SANTA CLARA – It’s become an annual rite of passage for the 49ers defense: an interception retuned for a touchdown in a victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Talanoa Hufanga did Monday night’s honors to seal a 24-9 win. When he returned his perfectly timed theft 52 yards with 6 ½ minutes to go, it invoked a sense of déjà vu.
“Man, down that left sideline, just every time,” linebacker Fred Warner acknowledged.
You see, Warner also had a pick-six down the left sideline against the Rams in a 2019 home win. In 2020, Javon Kinlaw taking his interception back 27 yards down the right side to cap a win in L.A, but, last year, Jimmie Ward went left sideline on his own 27-yard, pick-six to spark a 31-10 home win.
As for Hufanga’s, Warner continued: “Man, did we need that. In that series, I had a feeling that one was bound to happen. Who? Of course, Huf of all people to get that. He deserves that. He’s been playing out of his mind.”
Added Nick Bosa: “We knew it would take a big play like that, and no better time for Huf to make that play. We try to reiterate that over and over again, because that’s how you win games.”
The 49ers (2-2) now have the same record as all NFC West counterparts. Here are 10 things that jumped out to me about this win, aside from the pick-six trend:
1. MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (OR SIX)
The 49ers deployed more blitzes than usual and sacked Matthew Stafford seven times, matching the Buffalo Bills’ total in the NFL’s season-opening game against the defending champs.
“We always want that big night — six sacks,” Nick Bosa said, proudly separating the defensive line’s total. “We try to just focus on effort and doing our job and executing our assignments. Night like that just come with it.”
Bosa had an astounding 12 pressures on Stafford, plus two sacks that put him in the NFL lead with seven this season, to which he said unselfishly: “When you have a lot of guys around you producing, it’s a lot easier on you.”
Samson Ebukam’s two sacks had a huge impact against his former team. Ebukam’s first helped stall the Rams’ opening drive that ended with a field goal, and his second resulted in a fumble in the closing minutes. Other sacks came from Hassan Ridgeway, Charles Omenihu, and, as the secondary’s outlier, Lenoir.
What makes that pressure extra noteworthy is how the 49ers managed to cover for injuries on the interior. Javon Kinlaw (knee) was a game-time scratch, and fellow defensive tackle Arik Armstead (foot) returned from a one-game absence before leaving in the fourth quarter.
2. HUFANGA’S INTELLECT
Hufanga is not playing “out of his mind,” to politely contradict Warner. Rather, Hufanga’s intellect is what helped trigger that win-clinching pick-six.
Hufanga recognized a tweak to the Rams’ screen, to which he said: “You can smell a rat when it comes to those things.”
Nickel back Deommodore Lenoir heard the crowd roar and saw Hufanga race untouched to the end zone. “All-Pro Huf, I’m going to start that now,” Lenoir said of the second-year safety.
“He’s just really smart and an incredible blitzer,” Nick Bosa said. “He can do pretty much anything on the field. He trains with Troy Polamalu in the offseason, so that can’t hurt. His mind is his biggest asset.”
3. SAMUEL SCORES AGAIN
Samuel’s ability to snatch a Garoppolo ball out of thin air – with just enough altitude to clear a Rams cornerback – was one thing. Then it was Samuel’s turn to, as he likes to say, “get in the box” for a touchdown.
Helping clear his path were blocks by Kyle Juszczyk, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, but as for running past Rams star defensive back Jalen Ramsey, Samuel noted: “I don’t know what he was doing out there. I just went right by him.”
The result: a third straight home win over the Rams with a touchdown catch. He also had a touchdown run in last November’s home victory, and a scoring grab in the NFC Championship Game loss.
4. REVENGE FACTOR
Players can claim all they want about living in the now, but having a Super Bowl berth slip from your grasp is not something easily forgettable. Bosa reminded his teammates about that, presumably in his day-before-the-game address.
“Just watching that film, you feel the emotions. Bosa was actually talking about it the other day,” Garoppolo said. “Watching the film, it’s silent, you take yourself back to that spot and put yourself in that emotional state. It’s good for competitors.”
The 49ers blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead and fell 20-17 in that January 30 NFC Final.
“I just watched it for the first time this week and watched how our effort was at a different level,” Bosa said. “It’s hard to recreate that playoff effort in a regular-season game. No matter how hard you try, it seems the playoffs just bring that out of you. With the effort tonight against this team, we were able to bring that out.”
5. GAROPPOLO’S HEALTH
It shouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see a quarterback stay loose and throw on the sideline, but this is Garoppolo we’re talking about, so seeing him do that in Monday’s second half raised eyebrows, apparently for no reason, even if he’s still recovering from March shoulder surgery.
