SANTA CLARA -- Sometimes, you have to go back to move forward.
That was the 49ers’ approach on their first drive Sunday night.
The 49ers got off to a strong start against the Los Angeles Rams and looked nothing like the collection of misfits that got crushed a week earlier in an all-time wretched performance.
And, suddenly, the 49ers’ 2020 season does not look as if it is a lost cause, after all.
The 49ers (3-3) made a convincing statement with a 24-16 victory over the Rams (4-2) in a key NFC West game to snap out of their tailspin at an empty Levi’s Stadium.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Garoppolo bounces back
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo started off hot -- well, kind of.
He completed all four of his passing attempts on the 49ers’ first drive. But those passes were caught a combined 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
According to Sportsrader, via Josh Dubow of The Associated Press, it was the fewest “air yards” on any NFL touchdown drive in at least 10 years.
Garoppolo delivered wide receiver Deebo Samuel what amounted to a couple of forward handoffs. The first went for 35 yards around the left side. The second resulted in a 6-yard touchdown “pass” around the right side to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead on the first drive of the game.
Garoppolo’s official stats for the opening drive were 4-for-4 for 69 yards. The 49ers pass-catchers had 89 yards after the catch.
Garoppolo’s performance was in stark contrast to a week earlier when he got benched after throwing two interceptions in the final two minutes of the first half in a blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins.
On Sunday, Garoppolo completed 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half against the Rams.
His best throw came on fourth-and-2 situation against a six-man blitz. Garoppolo delivered a well-timed pass to tight end George Kittle. Cornerback Darious Williams tried to cut in front of Kittle to break it up. He gambled. He lost.
The ball ended up in Kittle’s hands. And Williams ended up on the ground.
Kittle took it the rest of the way for a 44-yard touchdown that gave the 49ers a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Garoppolo finished his evening completing 23 of 33 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
Neutralizing Aaron Donald
A strong argument can be made that Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the best non-quarterback in the NFL.
But in the first half of Sunday’s game, Donald was barely noticeable.
The 49ers’ offensive line, which rightly was the subject of a lot of criticism through five games, provided Garoppolo with plenty of time to throw. And Donald was not a factor for a large portion of the game.
Fifteen members of the Rams defense had tackles in the first half. Donald did not have a tackle or even a QB pressure.
Donald moved around the Rams’ defensive front, but he lined up against 49ers right guard Daniel Brunskill for a large portion of the first half.
The 49ers led 21-6 at halftime. The 49ers had 18 first downs and rolled up 291 yards of total offense in the first 30 minutes of the game. They converted three of their six third downs and their only fourth-down chance, which went the distance for Kittle’s 44-yard touchdown reception.
Donald finished the game with just one solo tackle and one quarterback hurry.
Who are the real 49ers?
The Rams entered the game in second place in the NFC West behind the unbeaten Seattle Seahawks.
There is no denying the 49ers do not have the same amount of talent, especially on defense, as last season. But there is a way to massage the situation and still get a lot of wins out of this unit.
The 49ers’ Week 5 loss to the Dolphins was a travesty. The 49ers were out-everything’d. The coaches were beaten as badly as the players on the field.
But everything flipped 180 degrees on Sunday night against a very good team.
The 49ers’ offensive plan was terrific, and they beat the Rams to the edges and stretched them out with their running game. That afforded Garoppolo ample opportunity to make plays with play-action.
While the 49ers do not have the players up front on defense to generate steady pressure on the quarterback, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh mixed up coverages enough to prevent Rams quarterback Jared Goff from getting too comfortable.
Cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Jason Verrett had strong games, including an impressive sequence during a goal-line stand late in the third quarter. Moseley broke up a pass intended for Cooper Kupp in the end zone on third and goal from the 2.
On the next play, Verrett peeled off his man, Robert Woods, to intercept Goff’s pass intended for Josh Reynolds in the back of the end zone.
Moseley later got turned around while surrendering a 40-yard touchdown pass to Reynolds. But, overall, his performance gets high marks.
It’s difficult to believe this was the same team that showed up last week against the Dolphins.