Something that started as a simple protest became bigger than football. Backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem sparked a nationwide conversation for the last two weeks. But tonight the Niners adumbrated the outside noise for four quarters. The focus was back to football as San Francisco hosted the Los Angeles Rams in their season opener.
The 49ers made it look too easy when they used their running game to shutout the Rams 28-0. It was San Francisco's first season-opening shutout in franchise history. Running back Carlos Hyde rushed for 88 yards with two touchdowns while Blaine Gabbert who beat out Kaepernick for the starting went 22-of-35 for 170 yards with one touchdown to Vance McDonald in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers running game was outstanding throughout the game. By halftime Hyde had 11 carries for 65 yards while Gabbert had 7 carries for 40 yards. Gabbert did a lot of running in the first series and by the second series, San Francisco controlled the tempo of the game. In the first quarter, Hyde had an 11-yard touchdown to complete ten plays on 52 yards in 3 minutes.
"I tell him all the time, Blaine this is me and you," Hyde said. "We have to work together. And, if we are on the same page, we will kill teams with this read option. I'm like, you can run it just as good as I can run it. So, don't be afraid to pull it and go make a play. Before the game I told him [Gabbert], if you feel like you can go beat the defensive end to the sideline then go make a play. It's a two-man game with us when we run the read option."
By the second quarter, the 49ers forced a turnover when Case Keenum's pass intended for Todd Gurley was tipped and recovered by NaVorro Bowman. The replay official reviewed the pass interception ruling, and the play was upheld. Gabbert led his team downfield to set up Shaun Draughn's 3-yard touchdown to extend San Francisco's lead 14-0.
LA's defense couldn't stop a fly or the 49ers running game. The Rams offense struggled behind Keenum. He went 22-of-35, 170 yards with two interceptions. It was 2013 when LA won their arbitration to begin the move to Los Angeles. The team had high expectations for this season, but based on their performance tonight, they look like a team rebuilding.
Keenum just looked awful. Top running back Todd Gurley was held to 47 yards on 17 carries. And to make matters worse, LDT Aaron Donald was ejected from the game in the second half. They punted ten times and only had ten first downs through the game. Converting on third down was their biggest challenge. The Rams couldn't get close enough to attempt a field goal.
"They did a good job of mixing it up," said Keenum. "San Francisco did a good job with coverage over the top and mixing it up with the single I. You have to give them a lot of credit. They did a really good job especially on third down with a lot of looks that we haven't seen before, but it's not an excuse though. We still have to convert. There were some chances to convert, but it was tough."
Tavon Austin returned the ball for 28 yards giving LA their best field position of the night. Keenum completed a pass to Austin for a gain of 5 yards. And the Rams were in the red zone. But outstanding defense by the 49ers thwarted any hopes of them scoring. Keenum threw his second interception and it landed in the hands of Ray Ray Armstrong.
Gabbert who struggled with the passing game connected with Quinton Patton for 35 yards to setup Gabbert's 8-yard touchdown pass to McDonald giving San Francisco a 21-0 lead. The frustration mounted for LA, McDonald got into a tussle with Patton and ripped his helmet off charging him with a personal foul penalty, unsportsmanlike penalty and an ejection from the game.
"I just let my emotions get the best of me," Donald said. "There's no excuse. I can't make mistakes like that and hurt my team. I saw Tre [Trumaine Johnson] being surrounded by some guys and tried to help him by breaking up the situation. But the way I did it, I went over there pushing and I shouldn't have done that."
The 49ers didn't play their best football but faired much better than their opponent. They capped off the fourth with another rushing touchdown by Hyde, this time for 1-yard. Kaepernick even saw some action when he came in for one series under 2 minutes. San Francisco had dealt with so much negativity since last season and wanted to come out strong to shut up their naysayers.
"We started off as the underdogs," said Bowman. "Nobody expected us to win a game this year, or something crazy. And I say to the guys, it's not what anyone outside the organization says about us, it's about what we say about us. If we keep that mindset and understand we're the ones out there contributing and playing together and understand we are a strong-knit team, we can accomplish anything."
Kaepernick who kneeled along with teammate Eric Reid, came into the game with 2:33 remaining. He handed off the ball on three snaps before the 49ers punted. But after the game Kaepernick was surrounded by media who wanted his reaction to how players around the league were supporting him. In addition, Kaepernick also addressed Owner Jed York's $1 million donation.
"That's huge," said Kaepernick. "It was amazing. I had a great conversation with Jed. He went out of his way and reached out to me and I got to talk with him and talk these things through. He wanted to know, 'How can I help? I see these things as well.' To have that support from an owner, someone that has that position and also is running an organization like this, that's huge. It says a lot about what people mean to him and how much he truly cares about them."