At Long Last: Rams Outslug Niners

Posted Dec 2, 2012

After leaving a 58-yard field goal near the end of the first half wide right, Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein was eager to get back on the field coming out of the locker room to make the necessary corrections so he wouldn’t repeat the same mistake.

As is custom at halftime, Zuerlein and the other specialists came out of the locker room earlier than the rest of their teammates. When they arrived back on the field, they had company as the Rams were wrapping up their 75th Anniversary celebration honoring 20 of their all time greats.

Suddenly, Zuerlein heard a voice newly familiar to him offering encouragement.

“Don’t worry about that one, you’re going to make the game winner,” the voice called out.

When Zuerlein turned, he saw someone who knows a thing or two about making clutch kicks. It was Jeff Wilkins, the man nicknamed ‘Money,’ who had spent 11 seasons in St. Louis and remains the franchise’s all-time scoring leader.

Nearly three full quarters later, Zuerlein found himself in position to make Wilkins a prophet as the Rams and Niners closed in on another stunning tie.

Instead, Zuerlein made good on his opportunity, booting a 54-yard field goal inside the left upright with plenty of room to spare to give the Rams a spirited 16-13 victory.

Finally, mercifully, after almost 10 quarters, after seven hours and 26 minutes, after a three-week wait, the Rams got the result they wanted.

“We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We expected that. We really wanted to finish the fight. We talked about it all week. If it took another five rounds, if it needed to go another five rounds, we said we’d finish it this time. I never thought it would go another five rounds. If I had to go five more, I would to get a ‘W’.”

The victory improved the Rams to 5-6-1 on the season and bolsters their NFC West Division record to an unblemished 4-0-1. In the process, they firmly planted themselves in the mix for a potential NFC playoff spot with four games to play.

Never has coach Jeff Fisher been happier to admit a mistake.

“Earlier in the week I was asked about what it’s like to play a team within proximity of just recently playing them again in three or four weeks,” Fisher said, a grin creeping across his face. “I think I said the games are completely different, so I apologize for being absolutely wrong. Wow. That’s the case of guys just hanging in there. Guys making plays. Guys in the three different phases just making the plays that we needed to make.”
None of those plays were needed more than the two biggest kicks of Zuerlein’s young career. Including the 58-yard miss in the second quarter, he had missed four of his previous seven kicks and the man of many nicknames had left some wondering whether his confidence was shaken.

When Zuerlein came on at the end of regulation, he calmly booted a 53-yarder right down the middle to tie it at 13 and sent it to overtime. If nothing else, the confidence he had built in his teammates and coaches was as strong as ever.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Fisher said. “It’s good to see him bounce back after the miss and he did. I had complete confidence him.”

After the offense was unable to give him a chance to win it earlier in the overtime period, Zuerlein watched as Niners kicker David Akers attempted a 51-yard field goal with 4:16 to go. When Akers’ kick sailed wide right, the door creaked open for the Rams.

Running back Steven Jackson carried five times for 18 yards and receiver Chris Givens made a difficult catch to convert a third down and keep the drive alive.

Jackson’s run on third-and-3 with 1:21 to go came up inches short to make it fourth down at San Francisco’s 37. Although the option to go for the first down was there, Zuerlein knew what was coming next.

Zuerlein missed a 58-yarder in overtime to win in the first meeting in San Francisco but that was the furthest thing from his mind.

“I was just visualizing the snap, the hold, and the kick,” Zuerlein said. “Not much else.  You just run that through your head a few times and picture yourself winning the game.”

As the entire Edward Jones Dome waited nervously, the Rams ran the clock down to 30 seconds, called a timeout and Fisher sent Zuerlein on to the field.

Some teammates watched intently, others couldn’t bear to watch but none wavered in their belief in Zuerlein.

“I didn’t see it. I was looking at the fans,” end Chris Long said. “Last week, I watched the kick and it didn’t go through, so this week, I watched the fans. I heard the kick. I mean, he kicked the you-know-what out of it.”

Following a slight delay, the officials signaled the kick good, Zuerlein was mobbed and, well, he doesn’t remember the rest.

“I don’t really know (what happened),” Zuerlein said. “I was looking at (Punter/Holder) Johnny (Hekker).  I normally just give him a high five or a low five.  He was screaming and then some other people hit me and I blacked out.”

Zuerlein became the first kicker in NFL history to hit a 50-plus yard field goal to send a game to overtime with no time left on the clock and a 50-plus yarder to win it in overtime.

That the Rams were in position for that piece of history to begin with came courtesy of a number of timely big plays late in the game, particularly from a defense playing the type of game they absolutely love.

In another physically brutal game, the defense came up with eight of the team’s 16 points and shut down the Niners’ top-ranked rushing attack save for one long run by quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“That’s something we want to be on defense,” Dunbar said. “That’s something we have to be on defense. We have to be physical, we have to be fast, we have to be relentless and it’s something we accomplished today. So as long as we do that, we have a chance to win games.”

Sunday’s game turned on a pair of big defensive plays that provided much needed points. First, trailing 7-0 and in desperate need of any points, Laurinaitis came on a blitz of Kaepernick that forced him to retreat to the end zone and throw it away.

Although Kaepernick was out of the tackle box, he didn’t get the ball back to the line of scrimmage, was called for grounding and the Rams were on the board to make it 7-2.

Then, with 3:11 to play and the Niners looking to convert on third-and-3 and the Rams trailing 10-2, the long awaited lucky bounce finally went their way.

Kaepernick lined up in the shotgun in a pistol formation with running back Frank Gore directly behind him and Ted Ginn Jr. further behind and took the snap.

Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins was playing trap coverage with the assignment of reading the quarterback’s eyes. As Kaepernick faked the handoff to Gore and kept it for himself, Jenkins knew his job was to take the pitch man on the option play, in this case Ginn.
“Our defensive staff made a great call on that third down,” Laurinaitis said. “They sent some pressure, and it was the perfect pressure and the perfect play. I’m just happy that ball rolled our way and Janoris scored his third touchdown in two weeks. He’s on fire. I hope he keeps it up.”

As Kaepernick’s pitch flew wide, Jenkins flew to the ball, grabbed it and rolled into the end zone from 2 yards out for his third touchdown in two weeks. Bradford followed by hitting tight end Lance Kendricks for a 2-point conversion to tie it at 10 with 3:04 to go.

“Each and every day, the coaches say we are going to get those turnovers, we are going to get those bounces,” Jenkins said. “The last two weeks it has been going pretty well for us and we have just got to keep it up.”

From there, it was all about the rookie kicker.  When the game was over, Wilkins insisted on the opportunity to see Zuerlein in the locker room. There, he told the rookie to take his holder (Johnny Hekker) and long snapper (Jake McQuaide) out to dinner.

Finding anyone to take any or all of that trio out to grab a bite wouldn’t have been hard in the Rams locker room. On a day that nearly ended in the same bizarre way as the first meeting, a giant sigh of relief and joy came thundering out of the Rams locker room.

With four games to go in the season, anything is possible. And if belief was lacking before Sunday’s dramatic turn of events, perhaps now it’s more abundant than it’s been in a long, long time.

“It’s over, we finally won,” Bradford said. “It took 10 quarters, but we finally came out on top. It’s a huge win for this team and this organization. It’s just something for us to build on going into the future.”