Game blog: 49ers 20, Rams 13

Taking an inside look from all angles at the 49ers' comeback 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams in San Francisco's home opener Sunday at Monster Park.

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And so, the 49ers' home opener ends in success, just like it did last year with a victory over the hated, longtime rival St. Louis Rams.

But this victory wasn't much like last year's 28-25 win in Mike Nolan's head coaching debut. The Rams dominated that game statistically and the 49ers needed breaks, big plays and some gadgetry to pull out that win.

This time, the 49ers ruled in just about every facet of the game, out-gaining the Rams by 95 yards to win by their widest margin since the end of the 2003 season.

And, despite a few tense moments in the fourth quarter when the Niners failed to take advantage of prime opportunities to pile extra points onto their lead, this one wasn't really as close as the score suggests. The 49ers should have won this game by 17 points instead of seven, and that's no exaggeration.

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The 49ers' heretofore weak pass rush has improved so much that San Francisco got sacks on consecutive plays on the game's opening drive, setting the tone for a six-sack afternoon, the most the Niners have recorded in a game since their season opener against the Rams last year.

After the Rams had churned for first downs on their first two offensive plays, Steven Jackson was stopped for a 3-yard loss on first down and St. Louis went to the air.

Rookie Manny Lawson recorded his first NFL sack - the first of what the 49ers hope will be many - as protection broke down quickly around Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, who was caught by Lawson as he attempted to escape up field in a collapsing pocket.

On the next play, the Niners had a well-conceived blitz package work perfectly as safety Chad Williams came in virtually untouched over the St. Louis left side to nail Bulger for a 10-yard loss just as he planted his feet to set up.

Lawson got another sack that he was more responsible for earning on the Rams' first offensive play of the third quarter when he blew past fullback Madison Hedgecock to dump Bulger for a 12-yard loss to ultimately stall the drive and force a St. Louis punt.

Williams got another chance, too, when he sailed in to dump Bulger for a 9-yard loss on third down after St. Louis had driven to the San Francisco 13 early in the fourth quarter. The Rams had to settle for a 40-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal that narrowed the 49ers' lead to 17-13 with 11:03 remaining in the game.

The biggest of San Francisco's six sacks, however, was recorded by defensive end Marques Douglas midway through the final period. Douglas raced in to hit Bulger for a 6-yard loss, knocking the ball out in the process for the Rams' only turnover of the game.

Isaac Sopoaga pounced on the loose ball at the St. Louis 17, setting up Joe Nedney's 20-yard field goal with 5:20 remaining that gave the 49ers their final margin of victory.

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It was a big day for Lawson, who is deceptively strong against the run. He uses his speed to get to ball carriers, but he uses all of his 240 pounds to bring them down. His stop of the powerful, 231-pound Jackson for a 2-yard loss when the Rams were driving into field goal range late in the third quarter was particularly impressive, especially with the way Jackson had been running over San Francisco defenders on his way to a 103-yard afternoon.

That play helped stall a promising St. Louis drive, and Wilkins came up wide right on a 46-yard field goal attempt to preserve San Francisco's 17-10 lead.

The 49ers couldn't take advantage, however, as a promising drive that reached the St. Louis 29 was botched by a four-yard loss by running back Frank Gore on third-and-2. Nedney then returned the favor, missing a 46-yard field goal wide left.

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One of the primary reasons the 49ers didn't pull off the comeback upset in last week's opener at Arizona is because they went a horrible 0 for 9 on third-down conversion attempts. No team can win when it doesn't convert one third down the entire game.

But the Niners ended that futile skein in a big way on their first possession against the Rams.

After two Gore runs, quarterback Alex Smith took a deep drop and fired a strike over the deep middle that found Arnaz Battle in open territory. Battle took the pass, crossed the field and turned the corner down the left side as he received a crushing block by Antonio Bryant to tack another 20 or so yards onto a 56-yard gain that set up San Francisco's first score on a 32-yard field goal by Nedney.

The Rams, meanwhile, finished 1 for 4 on third-down conversion attempts in the first quarter as the San Francisco defense did a good job getting the St. Louis offense off the field.

Though the Niners improved, they still can't be too happy with converting on just four of 12 third downs in the game. The Rams converted 41 percent of their third downs, getting first downs on 7 of 17 such plays.

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And how 'bout that Battle?

With the 49ers facing a third-and-7 at the St. Louis 11 late in the first quarter, Battle took a quick slant from Smith and immediately was smothered by cornerback Travis Fisher for an apparent gain yards short of the first down.

But Battle remained on his feet, carrying Fisher with him past the five-yard line, then reaching out and stretching his body horizontally to put the ball down at the 3. The ball came out at the last second as Battle stretched for extra yardage, and it went tumbling into the right corner of the end zone, where the Rams recovered.

