Sean McVay squatted into a crouch as he rolled the dice.
It was late in the second quarter Sunday, and the Rams coach’s offense — an inconsistent and at-times anemic unit in the season’s first five weeks — was humming.
Even without injured running back Todd Gurley, the Rams ran the ball seven straight times on their opening drive for 56 yards and a touchdown. They were on the move again three possessions later, having marched 45 yards to set up a fourth-and-goal from the San Francisco 49ers’ one-yard line.
Instead of settling for a field goal, McVay left his offense on the field. He trusted it to punch it in. After all, it looked as if the Rams had finally found a rhythm, a balance. Though they were nowhere close to their near-unstoppable form from last season, they had seemed to rediscover their stride.
It proved to be a mirage. All of a sudden, their offense hit a wall again.
On the fourth down, running back Malcolm Brown was stuffed at the goal line, denied by a wave of red jerseys that swallowed the Rams’ offensive line and forced a turnover on downs.
On the sideline, McVay stood up, crossed his arms and stomped back toward the bench in frustration.
It was the start of the Rams’ dismal finish Sunday. Their offense wouldn’t come close to the end zone again. Rather, it unraveled as the 49ers rolled to a 20-7 win, offering their latest disappointing performance in a season that has quickly turned south.
“There was a good enthusiasm. There was a good juice. That was the way that you wanted to start,” McVay said. “We’ve got to do a better job after that of being able to continue that momentum, and those are things that we’ll look to figure out how to do that.”
The Rams’ offensive stats were staggeringly poor Sunday. They gained a season-low 157 yards. They failed to convert on all nine of their third-down attempts and all four of their fourth-down tries. Quarterback Jared Goff passed for a career-low 78 yards. With Gurley stuck on the sideline with a thigh bruise, the Rams’ rushing attack sputtered down the stretch.
“It’s a reminder,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said, “that the fundamentals and details of football will always come back to bite you.”
In Gurley’s absence, Brown and fellow backup tailback Darrell Henderson looked explosive early. Brown carried the ball five times during the opening drive, all for gains of at least five yards. Henderson took his first two attempts for 22 and 14 yards.
“I thought in some spurts … there were some good, hard, physical runs,” McVay said. “Clearly the first two runs that Darrell had were really exciting, where you could see the speed and the athleticism.”
But the 49ers’ defense adjusted. After running for 102 yards and 6.8 yards per carry in the opening half, the Rams mustered just seven yards in seven carries after intermission. Brown finished with 40 yards in 11 attempts, and Henderson tacked on 39 yards with his six carries.
“That first drive, we had a nice little run,” Brown said. “But obviously, defense makes adjustments. That’s what happens. Just got to go in and watch it and get better.”
On the first play of the third quarter, Henderson mishandled a pitch from Goff. The fumble was recovered by the 49ers, who four plays later scored a touchdown to break a 7-7 tie and never again trailed.
After the turnover, the Rams registered two more first downs. An offensive line that lost starting left guard Joe Noteboom in the first half stopped opening up running lanes. Goff was constantly under pressure and missed several open throws, finishing the day with just 13 completions and none longer than 12 yards. The Rams closed the game with three punts and three turnover-on-downs in their final six possessions.
Said Goff: “The flow of the game was really weird. It’s no excuse, but in the second half, we had that turnover on the first play and then we put ourselves in really bad spots on the next two drives on third-and-longs.”
Echoed McVay: “By the time you end up getting into some of those situations where you are throwing it a little bit more, they’ve got a great defense and they’re kind of pinning their ears back and going and it’s kind of hard to be able to get into a true rhythm there.”
In the locker room afterward, Goff plopped down next to center Brian Allen. They talked for several minutes, reviewing the missed opportunities and miscommunication they suffered during the game. They tried to understand why an offense that last season scored touchdowns almost at will is now struggling just to consistently move the chains.
“It’s little stuff we’ve got to clean up,” Allen said. “We’re kind of beating the same drum the last three weeks. We’ve got to clear it up.”
Such was the Rams’ common refrain. Though the 49ers entered the game with one of the NFL’s top defenses, the Rams categorized most of their mistakes as self-inflicted. They pointed to errors in execution as well as erratic production from their passing game and offensive line that constantly put them in unmanageable down-and-distance situations. Facing the latest low point of their slump, they put the blame on themselves.
“It’s those little plays, those little things — the timing, the execution, me knowing where I am in the pocket, everything — there’s a million things that we can be better at, and we will be,” Goff said.
“I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again. We’ve got the players, we’ve got the coaches, we’ve got everybody we need to make it happen. We just need to execute on game day.”