PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- OK, so that opening-night stinkeroo against Arizona wasn't an aberration. Alex Smith is holding the ball too long and does not look comfortable at all in the pocket. He is failing to find open receivers and make quick decisions. A lot of this has to do with what is going on up front. The line is not exhibiting the kind of cohesion it often displayed last year and pass protection is a legitimate concern, particularly after Smith was dumped four times for sacks by a St. Louis defense that was much more interested in stopping the run, and he lost one fumble at a crucial point in the game. Smith made a couple of great throws - on the run and standing strong in the pocket - so it's not a question of if he can do it. And he completed 65 percent of his passes and finished with a game quarterback rating of 86.9. But he finished with only 126 yards passing and, an eighth of the way into the season, Smith and the 49ers don't have one touchdown pass. San Francisco is winning, but something obviously isn't right here.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Frank Gore rushed for both San Francisco touchdowns and he churned out 81 yards rushing on 20 carries, but the holes weren't there most of the afternoon. Even on the game's signature play - Gore's tackle-breaking scoring run a fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 43 late in the third quarter - the Rams had him stacked up behind the line of scrimmage before Gore basically did the rest on his own. This grade is this high because of Gore's determination and perseverance in willing the 49ers to victory, and there was some occasional strong blocking in the run game, notably by Justin Smiley. But most of the time, there was no room to rumble, and that's on the guys up front. Take out the touchdown jaunt, and Gore had only 38 yards on his other 19 carries. When the 49ers wanted to pound it out late in the game to run down the clock, six consecutive runs netted no first downs and gave the ball back to the Rams for a chance to win it at the end, which they almost did.
PASSING DEFENSE: B --Forget the 368 yards passing by Marc Bulger, because it became clear early that passing was the only way the Rams would be capable of moving the ball down the field and their only hope at victory. The 49ers challenged the overmatched St. Louis line throughout the afternoon with blitz and rush packages, letting their secondary play man-to-man and match-up zones throughout against the Rams' talented receivers, who were bound to win on their share of plays. And they did plenty of that - five different St. Louis players had at least one reception of 19 yards or more. But it was mostly middle-of-the-field yardage that padded the Rams' final numbers. When the field got tighter and Bulger and his receivers had less room to work with, it was a different story altogether. Bulger doesn't like to get hit, and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky made sure he got hit 11 times officially (and a few more unofficially) while being sacked six times for 37 yards in losses. There were corner blitzes, stunt blitzes and just flat-out power from San Francisco's front as Bryant Young had two sacks and Marques Douglas had another. Tully Banta-Cain also was in Bulger's face numerous times. Nate Clements may have saved the game for the 49ers by punching the ball out of Torry Holt's hands after a reception deep in San Francisco territory that went through the end zone for a touchback. Free safety Mark Roman was around the ball in coverage, though Walt Harris got beaten several times. This grade actually would be higher, but you can't completely forget those 368 yards through the air.
RUSHING DEFENSE: A -- Let's see … The Rams hurt the 49ers with their run game, well, actually, like … never. San Francisco's front wall, whose responsibility it is to absorb blockers, also was absorbing ball carriers as Young, Douglas and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga all were stout inside. Young had six tackles and Douglas had five, and what they didn't get at the line of scrimmage, linebackers Patrick Willis and Manny Lawson were cleaning up close by. With eight stops, Willis was the game's leading tackler for the second consecutive week to begin his career, and Lawson was right behind with seven tackles. Safety Michael Lewis also was active near the line with seven stops. The Rams had only three rushing first downs while Steven Jackson had just 60 yards to show for his 21 totes, a 2.9 average. His longest gain was nine yards as the Rams went nowhere on the ground.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Take away Brandon Williams' muff on St. Louis' first punt of the afternoon, and this was a complete, sterling effort by these units. Of course, Williams' turnover was a big minus, because it wasn't like he had any elements to fight trying to catch a punt in a dome, and it gave the Rams a short field that led directly to their only touchdown. Andy Lee, who blasted punts of 71, 56 and 51 yards, hit them long when he had the opportunity but also placed them with touch when he needed to, putting four of his six kicks inside the St. Louis 20. Lee had a great 41.8 net to go along with his 45.3 average, and the Rams, on average, started from their own 14-yard line after Lee's six punts. The coverage units held Dante Hall - one of the great returners of this NFL era - to a 2.7 average on three punt returns and a 18.0 average on three kickoff returns. In a word: Tremendous. There also were some nice hits on these units by Jeff Ulbrich and Keith Lewis. And then there was steady Joe Nedney, who kicked the game-winning field goal from 40 yards out with 2:19 to play.
COACHING: C-plus -- Gee, why don't the 49ers just hand off the ball to Gore every play and hope he can break off a couple of touchdown runs every Sunday, then rely on their special teams for field position and their defense to force turnovers as a winning formula? Actually, we give coach Mike Nolan a little more credit here than the critics that are slamming his conservative nature in the climactic sequences of the game. Nolan was playing to win and doing what he thought it took for his team to win - and he won. The risk taken in Nolan's decision do go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield late in the third quarter shouldn't be minimized - it was a long yard, and if the 49ers had been stopped, the Rams - leading by six points at the time - could have taken total control of the game. And there was nothing conservative about Manusky's defensive game plan, which was a textbook example of the way to play and beat the Rams. But, ultimately, San Francisco was playing not to lose at the end of the game, and that's no way to win in the NFL. The 49ers are fortunate they did.
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