Tricky 49ers bushwhack Rams in stunning opener

Trick plays, big plays and a lot of creative surprises. And a bend-but-don't-break defense that came up with the big play when it needed it. A new day and new blood arrived in San Francisco on Sunday afternoon, when the 49ers bushwhacked the St. Louis Rams at Monster Park with razzle-dazzle gadgetry, then held on for a stunning 28-25 victory in their season opener thanks to an overworked defensive unit that simply refused to let the first game of Mike Nolan era slip away.

Read it and believe it: After just one game under their new head coach, the 49ers are halfway to their victory total of 2004 after an upset win over a heated division rival that left the Niners all alone atop the NFC West – a place they haven't been by themselves since the end of the 2002 season. Each of the other three teams in the division lost Sunday.

The standings don't mean much after one week, but this eye-opening opener certainly meant a lot toward righting the direction of a wayward franchise and giving San Francisco something to build on the rest of the season.

"This was very meaningful for us," Nolan said. "I believe we are coming together as a team, and I do believe this is the first step in our journey."

The first step was a doozy.

The 49ers pulled out all the stops Sunday – running the option with Arnaz Battle taking the snap from center; splitting quarterback Tim Rattay out wide; running out of a wishbone formation; throwing double-passes with Battle completing both of his throws on the day; running draws out a shotgun formation and hitting the Rams with a perfectly-executed onside kick one play after hitting St. Louis with rookie Fred Amey's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown.

Amey's return – coming the first time he touched the football as a professional – highlighted a 21-point explosion by San Francisco in the second quarter that put the 49ers in command against the bewildered and shell-shocked Rams.

Call it inventive, call it spectacular or call it just a little bit crazy, but all the new twists put St. Louis back on its heels and sent the Rams reeling toward a 19-point deficit early in the third quarter.

At that point, the San Francisco offense basically shut down, giving the Rams every opportunity to eat up that huge deficit in the final 26 minutes of the game.

The Niners drove 80 yards with the second-half kickoff, finishing it off with Kevan Barlow's nine-yard touchdown burst on a well-conceived draw play out the shotgun on second down. That gave the Niners an amazing 28-9 lead and had a sellout crowd of 67,918 roaring like the old days.

But on their final five drives of the game after that, the 49ers produced just one first down. On their four series in the fourth quarter, they produced three net yards and no first downs.

That left their defense on the field to hold onto the lead as time ran down and the St. Louis offense flailed away. The Rams, who had a 17-play drive that ended in a field goal in the third quarter, produced a 19-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that brought them within three points on Marc Bulger's six-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna with 2:16 remaining to play.

The 49ers botched both the ensuing kickoff return and offensive series, giving the ball back to the potent St. Louis offense at the San Francisco 38 with 59 seconds remaining. An encroachment penalty moved the ball to the 33, and the Rams appeared poised to send the game to overtime, if not steal a victory right then and there.

But the resilient San Francisco defense would not let it happen.

"Last year, we probably would have given it up at the end and lost that game," 49ers cornerback Mike Adams said. "But all that's in the past now. We're forgetting the past. This is the beginning, and this lets us know we've got a new thing going."

The new thing was a game-winning defensive stop. With the Rams already in position for a game-tying field-goal attempt, Adams had tight coverage on Isaac Bruce and pulled down an interception on a tipped pass after Bulger threw slightly behind Bruce on first down..

Game over. 49ers win. Finally.

"There were times last year when we wore down a little bit and teams had that final rally on us and we couldn't close it," said two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson, playing his first game since tearing his left Achilles tendon last October. "This time, we closed it."

It was Peterson and several other defenders doing the closing in San Francisco's new 3-4 scheme, which the 49ers constantly shifted into variations that included 4-3 sets to confuse and confound the Rams.

The Rams ran a whopping 89 offensive plays while controlling the clock for more than 39 minutes. Bulger filled the air with 56 throws, completing 34 for 362 yards and two touchdowns passing. St. Louis finished with 405 yards of total offense (to just 217 for the 49ers) and 26 first downs (to just 12 for the 49ers).

And yet, it was San Francisco's defense that prevailed, limiting the Rams to field goals on their first four scoring drives before St. Louis hit for two touchdowns to make it close in the final period.

"The big thing was they didn't get six points," said Peterson, who had a career-high 2.5 sacks. "We were holding them to three points."

With Peterson and Bryant Young leading the way, the 49ers sacked Bulger seven times – their most in a game since 1996 and the sixth-highest total in team history. Young bulled his way inside for three sacks in the first half alone, matching his career high and his entire total for the 2004 season.

Those two led the way, but other defenders also came up big. The Niners got some opportunistic play from their secondary as Adams broke up two passes and had a sack and cornerback Ahmed Plummer had a game-high 12 tackles and knocked away a pass. Safety Tony Parrish and linebackers Jeff Ulbrich, Derek Smith and Jamie Winborn were around the ball all day, with that foursome combining for 29 tackles.

"The same guys that took a lot of criticism last year are the same guys that pulled out this victory today," said Nolan, just the fifth coach in San Francisco history to win his debut as head coach with the team.

Some of those guys who took criticism last year would have been getting a lot more of it Sunday had the Rams come back to win. Barlow rushed for just 22 yards on 14 carries and lost a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter that jump-started the St. Louis rally. Rattay – who finished an efficient 11 of 16 passing for 165 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 141.9 – couldn't move the offense in the decisive fourth quarter when all the 49ers needed was a few first downs to seal the victory.

But there were no complaints afterward. Absolutely none at all.

"It's a great start for us," Peterson said. "We wanted to come out and show that we could make this happen. After last year, we wanted to show what we could do with a healthy team. We want to get back to where we were a couple of years ago, taking control of the NFC West. Now we just have to improve on the things we did wrong and improve on the things we did right."

Said Nolan: "I'll be interested to see where it goes from here."


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