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Notebook: Defense Keeps it Close

Posted Dec 2, 2012

Not even 149 minutes and 30 seconds could separate the 49ers and Rams. From Candlestick Park to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, the two NFC West foes had played even football dating back to the Week 10 24-24 tie.

Greg Zuerlein changed all that.

With just 30 seconds left in overtime, Zuerlein booted through a 54-yard field goal to give the Rams a gritty 16-13 win over the visiting 49ers in a Sunday matinee. With the defeat, San Francisco’s record fell to 8-3-1 ahead of second-place Seattle (7-5) in the division.

“It means that we haven’t arrived,” Donte Whitner said of the tough defeat. “It means that we have four games to get better, then playoffs. We’ll start that this week. We felt like we let this one slip out of our grasp.”

Just like regulation, the extra period featured a solid performance from the defense until a buzzer-beating score.

St. Louis won the overtime coin toss, but the 49ers forced two Rams punts. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Zuerlein’s game-winner followed a drive that featured a David Akers miss from 51 yards out.

The field goal accounted for half of the points allowed by the 49ers defense all night, as Zuerlein also hit a 53-yarder as the clock expired in regulation to tie the game 13-13. Otherwise, the Rams finished with nine punts, one turnover on downs and a missed field goal from 58 yards out.

“It’s disappointing when you can’t go out and finish games,” Tarell Brown said. “Sometimes it’s like that. You win as a team, you lose as a team. We’ve just got to stick together and keep fighting.”

Brown played a huge role in the keeping the game knotted at the end of regulation, turning in a key pass breakup midway through the third quarter. Facing a 7-0 deficit on 4th-and-1 at the San Francisco 4-yard line, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford lofted one toward the back right pylon to Austin Pettis. Brown swooped in at the last moment to knock the ball loose, giving the 49ers the ball for a game-changing possession.

On the fourth play of the ensuing drive, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, giving the Rams a safety. Kaepernick also threw an errant pitch attempt over Ted Ginn Jr.’s head in the fourth quarter, leading directly to a Rams touchdown as Janoris Jenkins recovered the ball in the end zone. St. Louis converted the subsequent 2-point conversion to make it a 10-10 game with 3:04 remaining.

But the young quarterback didn’t shy away from the spotlight after the game, taking his share of the blame after the first defeat of his career.

“Our defense played a great game,” Kaepernick said after his third NFL start. “I gave up those points that were on the scoreboard for the Rams. That’s 100 percent my fault.”

Kaepernick finished 21 of 32 for 208 yards through the air and rushed the ball nine times for 84 yards, 50 of which came on a big fourth-quarter run to set up an Akers field goal. Meanwhile, Bradford (26 of 39, 221 yards) had trouble getting the St. Louis offense in rhythm for most of the afternoon and running back Steven Jackson was also held in check, picking up just 48 yards on 21 carries.

Despite the disappointing result, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was still optimistic about his team’s ability to bounce back.

“It’ll test us,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll test our character as a team. The way our team competes and fights and plays with the effort that they do, I know I feel good about the guys and our character.”

The contest featured the usual display of solid 49ers tackling. Justin Smith led the 49ers with eight tackles, including his third sack of the year, while Aldon Smith had a record-setting sack of his own.

But the 49ers got the loss and that’s all that matters. They enter next week’s home matchup against the Miami Dolphins needing a victory in the tightly contested NFC West.

“It’s definitely difficult,” Tarell Brown said. “We have our backs against the wall and we’ve really got to come out fighting. It’s all or nothing, really. We have to come out and win these next few games.”

Aldon Smith Makes History

Whenever you tie a 49ers franchise record set by Fred Dean, you know you’re doing something right.

With his second-quarter sack of Bradford, Aldon Smith raised his 2012 sack total to 17.5, tying Dean’s single-season mark set in 1983. Aldon Smith also pushed his career total 31.5, surpassing the previous NFL record of 31 set by the late, great Reggie White in his first two years of his career.

“We can’t let this loss keep us down,” Aldon Smith said. “Defense is playing good football overall. We’ve just got to keep improving and take it to the next game.”

Smith was close to having multiple quarterback takedowns in another disruptive performance. He was also happy to see Justin Smith pick up his third sack in three games.

“Justin and me work together tremendously,” Aldon Smith said. “He brings a lot of attention because he’s a great player, and I’m able to feed off of that and we’re able to get back there and create big plays.”

Michael Wilhoite Makes NFL Debut

On Friday, Michael Wilhoite was elevated to the 53-man roster. On Sunday, he stepped between the lines as a crucial special teams contributor in front of his family and friends in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome to make his NFL debut.

“To be on the same field as some of these guys is just an honor,” Wilhoite said. “It’s real humbling. It’s amazing.”

Wilhoite is a reserve linebacker out of Washburn University who spent the first 12 weeks of the season the 49ers practice squad after spending a lot of time with the unit in 2011. He jumped right into the action as part of the kickoff cover team to start the game before also taking part in the team’s punt coverage and return units.

“I love the game, I enjoy the game and I had fun today no matter what,” Wilhoite said. “It just didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to.”

Notes and Quotes

Frank Gore scored San Francisco’s only touchdown with a 1-yard plunge in the first half to cap off an 11-play, 60-yard drive. It marked the 49th rushing touchdown of Gore’s career, putting him just one behind Roger Craig and Joe Perry on the all-time franchise leader list. Gore also moved into fifth place tie with receiver Gene Washington on the franchise’s all-time touchdown list (59).

“They play us tough,” Gore said after picking up 58 yards on 23 carries. “When you play in a division rivalry, it’s always tough. No matter what their record is, they’ve got great guys over there.”

Michael Crabtree caught seven passes for 101 yards, giving him the second 100-yard game of the season (Week 5 vs. Buffalo) and fifth of his career. Kaepernick’s 84 yards rushing were the most by a 49ers quarterback since Steve Young had 102 against the Saints on Dec. 23, 1990.

First-round pick A.J. Jenkins was active but did not enter the game. Brandon Jacobs (four carries, 6 yards) was used as Gore’s backup at running back.

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