Said Shanahan: “I’m sure he just wanted to throw. There’s nothing wrong with him.” Garoppolo, indeed, said he was just trying to stay loose. But he acknowledged: “Every game I’ll feel better and better. The shoulder, it’s tough in the season to get it right.”
He put his health in peril with a 3-yard, third-and-2 conversion run up the middle. Was there any trepidation about taking a path similar to one in which Trey Lance broke his right ankle two weeks earlier to end his season and turn the job back over to Garoppolo? “You’ve got to be smart. … It’s part of football,” Garoppolo replied. “Everyone goes through that, the injuries. You never want to see it happen. You have to be smart when you get in the open field. It’s not my strong suit, I would say, so I try to get down quickly.”
Garoppolo didn’t get emotionally down about last week’s sideshows, from smiling at an ex-teammate after the loss to getting caught on television apparently badmouthing Shanahan’s calls. “I get a kick out of it. It’s kind of funny. You’re always going to get criticized. It’s just the position you’re in as a quarterback and a professional athlete. You’ve just got to roll with the punches. You’re not here for long so you have to make it count when you can.”
6. RED ZONE DEFENSE
The Rams not only failed to score a touchdown, they whiffed on three trips inside the 49ers’ 20-yard line, thus settling for three field goals (against the 49ers’ three touchdowns and one field goal).
“We just knew what we had to do when we got in the red zone,” Hufanga said. “That’s where we wanted to clean up areas. We don’t want to give up points. Three points is cool, but if can hold them to zero …”
In their losses, the 49ers allowed the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos to go 3-for-3 on touchdown conversions in the red zone. This game, they took pride in keeping Cooper Kupp, last year’s touchdown leader, from tying this year’s league leaders with four touchdowns.
Kupp had 14 catches for 122 yards, but as Warner said: “Holding him out of the end zone was big-time for us, when they got down in the red.”
7. LENOIR’S REVIVAL
Lenoir served as the nickel back for a second straight game after supplanting rookie Sam Womack. It’s a just reward not only for an outstanding camp but his renewed confidence. Lenoir started the first two games as a rookie last season, then struggled as the nickel back in the home opener against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, which he now refers to as a “learning lesson.”
“I’m more confident in myself this year,” said Lenoir, who then said of his occasional matchup Monday with Kupp: “Being able to compete against him, I felt I’d be able to redeem myself.”
8. WILSON’S BIG RUN
Jeff Wilson Jr.’s 32-yard touchdown run put the 49ers ahead 7-3, and they would not relinquish the lead. That charge up the middle was reminiscent of a 37-yard run the previous game to help set up the 49ers’ lone touchdown in an 11-10 loss at Denver.
Like last game, the 49ers leaned heavily on Wilson as their workhorse. He had 18 of their 22 carries; Samuel had two (2 yards), Garoppolo had his 3-yard run, and Kyle Juszczyk ripped off a 9-yard gem.
His 74 yards pushed his season total to 255 (4.5 yards per carry average). Last season, he totaled 294 yards, after missing the first eight games because of meniscus surgery from a fluke injury in the spring.
Stuck on the bench: Jordan Mason, Marlon Mack and Tevin Coleman, the latter of whom got called up from the practice squad Monday.
9. LATEST O-LINE WOES
The 49ers’ offensive line figured to be a work in progress this year, but, man, it is becoming a revolving door. Colton McKivitiz left in the second half with a knee sprain, believed to be a medial collateral ligament issue – an injury has already put running back Elijah Mitchell and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair on injured reserve.
Jaylon Moore replaced McKivitz and will have to fill in until Trent Williams returns from his Sept. 25 high ankle sprain. Meanwhile, the 49ers inserted Daniel Brunskill for Spencer Burford at right guard in the second quarter for his season debut. Left guard Aaron Banks, center Jake Brendel and right tackle Mike McGlinchey did their part, too. In fact, the 49ers did not allow a sack and Garoppolo got hit just once, by Aaron Donald, who had five tackles.
10. HEADING EAST
The 49ers’ annual extended trip to the East Coast comes next. They’ll fly Friday to Charlotte to take on the Panthers (1-3) and Bosa’s favorite quarterback to bully, Baker Mayfield. Then comes a third annual layover at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. The trip caps with the 49ers’ visit to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium to face a sneaky squad in the Atlanta Falcons (2-2).
Bosa said Monday’s win gives the 49ers “a lot of momentum. We really wanted this one, going on a trip for a couple weeks. It would have been tougher to start that trip and stay in West Virginia for a week if we weren’t 2-2.”
Contributed by local news sources