Niners notebook: Another must-win situation

The 49ers are on a five-game losing streak. Their playoff hopes for the season have taken a big hit, and now they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons in a game that could help them get back on track the week before a big NFC West game against the Seattle Seahawks. Is it too early to call it a must-win?

"This is the most important game this week," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

With fan support beginning to waver, the 49ers unquestionably have a little more urgency against the Falcons (1-6). Quarterback Alex Smith is still banged up from a right shoulder separation he suffered last month. He made his return to action last week against the New Orleans Saints and struggled mightily.

The 49ers (2-5) have a lot of work to do to become a factor again. Their offense ranks last in the NFL, averaging just 220.4 yards per game. The 49ers have not scored more than 20 points in a game this season. They've scored just 35 points in their last four games.

"I take full responsibility for this football team and its 2-5 record. When I talk about collective problems and problem-solving, those things start with me and end with me," Nolan said.

The 49ers are clearly frustrated with their performance. It's a team searching for answers, and they have not come up with many solutions. Running back Frank Gore is off to a slow start after gaining a club-record 1,695 yards last season. Although he is averaging a respectable 4.0 yards a carry, he has just 435 yards on the ground.

Gore enters this week's game with a right ankle sprain that he said affected his play in the 49ers' 31-10 loss to the Saints. Gore said he understands why he has not had a lot of chances this season.

"It's how the games have been going," he said. "We've fallen behind and we've had to try to catch up. I think the running game would've been there, if we could've stuck with it. But it's just how the games are going. The games haven't been right for us to run the ball."

Gore carried just 12 times in last week's game. His NFL-best streak of 25 consecutive games with at least one carry of 10 yards or more came to an end. "I don't care about that," Gore said. "I just want to win."

Nolan pointed out to his team that the 49ers were 2-5 last season before winning three straight games to climb to the .500 mark. The 49ers finished the season with a 7-9 record and with high expectations for this season.

The club spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to improve the defense, and it added linebacker Patrick Willis in the draft. Nolan said the 49ers have a chance to turn things around because of the quality of individuals he has acquired since taking over as head coach in January 2005.

"I believe we have a lot of character on the football team," Nolan said. "We have a lot of work ethic. We have some talent. We need to maintain our health better than we have had. For those reasons, that's what gives me hope."

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Nolan is 39 games into his tenure as 49ers head coach, and he has a 13-26 record. But it wasn't until a day after the team's miserable showing against the Saints that he was asked the inevitable question about his future.

Owner John York has rarely spoken publicly about the state of the football team since he hired Nolan in January 2005. However, York does talk with Nolan regularly. The two men spoke in the locker room after Sunday's game. They had another talk later in the evening.

"The state of the football team right now is the responsibility of the head coach," Nolan said. "Our 2-5 record is my responsibility. That's what we talk about. He leaves those decisions and that responsibility to me."

Nolan, who said he is never motivated by job security, was asked if he worries that he is not meeting the owner's expectations.

"No," he answered. "I'm worried about meeting my own expectations, and those should be well and good enough for the owner."

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Kicker Joe Nedney was fined $7,500 by the NFL for making an obscene gesture Sunday at a heckler. Nedney was caught during the live TV game broadcast scratching the back of his head with his middle finger.

"It was a culmination of a frustrating game," Nedney said. "I'm not getting out there as much as I'd like to, and when I do, I want to do as best as a possibly can. And when I don't I'm a harsh critic of myself.

"I should've counted to 10 and taken a couple deep breaths. A comment was made to me at the wrong time and I lashed out, and now I've financially paid the consequences."

Nedney connected on a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter. But his kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Saints possession at the 40-yard line. He threw the tee to the sideline and took a seat on the bench. Nedney said he heard one voice out of the stands, and the insult included profanity.

"Unfortunately, it was seen by more than just one person," Nedney said. "As a 49er fan growing up ... if something happened like that to me as a kid, I probably would've had a negative image of that player. I'm very remorseful because I don't want to portray that kind of image to our fans."

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Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer says he has sustained 10 separated shoulders in his football career, dating back to his college days at Fresno State. Now, Alex Smith is learning about them, too.

"He's told me the last couple years about how many separated shoulders he'd had, and I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I walked to school through the snow, too,'" Smith said.

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Nolan is being blamed for everything these days, apparently even shifts in tectonic plates.

"I got home last night and my kids asked if the earthquake was my fault," Nolan quipped. "I said, 'Damn right it is.'"

The San Francisco Bay Area was hit by an earthquake that registered 5.6 on the Richter scale Tuesday night.


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