Still alive at the bye
There was no teetering on the edge for San Francisco this week. After last Sunday's horrific loss at Arizona, the 49ers came out at 3Com Park and belted the surging Rams from the opening kickoff to the final gun. Playing at their best without some of their best players, the Niners rode an eye-opening performance by backup quarterback Tim Rattay and a resilient, opportunistic defense to record a big victory over a quality opponent that was even more impressive than their 24-7 stomping of defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay here two weeks ago. "It was a tremendous team effort in a very difficult situation for us," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said after his team ended St. Louis' four-game winning streak. "After last week, and (with) some pretty good football players not playing, the guys sucked it up and did a tremendous job. There were probably a lot of people out there that didn't think we could win today, particularly as convincing as we did, but (our) players did and the coaches did." The Niners had left plenty of room for doubt with their ragged letdown last week against the lowly Cardinals, when San Francisco was at its worst in a 16-13 overtime loss. Adding to the Niners' woes was the loss to injury of quarterback Jeff Garcia, safety Zack Bronson and defensive linemen Travis Kirschke and Andre Carter. All would have started Sunday if they had been healthy. As it turns out, none of them were needed. Rattay stepped in for his first career NFL start to have perhaps the finest game by a 49ers quarterback this season. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns while putting up a passer rating of 110.7. An aggressive, well-designed defensive plan made up for the loss of three starters with a blitzing scheme that recorded five sacks, forced three turnovers and thoroughly thwarted the NFL's No. 1 offense, which produced points on only two of its 10 drives and recorded more than two first downs on only one of those drives. And, finally, the Niners also got superb play from their special teams and their new kicker, Todd Peterson. Those special teams got San Francisco started out in the right direction – and quickly – when Cedrick Wilson slipped loose along the right sideline and then out-ran the Rams to the end zone for a 95-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff – the first kickoff TD return for the Niners in six seasons and their first on the opening kickoff since 1985. "The guys gave me time and a big whole to fit in," Wilson said. "It has been a while since we have started off with a kickoff return. I was fortunate enough that I was able to break through and start this thing off right today. Off and running after Wilson's big return, the Niners never looked back. The defense and Rattay both had a lot to do with that. Playing calm and steady against St. Louis' tough defense, Rattay looked off defenders, made crisp fakes, got rid of the ball quickly and put spirals on the hands of his receivers. He hit Terrell Owens in traffic for a 5-yard touchdown in the first quarter, lofted a perfect spiral into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown strike to a diving Brandon Lloyd in the second quarter, then connected with Tai Streets on a slant for a 5-yard scoring pass that put the Niners ahead 30-3 with just two minutes elapsed in the second half. Rattay, reading the defense well and recognizing coverage schemes, audibilized at the line of scrimmage on the latter two of those plays. "The main thing was just to go out and play," Rattay said. "Don't force it. Just be a smart player, know my assignments and know the checks so that when they give us certain looks, we can adjust. So I just tried to let the offense work, find the open receiver and get them the ball. The guys made a lot of plays for me." So did the defense. The Rams moved crisply down the field on their opening possession, which resulted in a 39-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal, but they wouldn't sniff San Francisco territory again until late in the third quarter, when a long drive ended on fourth down at the 5-yard line when Julian Peterson batted down a Marc Bulger pass. That's was one of several big plays made by a defense that swarmed to the ball and was at its best in pivotal sequences. The Rams produced just nine yards rushing – the second-fewest yards allowed by the Niners on the ground in franchise history. This came a week after the 49ers allowed more than 200 yards on the ground to an Arizona team that previously hadn't rushed for more than 100 yards in a game all season. "We have talent and guys that understand the system," Niners defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "We just have to be consistent. Our defense is faster than the Rams' offense. It didn't used to be that way. That might sound cocky. But it's a fact. The guys just stepped up and made plays – the kind of plays they can make." Which has the Niners once again thinking about how good a team they can be and contemplating a playoff run as they take a much-needed week off. "You never know what kind of team you are going to get with us," Niners linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "We wanted to come out this week and re-establish ourselves with good defense and good run-defense. Hopefully, we can maintain some consistency now. It's a great time to have a bye – right in the middle of the season. We'll get everyone back into the rotation, come out and finish off the season and make a run to the playoffs."
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