***** burn Rams repeatedly
BY BILL COATS Posted: Monday, November 15, 2010 12:10 am

SAN FRANCISCO In a game as big as any the Rams have played in several years, big plays rained down all around them Sunday at Candlestick Park. Ultimately, the Rams were done in by their inability to keep San Francisco from gobbling up major chunks of real estate at inopportune times.

"We had more big plays we gave up today than we did all year," defensive end Chris Long said. "That's the difference. Really, that game falls squarely on our shoulders defensively."

The ***** came into the NFC West showdown ranked just 22nd in the NFL in total offense. But they got a major jolt from nimble quarterback Troy Smith, an early-season free-agent pickup, in a 23-20 overtime victory that booted the Rams (4-5) out of a first-place tie with Seattle.

A former Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, Smith made just his fourth start in 3 NFL seasons. He subbed for sore-shouldered Alex Smith.

Dodging and darting, Smith extended plays with his elusiveness and showed no fear flinging the ball downfield. He averaged 20.9 yards per completion, connecting of 17 of 28 passes for 356 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. His passer rating was a sterling 116.7.

"Troy's a good player; we knew that going in," said linebacker James Laurinaitis, a former Buckeyes teammate. "We knew he had the ability to scramble and throw it up. ... He definitely hurt us today."

It was the highest passing total of the season against the Rams, by far. It also easily outdistanced Smith's best previous outing: He threw for 199 yards in his first career start, as a rookie with Baltimore in 2007.

The Rams faced Smith and the Ravens in September in the final preseason game. He passed for 237 yards but had a woeful 47.3 percent completion rate and was intercepted three times in a 27-21 Rams win.

Smith was waived a few days later, and the ***** grabbed him. On Sunday, he helped shove San Francisco (3-6) back into contention in a tight division race.

"We knew he had real good scrambling ability," said defensive end C.J. Ah You, who had one of five Rams sacks. "It's real frustrating, especially when you think you've got him and he makes a good play down the field."

The ***** generated 11 plays of more than 20 yards, including two pass-interference penalties vs. the Rams. Also, touchdown passes of 19 and 43 yards were nullified by Niners penalties.

Ten of those big gainers came via the pass. The ***** made an early statement, striking for a 32-yard toss on their first play from scrimmage, then topping that with a 65-yard bomb on the first snap of their second series.

Cornerback Kevin Dockery was victimized on both plays. "The first one, I (was) being a little too aggressive on the run. ... The second one, I thought the ball was going to be thrown outside, but he actually threw it inside and I kind of lost it."

Four San Francisco receivers amassed at least 65 yards through the air.

"There are too many tremendous athletes here not to share the ball, for everybody not to have a chance and an opportunity to make a play," Smith said. "It's on me to do that."

A sequence late in the fourth quarter, with the Rams clinging to a 17-13 lead, epitomized their failure to stifle the ***** when they most needed to:

After a holding penalty, San Francisco was in a third-and-32 hole. Smith dumped off a short pass to running back Frank Gore, who rambled for 14 yards to the Rams' 39-yard line.

That made it fourth and 18, and the ***** peeled off 23 yards on another Smith-to-Gore toss. That gave them a first down at the 16 with 2 minutes, 17 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.

On the next snap, Smith hit wide receiver Michael Crabtree for a touchdown that put Frisco up 20-17.

"Fourth-and-18," Long sighed. "That really hurts."

Grumbled coach Steve Spagnuolo, "There's no excuse. That can't happen."

Now the Rams, who have dropped four games by a total of 10 points, have to scrape themselves off the mat yet again: Atlanta (6-2) visits the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday.