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"We lobbied for a running game all week," said 49er right guard Bruce Collie. "We'd seen what the Giants did to the Rams [the previous week]. We felt that the Giants might have won that game if they hadn't thrown a single pass. At the meetings we'd drop hints—'How about running the ball?' 'Don't forget the running game'—stuff like that."
Montana had different ideas. The 49ers and the Rams had met twice in the regular season. San Francisco lost the game it should have won (a 13-12 defeat in Week 4 on a last-second field goal) and won the one it should have lost (thanks to two long touchdowns by Taylor off short completions in Week 14). "The cornerbacks like to sit on the receivers," Montana said last week. "They'll be conscious of clamping down on the short stuff. I think our receivers can double-clutch 'em, give them a short move and break deep. I really think I can get something going up top."
The Rams thought so too. "They'll want to go deep on us early," said their defensive coordinator, Fritz Shurmur, last Thursday. "They'll be in for a surprise." So Los Angeles worked on the deep stuff and effectively took it away, and Montana shrugged and smiled and cut the Rams to pieces underneath. The offensive line gave him plenty of time to wield that surgeon's knife of his. "You know, when we were preparing for Minnesota and looking at the films of their front four, we were horror-struck," said Barton on Friday. "It was like getting ready for Charles Manson, Freddy Krueger and Norman Bates. But this time it's like getting ready to face an entire scheme. I hope we don't get lulled into being complacent."
The only time San Francisco seemed complacent was during the Rams' first possession, on which they marched 44 yards and kicked a field goal. "It's happened to us all year," said 49er outside linebacker Keena Turner. "It happened against the Vikings on their first possession. It's like we're saying, 'O.K., let's get that first drive out of the way, then we can play football.' "
The Niners' biggest and most spectacular play of the game came on the Rams' second drive. Los Angeles was leading 3-0, with a second and three on the San Francisco 40. Flipper Anderson, the Rams' best deep receiver, fed cornerback Darryl Pollard a hitch-and-go and raced free down the right sideline. Inside help from strong safety Chet Brooks failed to materialize. Jim Everett's pass hung in the air forever, a banana, and free safety Ronnie Lott sprinted over from centerfield and knocked the ball away at the last moment. "I didn't know if I could get there in time," said Lott, "but the ball hung so long."
"He came out of nowhere," Anderson said.
"An unbelievable play," said the Rams' offensive coordinator, Ernie Zampese. "The way he sat back there, the break to the ball—he might be the greatest weak safety ever to play the game." Without Lott's play, the score would have been 10-0. Would the Rams, spurred on by this gift, have gone on to victory? Or would the final count merely have read 30-10—or worse? San Francisco certainly didn't have any defensive lapses thereafter.
The 49ers had put in a new wrinkle called the Lark Special, which was designed to neutralize the most dangerous part of the L.A. attack—the deep routes to Anderson and split end Henry Ellard. Turner would jam one wideout, usually Ellard, and cornerback Don Griffin would pick him up deep. On the other side, Pollard would play the wideout short, and Brooks would get him down-field. The result was double-coverage on both wide receivers. The strength of the scheme was Turner's speed and agility, which enabled him to cut off a wideout in the short zones. The weakness was in the intermediate and underneath coverage—weak inside linebacker Mike Walter running across the field with Ram tight end Damone Johnson or the second tight end, Pete Holohan, and strong inside linebacker Matt Millen covering a running back.
"The deep game is Everett's strength," said 49er defensive coordinator Bill McPherson. "Our idea was nothing deep, nothing cheap. He's not the type of quarterback who picks you apart underneath. So we said, 'Let's go with our scheme until they get us out of it.' The key was the push of our defensive line. Everett didn't have time to wait."
In the second quarter Everett looked for Ellard down the right side and threw into double coverage. Griffin deflected the pass, and nickelback Tim McKyer intercepted it. The turnover set up a 27-yard TD drive that made the score 14-3. Turner got a second-quarter interception of his own off a short pass intended for Ellard, and when Everett tried to go to Holohan on a post pattern in the third period, noseguard Jim Burt broke in and forced Everett's hand, and Lott intercepted.