49ers finally getting offensive

There was no fear in the hearts of NFL defenders when the 49ers stepped to the line of scrimmage in 2005. Laughter's more like it. But times have changed, and now San Francisco's offense has the rest of the league's attention. When the Niners take the field Sunday against St. Louis, they'll do it with the NFL's third-ranked offense & a cast of weapons that can do damage to any defense in its path.

This San Francisco offense bears little resemblance to the feeble attack the 49ers tried to pass off on the league last season, when the Niners finished a distant last in the NFL rankings with an offense that failed to score a touchdown in eight games and produced 220 yards or fewer 11 times.

But the 49ers have added new firepower up and down the line - and behind it - and now they suddenly have an offense of which the rest of the league must take notice.

Just exactly who are those guys now moving the football in red and gold?

"I have a much improved impression than I had of them a year ago," St. Louis coach Scott Linehan said earlier this week. "They have a bunch of new players that have made that team so much better. It caught my eye right away that they are a team that someone better get prepared for because they have some big-time weapons now."

The Rams are the team that better get prepared for the 49ers this week, since they will be on the opposing sideline at Monster Park in San Francisco's home opener. St. Louis' defense, much maligned last year when it finished 30th in the NFL, also has made a conspicuous early turnaround, limiting Denver to 259 yards and 10 points during last week's impressive season-opening upset of the Broncos.

But for pure fireworks, that defensive effort couldn't match what the 49ers did for openers on offense in their 34-27 near-miss against the Arizona Cardinals. With an offseason makeover giving San Francisco the kind of offensive talent and diversity it lacked last year, the Niners rolled to 393 yards of offense, the biggest output in their past 28 games.

The 27 points San Francisco put on the scoreboard - its most since Week 3 of last season - could have been more had the 49ers not stopped themselves with two early turnovers that led directly to 14 Arizona points. The 49ers also wasted a lot of opportunities to produce more points and yardage as they went 0 for 9 on third downs and usually-reliable kicker Joe Nedney uncharacteristically missed a routine 34-yard field goal.

Still, the 49ers found themselves throwing into the end zone twice in the final seconds with a chance to send the game into overtime. The Niners punted four times - quite an improvement for a team that averaged almost seven punts a game last year.

It's a stark contrast to a San Francisco offense that struggled in 2005 to get production from any of its skill positions. The 49ers didn't have a passer, rusher or receiver who reached the 900-yard plateau last season.

Imagine that! It's the only time since the franchise was formed in 1946 that the Niners didn't have a quarterback, running back or receiver surpass the 1,000-yard barrier.

San Francisco took a big leap toward leaving that dismal statistic behind against the Cardinals, when quarterback Alex Smith passed for a career-high 288 yards, halfback Frank Gore had 170 yards combined rushing and receiving and wideout Antonio Bryant had 114 yards receiving.

The 49ers also got contributions from several other players as Smith connected with nine different receivers in the best game of his young career.

"There's a lot of teams now that are going to have to be looking out for a lot of new faces," Smith said. "There's a lot more people doing things in this offense that are contributing, that have a hand in it. I think it will be hard for defenses to really kind of zero in and focus on one or two specific things or people.

"I think this offense is great because we do a lot of different things and show a lot of different things. We really mix it up. I think that's what good offenses do. They don't allow defenses to get aggressive with them. They kind of keep defenses on their heels mixing things up and staying balanced, and that's what we're trying to do and trying to get to."

The 49ers are getting closer because Smith has a considerable upgrade in talent around him and in front of him this season.

The 49ers added Bryant and 10-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen via free agency this spring, selected tight end Vernon Davis with the No. 6 overall pick in the April draft and welcomed the return of tight end Eric Johnson, who missed the 2005 season with a foot injury after leading the team with 82 receptions in 2004.

The 49ers also handed a starting job to the rough-and-tumble Gore after trading Kevan Barlow, who was a disappointment the past two years as the team's featured back. The versatile Gore is a key element to the attack with his power, explosiveness and quick-hitting style, which is quite a contrast to the timid dancing in the backfield Barlow displayed since becoming the starter at the end of the 2003 season.

But perhaps the most significant newcomer has been offensive coordinator Norv Turner, whose complex schemes have injected life into the attack. Turner, after two rocky seasons as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, appears perfectly back in his element with the 49ers.

"That all goes back to Norv," said receiver Arnaz Battle, the only skill player from San Francisco's 2005 opening-day starting lineup that remains there today. "Norv does a lot of things in this offense that kind of disguises things and makes it tough on a defense with so much moving and shifting. When you've added that many weapons and you've added a new offense and you're doing so much as far as moving and shifting, a defense has to respect that."

Besides coming right at opposing defenses with new-and-improved playmakers, the 49ers also are keeping them off balance with deception.

The Niners put right tackle Kwame Harris next to left tackle Jonas Jennings in an unbalanced line on the first play from scrimmage last week, and Gore ripped off a 32-yard gain around the left side. San Francisco scored the game's first touchdown on a misdirection play a few minutes later when Smith threw back across the field to Davis, who scooted 31 yards down the left sideline into the end zone.

The 49ers also fooled Arizona with a direct snap to Gore in shotgun formation and a double reverse to receiver Bryan Gilmore - another new offseason addition - that went for a 22-yard gain.

"With our offense, who knows who it's going to go to?" 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "It could go to Antonio, it could go to Vernon. That's nice to see. Frank could get the ball, he could get it on a swing (pass). Michael Robinson could, too. To some degree, our offense has some deception with the way Norv runs it. It's a better situation than what we had and I'm excited about that and the direction it's going. It's just going to get better and better."

And so, too, are the 49ers. That's what happens when you have a real offense.

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