49ers report card

Handing out grades to the 49ers after their season-opening 28-25 victory over the St. Louis Rams:

RUSHING OFFENSE: The blocking of the reconfigured offensive line once again was very weak, and Kevan Barlow ran with the same stutter-stepping hesitancy that caused him problems last year. His 22 yards on 14 carries against a rushing defense that ranked 29th in the NFL last year was close to pitiful, as his 1.6-yard average per carry would suggest. Frank Gore looked better, hitting the whole quickly and averaging 4.3 yards on his four carries, and he'll start earning more carries quickly if Barlow can't get untracked. The redeeming quality here was Barlow's nice nine-yard touchdown burst, but when the Niners needed just a first down or two from their running game to put the game away in the fourth quarter, they couldn't get it. Grade: D-

PASSING OFFENSE: So, how did the 49ers pull out a victory against an opponent that scored 25 points when San Francisco could muster only 34 rushing yards on 21 carries? Why, their passing game, of course. After a shaky start that included a lost fumble on San Francisco's first offensive possession, quarterback Tim Rattay settled into a rhythm and had an outstanding game, even though he only attempted 16 passes. He completed 11 of those throws for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns, compiling a passer rating of 141.9. His scoring throws to Arnaz Battle – a quick 6-yard strike that needed to be threaded over the middle – and Brandon Lloyd – a 35-yard bomb that was aired out over the outstretched hands of two defenders – both were perfect, on-the-money throws. Starting receivers Lloyd and Battle both made significant contributions to the victory, combining for eight receptions for 124 yards, and Johnnie Morton showed great concentration on a leaping 30-yard grab that resulted in a concussion that would end his afternoon. Right tackle Kwame Harris struggled early with Rams end Leonard Little, but the protection for Rattay was good and gave him plenty of time to find cracks in the St. Louis defense. Grade: A

RUSHING DEFENSE: Steven Jackson rushed for 40 yards in the first quarter as the Rams seemed to set the tone early on the ground. But San Francisco stiffened after that, limiting Jackson to just 20 yards the rest of the game as the Rams finished with just 89 yards rushing on 26 carries, a 3.4 average. When St. Louis attempted to slip in runs during its second-half rally, the 49ers were ready. The linebacker unit of Julian Peterson, Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn combined for 29 tackles and was active filling gaps and pursuing down the line of scrimmage all afternoon. Strong safety Tony Parrish lent strong support with eight tackles. This also was a more sure-tackling 49ers team than in practically any game during the 2004 season. Grade: A-

PASSING DEFENSE: St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger rang up 362 yards passing and, while that is not an insignificant figure, it was more a product of him throwing 56 passes. Though San Francisco surrendered 34 completions to Bulger's relentless pressure, only two of them ended in the end zone and most of them were kept underneath coverage. The Rams averaged only five yards per pass play and were stopped without converting 12 times on third-down plays. The coverage was solid from linebackers and the secondary as the Niners finished with eight passes defensed, and nickel back Mike Adams' interception was the game-clincher. And, last but not least, the pass rush was relentless, resulting in seven sacks, including career-high totals of three by Bryant Young and 2.5 by Julian Peterson. It was the most sacks by the 49ers in a game since 1996, and Young was in Bulger's face on the interception that ended St. Louis' last-chance drive. Grade: B+

SPECIAL TEAMS: The 49ers' first punt return of the season resulted in a spectacular, quick-hitting 75-yard touchdown return by rookie Fred Amey. Maurice Hicks also looked good returning four kickoffs an average of 26.5 yards. The Niners also recovered their first onside kick since 1987. Andy Lee had a solid net of 38.6 yards on his five punts, and the kickoff coverage was excellent, pinning the Rams back for an average start after kickoffs at their 19-yard line. The 49ers dominated the Rams on special teams, and that played a huge factor in the outcome. What's not to like? Grade: A

COACHING: What a difference a year makes. Or, specifically, what a difference a new coaching staff makes. The 49ers were organized and intense on the sideline, and the trickery and gadgetry the 49ers unveiled in the first half completely tossed the Rams off balance and allowed San Francisco to assume command against a befuddled opponent. The Niners could have been a little less conservative offensively in the fourth quarter while sitting on a big lead, but Mike Nolan's clock-management reasons for making those choices were sound and resulted in a victory. The defense also found ways to bring consistent pass-rushing pressure that never was evident during the preseason. Mixing coverages also contributed in holding a potent St. Louis offense to field goals while the Niners were building a 28-9 lead. The 49ers went out and took this game, and then they refused to let it slip away. Nothing – and nobody – was more responsible for that then the team's new coaching staff. Grade: A

OVERALL: It began to sink in during the 49ers' 21-point second quarter that something new and exciting was going on here in San Francisco. But even with the 49ers ahead by 19 points midway through the third quarter, the reality that San Francisco might actually pull off this upset still was a concept difficult to get completely comfortable with. But the Niners indeed finished it off, and nobody can say they didn't deserve the victory, even though the Rams held a lopsided edge in several statistical categories. Despite being out-gained in total yards by almost a 2-1 margin – and with a similar deficit in time of possession – the 49ers pulled out this eye-opening opener because they played like a team. And that team has a future, as this successful beginning of the Nolan era most certainly suggests. Grade: A

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