49ers show their force to push past Rams

If the season opener was the unveiling of a new-look offense, then Sunday's home opener was about the deliverance of defense as the 49ers assembled the kind of complete effort that hasn't been seen in San Francisco since the 2003 season. That was enough to push the Niners past their usual growing pains and mistakes to a 20-13 win over the St. Louis Rams that shouldn't have been nearly that close.

Led by an opportunistic, rise-to-the-occasion defense that produced six sacks of Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, the 49ers enjoyed their widest margin of victory in the Mike Nolan era.

And it should have been even bigger.

Take away a Frank Gore fumble at the St. Louis 2-yard line on the first play of the second quarter, and push a missed 46-yard field goal by Joe Nedney a few feet over to the right on the first play of the fourth quarter, and the 49ers would have been celebrating their third consecutive victory over the Rams long before Gore was running out the clock by rumbling for two first downs as the San Francisco offense controlled the ball for the final three minutes, 38 seconds of action.

But nobody was complaining afterward as the 49ers got even at 1-1 and pretty much pushed around a St. Louis team that had done the same to the Denver Broncos the week before.

"There was no way we were going to be denied today," said defensive end Marques Douglas, whose sack of Bulger deep in St. Louis territory midway through the fourth quarter produced a fumble recovered by Isaac Sopoaga. That led to a 20-yard field goal by Nedney, which gave the 49ers some breathing room by adding to their tenuous 17-13 lead.

"We just had to come up with it," Douglas continued. "I think we took a big step today. (St. Louis) got some big plays in the game, but I think we showed our resiliency to bounce back and not let anything phase us."

St. Louis' big plays - the Rams had a few, but none that went for more than 24 yards - had nothing on San Francisco's big plays.

After sacks by rookie Manny Lawson and safety Chad Williams helped stop the Rams on the game's opening drive, quarterback Alex Smith hit Arnaz Battle for a 56-yard catch-and-run on San Francisco's third offensive play. That led to a 32-yard Nedney field goal that gave the 49ers a 3-0 lead that held up until midway through the second quarter, when San Francisco mistakes allowed the Rams to get back in the game.

Even though the 49ers had dominated the Rams in the first quarter, holding a 136-50 advantage in total yards entering the second period, Gore's fumble and a roughing-the-punter call on Keith Lewis sparked a rally be the Rams that led to a 10-3 St. Louis lead at halftime.

"It was just crazy to me that we could move the ball but every time we got to the red zone we were rejected," said receiver Antonio Bryant, who would make his presence known throughout the game - in more ways than one. "It's not like they were really stopping us. (St. Louis) did play a hard game, but we weren't doing all the right things."

The first half ended ominously for the 49ers as Smith badly overthrew Bryant on a third-and-3 play as San Francisco approached midfield with 1:19 to play. Bryant went almost-ballistic, clinching his fists and pumping his arms in demonstrative fashion as he stormed off the field, showing up Smith in the process. Bryant still wasn't calmed down by halftime.

"That's what makes him a good player. It's that edge," Smith said. "He's an emotional person and an emotional player. He wants to win as bad as anyone in this room. He wants to be good and he wants the team to be good."

Both Bryant and the 49ers got better in a hurry in the second half.

Before the notion began to take hold that mistakes and missed opportunities in the first half would come back to haunt the 49ers, Maurice Hicks returned the second half kickoff 59 yards.

Two plays later Gore, quickly atoning for his earlier fumble, burst up the middle and cut sharply to the right side to our-run the St. Louis defense to the end zone on a 32-yard touchdown play that evened the score at 10-10.

It was the signature run of a huge day for Gore, who powered his way for a career-high 127 yards rushing on 29 carries as the steady force that drove the San Francisco offense to another productive afternoon of 360 total yards. The 49ers had 393 yards in last week's near-miss 34-27 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

"We came in during the first half and I made some crucial mistakes," Gore said. "Then, we got together as a team and said we're going to get it done."

A 12-yard sack by Lawson on first down helped thwart St. Louis' next drive, and after the 49ers got the ball back, the game never would be the same.

Facing third-and-12, Smith sidestepped a pass rush from the edge and fired a strike down the right sideline toward Bryant, who had gotten behind the St. Louis secondary. Bryant hauled in the long pass, stumbled momentarily, that got his legs going underneath him and was off to the end zone to complete a spectacular 72-yard touchdown play that put the 49ers ahead to stay.

It was another nice throw and example of presence in the pocket by Smith, who averaged a ridiculous 20 yards per completion while throwing for 223 yards and compiling a quarterback rating of 103.0. He wasn't sacked and also didn't have a turnover for the second consecutive game. Bryant had a game-high 131 yards receiving, his second 100-yard game in a row to begin the season, also reeling in a 34-yard completion from Smith.

The resurgent defense did the rest. The Rams got past the San Francisco 20-yard line just once on their final six drives, and were limited to a field goal on that one time they did.

"We knew that sooner or later it had to happen," Lawson said. "It was huge growth for us. Overall, as a team, offense and defense, we really showed what we can do."

Which leaves the 49ers anxious to do it again. They host the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday in a game that could make their presence felt in the early NFC picture.

"One of the things I'm excited about," Douglas said, "is we won but we're still not satisfied. Because we know we left some plays out there. But to see the offense run the ball the way we did … If we just get to clicking every game like this, and improve on our mistakes, I mean, we're going to be a force to be reckoned with."


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