SAN FRANCISCO -- Historically, Jim Harbaugh has been a connoisseur of trick plays, so it wasn't entirely surprising that he had praise for the fake punts that helped the St. Louis Rams forge a 24-24 overtime tie with the 49ers on Sunday.
What was surprising, though, is that Harbaugh knew from his Stanford days that Rams punter Johnny Hekker was capable of throwing the ball and yet the 49ers were totally unprepared for two Hekker completions for first downs out of punt formation.
"That punter was a quarterback at Oregon State, and we were well aware that he could throw the ball pretty darn good," Harbaugh said. "He ran the scout team at Oregon State. That was good execution on their part."
Hekker threw for a first down near the end of the second quarter even though the Rams were backed up near their own end zone. It did little more than keep the 49ers from getting the ball back one last time before halftime.
But Hekker's second fake punt throw, which allowed St. Louis to sustain an 81-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive after the 49ers had just taken a 21-17 lead, was one of the biggest plays of the game and particularly damaging to the hosts.
San Francisco's defense had stopped the Rams at their own 33 on a third-and-8 play, and St. Louis set up in punt formation with 5:23 left in regulation. But after receiving the long snap, Hekker pulled up and found tight end Lance Kendricks wide open in the left flat for a 19-yard gain
"We've been practicing that one for a while," said Hekker. "It was genius brainchild of Coach (Jeff) Fisher and (special teams coach) John Fassel. It worked just as we drew it up in practice."
"I felt like that was a play we needed, and it kept the drive alive," Fisher said.
Indeed, with fresh life, the Rams drove the rest of the way to take a 24-21 lead with 1:09 left, and the 49ers had to scramble just to force overtime on David Akers' 33-yard field goal with 3 seconds to go.
"That was huge," said Rams quarterback Sam Bradford of the second fake punt. "Cig (quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti) came and grabbed me right after we came off the field and said, 'We've got a fake punt. Get ready to go back out on the field.' Johnny did a great job executing it. He was 2 for 2 on fakes today -- it was awesome."
So who was supposed to cover Kendricks? Good question. Harbaugh didn't have an answer, and neither did any 49ers special teams defenders.
"Tough break to get that done on us," Harbaugh said. "But tip your hat to them."
"I don't really know what went wrong, and who was supposed to have who," said 49ers special teams safety Darcel McBath. "Obviously, that's something we have to get better at."
McBath, who moments earlier had teamed with reserve cornerback Tramaine Brock on a special teams turnover that resulted in the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown, maintained the special teams unit had been briefed on Hekker's throwing capabilities this week but simply didn't react or execute in that particular situation.
"It was a surprise," said McBath, who said he had responsibility to watch the fullback on the punt. "They did gutsy things to try and win the game, so hats off to them. We'll be more prepared next time."
Earlier in the fourth quarter, McBath and Brock combined on a play that looked like it might spur the 49ers to a comeback victory. After the 49ers had pulled within 17-14 on a Colin Kaepernick touchdown run, Rams returner Isaiah Pead was stripped of the ball on the ensuing kickoff by Brock, and McBath scooped up the ball near the right sideline. Frank Gore then scored on a 20-yard sweep to put the 49ers ahead 21-17.
"It was two guys making a good play and getting the ball back," McBath said. "Tramaine got the ball out, and I was just lucky to be there to pick it up."
It turned out to be the best play on an otherwise dour day for special teams. Akers did force OT with his 33-yard field goal, but the Pro Bowler also missed a 41-yarder with 8:07 to go in overtime that would have won it for San Francisco.