But Battle's knees were obviously down on the ground before the ball came loose, and the 49ers immediately challenged the fumble call. After review, the officials made the right call and gave the ball back to the 49ers, first down and goal at the 3 as the first quarter came to a finish.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, it was all for naught as they made their first killer mistake on the first play of the second quarter, when Gore fumbled at the 2-yard line after he was hit attempting to dive over the pile into the end zone. The ball was popped out as Gore was held up after the initial hit.

And so, even though they dominated the Rams with a 136-50 advantage in total yardage in the first quarter, the Niners still had only a 3-0 lead to show for it.

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That's two costly fumbles in two games for Gore, for those keeping track. The kid doesn't have a reputation as a fumbler, and he works hard on protecting the ball in practice, particularly after last week when his fumble in the first quarter set up a short field for the touchdown that put the Cardinals ahead to stay.

But what Gore giveth away, he eventually taketh back. His 32-yard scoring burst on the second play of the third quarter - when Gore exploded through the middle, made a quick cut to the right and was gone, out-racing the Rams to the end zone - was a thing of beauty and quickly got the 49ers back to even at 10-10.

Gore had the first official monster game of his career, recording a career-high 127 yards on 29 carries against a defense that entered the game ranked ninth in the NFL. He also clinched the win by surging for the tough yards in the final minutes with the Rams needing a stop to get a final opportunity to send the game into overtime. Gore got the first down - by inches - on third-and-1 with 2:43 remaining, forcing the Rams to use their second timeout. After a four-yard gain that took the clock down to the two-minute warning, Gore burst 10 yards straight up the middle for another first down that effectively settled the issue.

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It's the big mistakes that hurt the 49ers. That's what kept this one close, and it also might what is keeping this young team from owning a 2-0 record heading into next week's big home game against Philadelphia, where the Niners can really make some noise around the NFL with a victory.

San Francisco mistakes Sunday got St. Louis back in the game. The Rams had been going nowhere on offense, and they were going nowhere again early in the second quarter when Bulger threw incomplete on third down from his own 22.

But Keith Lewis, going for the block, was called for roughing as he crashed into punter Matt Turk as he booted the kick away. The 15-yard penalty gave St. Louis new life, and the Rams ultimately turned it into a 16-play drive that ended with Wilkins' 49-yard field goal that put St. Louis on the scoreboard and into a 3-3 tie.

The little mistakes hurt, too. Andy Lee, who had a booming 54-yard kick on his first punt attempt of the day, hit a low line drive on his next trip out. The kick went 46 yards and bounced before St. Louis returner Shaun McDonald got to it, but with no hang time whatsoever, McDonald had plenty of time to pick his lane and streaked over the right side for a 30-yard return to the San Francisco 40.

The Rams scored their only touchdown eight plays later. After being outplayed most of the half, they had a 10-3 lead, and that was a margin they carried into halftime.

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Being the tempestuous type is part of what makes Bryant so good, but he really isn't doing the 49ers any good when he throws his little tantrums when things don't go his way.

Or in this case, when the ball doesn't go his way.

Bryant was open over the middle on San Francisco's final possession of the first half as the 49ers attempted to extend the drive near midfield on a third-and-3 play. But Smith, facing heavy pressure being pushed back into his face, fired high over Bryant's head. Bryant leaped into the air as he looked up for the ball, but he would've had to be 20 feet tall to have had a chance at catching it.

But when he landed, Bryant let the frustration flow, clenching both his fists and pumping his arms demonstratively as he stormed off the field.

That's called showing up your young quarterback. Bryant continued to yap on his way to the sidelines, and again as he sat on the bench. Veteran backup quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played with Bryant last year in Cleveland and knows his volatile nature, came over and got in Bryant's face with some words of wisdom to try and calm him down.

Let's hope it worked. Not just for today, but for the future.

Of course, there's nothing better to make all good with Bryant and bring a smile to his face than a 72-yard touchdown bomb delivered perfectly into his hands by Smith.

On a third-and-12 early in the third quarter, Smith stepped up in the pocket and found Bryant behind the St. Louis secondary down the right sideline. Smith put the ball on the money, hitting Bryant in stride, and all Bryant had to do was make sure he caught it.

He did, stumbling as he brought the ball in, but then taking off to complete San Francisco's longest play so far this young season. And in the process, giving the 49ers the lead back in sudden fashion at 17-10 and giving them all the points they'd need to win.

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Bryant finished with his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game, Smith finished with a quarterback rating of 103.0 with another turnover-free game during which he wasn't sacked, and Gore continued to be a fantasy team's dream.

But this game was won by defense. The 49ers limited the Rams to 265 total yards, forcing them to punt on their first three possessions, and St. Louis only once got past the San Francisco 20 on its final six possessions, allowing the Niners to come back and take this game away.

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