SAN FRANCISCO • Like one of those fake cigars, a fake punt blew up in Jeff Fisher’s face. And the Rams’ head coach was more than willing to take the blame after Sunday’s 23-13 loss to San Francisco.
After the game, he told his players: “I’ll take this one.”
As in: “I’ll take the blame.”
He pretty much told the media the same thing a few minutes later.
“I tried to provide a spark for (the players) and I take responsibility for that,” Fisher said. “It was probably unfair to them. It knocked the wind out of their sails. We elected to try to steal a possession with the fake punt. ... In retrospect, had I known the outcome, I certainly wouldn’t have called it. But I trust the guys to execute it.”
Fisher has made a living for years with trickery on special teams. It helped him get to the Super Bowl as coach of the Tennessee Titans. (See: Music City Miracle.)
“That’s how we are,” Fisher said. “Sometimes we take chances, and sometimes it doesn’t work.”
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It didn’t work this time. On a day when nothing came easy for the Rams, they had a sliver of a chance late in the third quarter with San Francisco driving. As 49ers running back Frank Gore headed up the middle on second and 10 from the St. Louis 20, linebacker Alec Ogletree stripped the ball loose and Rodney McLeod recovered the fumble.
Down 16-6 at the time, the Rams were one drive away from making it an interesting finish. But that’s where any chance at drama ended. After a 2-yard run by Zac Stacy and two incomplete passes, out came Johnny Hekker to punt.
But there was no punt. Jake McQuaide’s long snap went to up-back Matt Giordano, not Hekker. Giordano, a safety by trade, tried to run his way to a first down on fourth and 8 but had nowhere to go. He was tackled for a 5-yard loss and San Francisco took over on the Rams’ 17.
Suffice it to say that wasn’t how the play was designed. Giordano was supposed to toss the ball to wide receiver Stedman Bailey, a gunner on the punt team, on a reverse.
“If it would’ve been executed right, there would’ve been a lot of daylight for me to run,” Bailey said. “Pick up a first down and maybe even do something bigger than just get a first down.”
But the 49ers got penetration, and Giordano never made the toss.
The penetration, Bailey said, “must kind of caused him to panic and do the best he could while he had the ball in his hand. ... So I guess he just tried to do the best thing possible and try to run.”
Last year, the Rams converted two fake punts on completions by Hekker in a 24-24 overtime tie in San Francisco. The 49ers were ready this time.
“Yeah, Brad (Seely) practiced one similar to the fake that they ran ... on Thursday, I believe,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Seely is the 49ers’ special teams coordinator.
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After the botched fake, San Francisco took over at the St. Louis 17, and on the next play 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rolled to his right and dumped the ball off to tight end Vernon Davis. Davis did the rest, cutting back to the middle of the field and then hurdling over cornerback Janoris Jenkins near the goal line for a touchdown to stretch San Francisco’s lead to 23-6.
Even though 14 minutes, 41 seconds remained to play, the 49ers had more than enough points to cruise to victory over St. Louis and sweep the season series.
Rams players appreciated the fact that Fisher was willing to fall on the sword in terms of the ill-fated fake punt, but they realized there was more to Sunday’s loss than one play call.
“We appreciated it,” offensive lineman Rodger Saffold said. “That’s certainly not surprising coming from a man of character like Jeff Fisher, but we need to play better as players. There were plays to be made out there that we didn’t make.”
The Rams arrived for their final game at Candlestick Park determined to show they were up to the task against the physical 49ers. Well, they’re not there yet. It was a more evenly played contest than the 35-11 fiasco in St. Louis on Sept. 26, but the 49ers still were in control much of the game.
Offensively, the Rams were out of sync almost all day.
“That’s a great way of putting it,” quarterback Kellen Clemens said. “Sometimes it was on us, and sometimes their defense made plays. Obviously, that’s a very talented defense, but it was not our best showing by any means.”
The Rams managed only 11 yards of offense in the opening quarter and didn’t get a first down until early in the second quarter. Then again, they ran only six plays in the opening quarter.
“We went into the ballgame knowing that it was going to be a ‘slug-out’ kind of physical game up front,” Fisher said. “We like to think that we could carry on what we’ve been doing the last couple weeks, but for some reason we did not match up well with them today. ... We just couldn’t get anything going offensively.”
The Rams got a pair of field goals by Greg Zuerlein but didn’t score a touchdown until just 18 seconds remained in the game, on a 3-yard pass from Clemens to Brian Quick. That score capped a 92-yard drive, in which Clemens completed eight of nine for 90 yards. But by that time, the 49ers had only three defensive starters on the field.
Before that drive, Clemens had completed only 11 of 28 passes for 128 yards.
“I have to be more accurate,” Clemens said. “I need to be more specific with my targeting and give (the receivers) a better chance.”
But Clemens didn’t get a ton of help from his receiving corps, which dropped at least six passes Sunday. Tight end Jared Cook (two), wide receiver Chris Givens (two), wide receiver Tavon Austin (one) and running back Zac Stacy (one) all couldn’t hang on to catchable balls.
Probably the one that hurt the most came on third and 1 from the Rams’ 29 with 2:10 to play in the third quarter and the Rams trailing 16-6. The defender slipped during the play but Givens couldn’t hang on to the deep ball.
“Yeah, that’s a big play,” Fisher said. “He makes that catch and keeps his feet, he probably scores.”
“Off the top of my head, I really can’t tell you what happened,” Givens said. “I just know I didn’t make that catch. I’ve just got to figure out what I need to do to make that catch.”
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