns in four trips. San Francisco was one of just three teams not to score a touchdown (along with Cincinnati and Miami) despite getting that close.
This was another area of improvement on Thursday night. The 49ers were 9-of-18 on third down and 2-of-3 on fourth down, including four touchdowns from 3 yards and in. In the red zone, the Niners will surely lament the missed chance Austin provided, but they still scored touchdowns on five of six trips inside the Rams' 20, a conversion percentage they would gladly take in any game.