Next step for Niners is battle of unbeatens

The 49ers have a chance this Sunday to place themselves in the discussion of NFC contenders. Sure, the 49ers are 2-0 after opening the season with victories over the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks to take early command in the NFC West. But the Niners have a huge challenge in front of them this week when they travel to face the undefeated Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.

San Francisco has shown it can take care of business in its own division, but now the 49ers venture into the home of a Minnesota squad considered one of the teams to beat in the NFC this year and a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

The 49ers and Vikings are two of five NFC teams that still are undefeated entering Week 3. Sunday's matchup of divisional leaders is the only game between unbeaten teams in the NFL this week.

That makes it about as big as big games get this early in the season, and it also will be a measuring stick of sorts for the 49ers to see where they really stand among the top teams in the conference.

"A lot of people consider the Vikings as being one of the power teams of the NFC," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said Wednesday. "For us to go against them in their house and play good football against them and win, it would be really big."

The 49ers are 2-0 for the first time since 2007, when they promptly went into an eight-game tailspin. The 49ers have not been 3-0 since 1998.

This year's 2-0 start has been much more solid than the 2-0 start of two seasons ago, which also came against two NFC West teams and gave someobservers a false sense that the 49ers were serious contenders in the division that year. They weren't.

"It's not about being 2-0, it's about handling being 2-0," Willis said. "I think our guys are going to do a real good job with that. Were going to go out and prepare. It's a big step for us."

Despite their solid start, coach Mike Singletary says the 49ers have plenty of room for improvement.

"We have to do a better job overall cleaning it up so we can compete with anyone," Singletary said. "That's what we're trying to do. We're not satisfied with being 1-0, 2-0. We want to be a team that really makes a difference in this year's playoffs, championships, whatever.

"The only thing we know is that we're striving to be a good football team. The only thing we know is that we can run the ball when we put our minds to it and our offensive line has leverage to do that."

In their convincing 23-10 rout of the Seahawks last week, the 49ers cleaned up their offensive line play from a week earlier. The 49ers rolled to 379 yards of total offense with 256 of it coming on the ground. In their Week 1 victory, the 49ers gained just 21 yards on 25 rushing attempts.

"We just executed a lot better," 49ers left tackle Joe Staley said. "It came down to us as a whole, just getting the job done."

The job figures to get considerably more difficult this week. The Vikings are stocked with one of the league's most talented rosters, and their defense enters Sunday's game ranked fourth in the NFL.

The Vikings also rank No. 2 in the league in rushing offense, which will be going directly against San Francisco's strength. The 49ers are third in the league in stopping the run.

"I think each game gives us an opportunity to understand where we are," Singletary said. "I think the biggest thing for us to remember going forward is as we continue to get better as a team, at some point in time, it has to become less about the team that we're playing and more about the team we're becoming.

"We have to make sure that we focus and do our homework, we're prepared and that everybody knows exactly what they're doing. And, as we understand what we're doing, then it gives us more confidence going forward – I don't care who we're playing. That's the most important thing for us to do."

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Through two games, the 49ers have a combined 14 catches for 170 yards from their wide receivers.

Needless to say, the Niners might be able to find a use for unsigned draft pick Michael Crabtree.

The 49ers reportedly believe the New York Jets might also have a use for Crabtree. The 49ers have filed tampering charges against the Jets for having illegal contact with Crabtree, the New York Daily News reports.

According to the report, the 49ers believe the Jets contacted Crabtree's agent, Eugene Parker, to let him know they'd be interested in trading for his rights, or in drafting him in 2010 with a better salary than the 49ers are offering.

The deadline passed last month for a team to trade an unsigned draft pick. If Crabtree remains unsigned past Nov. 17, he can't play this season. The 49ers would then have a seven-week window, beginning March 5, to trade him before next year's draft.

Deion Sanders, a mentor to Crabtree, recently said on the NFL Network that Crabtree knows of two teams willing to pay him top dollar.

In 2008, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruled the 49ers violated the league anti-tampering policy when it contacted Drew Rosenhaus, agent for Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, during the 2007 season. The 49ers forfeited their 2008 fifth-round pick, and the 49ers and Bears swapped third-round picks. The 49ers were originally slated to pick five picks earlier than the Bears in the round.

A 49ers spokesman said the 49ers would make not public comment, saying, "Those are internal matters that are handled by the league, therefore we are not going to discuss the topic."

When told late Wednesday morning of comments made by Jets coach Rex Ryan, who denied the tampering charges and said he wished his team played the 49ers this year, Singletary replied:

"I think it's outstanding. I love that. That's Rex Ryan. I love Rex Ryan as well. Maybe, at some point in time we will play. But, for right now, we're thinking about Minnesota and we've got to get prepared for them. And, who knows? Maybe we'll see Rex somewhere along the line."

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Niners fullback Moran Norris had some good blocks that helped spring Frank Gore on his two touchdown runs against the Seahawks last week.

But he also got into the act with the ball in his hands. Norris, a nine-year veteran, had a career-long 15-yard run as part of his career-high 16 yards rushing. He's previous career-high was six yards rushing in one game.

He also caught three passes for 17 yard, matching his career high in the former and setting a new career-high in the latter.

"It felt good to be involved in the offense," Norris said. "(Offensive coordinator) Jimmy Raye calls the plays, and I just try to go out there and execute. We had the plays in, and he dialed them up, so it worked out for the best."

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Third-year player Dashon Goldson was elevated into the starting lineup in the offseason for his playmaking ability. He was promoted to replace Mark Roman, who had gone more than two full seasons without an interception at free safety.

Goldson recorded his first career interception Sunday after hauling in a pass Nate Clements deflected.

"I saw the quarterback open up and I just broke on it," Goldson said, "and then I saw Nate over the top and I thought that he might have gotten a hand on it. I was going to go for the hit until I saw the ball tipped."

The 49ers have three interceptions in their first two games after recording just 12 all of last season.

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Singletary sought an offensive coordinator in the offseason to install an offense similar to what Norv Turner ran with the 49ers in 2006.

"In '06, I was rolling," 49ers running back Frank Gore said.

Gore looked to be back in 2006 form last week as he gained 207 yards on 16 carries with touchdown runs of 79 and 80 yards against the Seahawks. Gore's big day came one week after he was held to 30 yards on 22 carries against Arizona in the opener.

"If you know Frank, you just know that he was frustrated," Singletary said. "He won't say anything, and his body language isn't really going to show it. But any running back wants to run the ball. Frank is one of those guys.

"When you have good football players, they're going to be frustrated, and at some point in time it has to happen. And it will."

Gore rushed for 1,695 yards in 2006. Although his production has fallen off each of the past two seasons, Gore became the first player in 49ers history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Gore played half of the fourth quarter before leaving with a right ankle sprain. X-rays were negative, and Gore practiced Wednesday and Thursday.

"I feel pretty good," he said. "I came here and got my work. I feel all right. I feel great. I'll be good."



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