Talanoa Hufanga provides nightmare fuel for Rams with game-changing pick-six

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — 

Yet another Hollywood remake — the San Francisco 49ers won again — but this time it was a different leading man who took down the Rams.

Second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga stepped in front a screen pass for Cooper Kupp, pulled down the interception and raced 52 yards for the touchdown.

Well, maybe he didn’t race.

“Thought [Matthew] Stafford was going to catch me, I ain’t gonna lie,” Hufanga said, only half-joking. “My 40 time doesn’t help when it comes to that.”

In truth, the former USC standout didn’t look plodding, but it all must have unfolded like a slow-motion nightmare for the Rams, who now have lost four in a row at Levi’s Stadium.

This time, the Rams could muster only three field goals in a 24-9 defeat, underscoring the notion that their offense is stuck in the mud.

Hufanga’s touchdown, which came with 6½ minutes remaining, turned a one-score game into something closer to a blowout.

He has worked out with Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu and people have drawn some comparisons between the two, even though those are giant cleats to fill. They’re both soft-spoken, both have flowing locks, both know what it means to move all around a defense. And Monday night, Hufanga made a Polamalu-like play.

For a moment, the ball popcorned in his hands before he dug his fingers into it.

“Honestly, I think I almost read it too fast,” Hufanga said. “I think I maybe should have been a little more patient and secured the catch.”

Even before the snap, Hufanga had a sense where the ball was heading.

talanoa hufanga provides nightmare fuel for rams with game-changing pick-six
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle is tackled by a host of Rams after a reception in the second half.(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

“You can kind of smell a rat when it comes to those things,” he said. “Just kind of very quick to the flat, they’d been doing it all night trying to get the ball to Kupp. They were trying to get on track, trying to get things going. Guys were just swarming.”

He glided across the goal line and held his hands out in a shrug as if to say, “Well, that was easy.” Then he skipped in celebration across the back of the end zone.

“Huff, of all people to get that, he deserves it, man,” teammate Fred Warner said. “He’s playing out of his mind. That was a huge, big-time play in a big-time moment.”

Weren’t these 49ers supposed to be circling the drain? They’d lost two of their first three games, twice scoring a paltry 10 points in defeats to Chicago and Denver. They were already down to their second quarterback and third left tackle.

And, as per usual, the Rams were the remedy.

Kyle Shanahan and his players come into these games knowing if they play the way they can, they’ll win.

The Rams won the most important of their matchups with San Francisco last season — the NFC championship game — but that was after the 49ers swept them in the regular season. And those same 49ers were swept by Seattle and Arizona. There’s no denying the psychological advantage they have over their NFC West rivals to the south.

Like last season, the Rams were deconstructed by receiver Deebo Samuel too. Late in the second quarter, Jimmy Garoppolo threw a high pass to Samuel, who snatched the ball away as an interception-minded Jalen Ramsey sailed past him in the opposite direction. Then, Samuel jab-stepped two other defenders and beat everyone to the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown.

“Every time I get the ball in my hands it’s just my mentality of trying to make it a big play,” Samuel said. “It’s just second nature to me now.”

To the 49ers, this was simply the world tilting back onto its axis.

“We felt like we could easily be 3-0,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “Our record wasn’t showing that. Any time you play in your division, it counts as two. So this is definitely a big win and we’re kind of right back where we want.”

Said Hufanga: “We knew this was going to be an ice-bag game. I’d never heard that word until I got here. Honestly I love that word because it’s cool. But every time we play those guys it’s a physical game.”

Once again, the Rams were left out in the cold.

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