Niners face 'GPS' game against Falcons

The 49ers' first goal for the season appears to be looking good after the first quarter of the team's schedule. With the Atlanta Falcons coming to town Sunday, the 49ers now will venture outside the NFC West after going through the first half of their division schedule unbeaten for the first time since 2002. That was the season the 49ers last won the division title and advanced to the playoffs.

"Our first goal is to win the division, but that's not our only goal," coach Mike Singletary said. "The most important thing for us right now is to win the division. But as we go forward, we want to be one of the best teams in the NFL. That's where we want to go.

"Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do, but that's where our sights are."

The 49ers are viewing Sunday's matchup against the Falcons at Candlestick Park as a "GPS game" – a contest that should give the team an exact read on where it stands in relation to an NFC foe that expects to make a return trip to the playoffs.

The 49ers have received strong defense through the first four games of the season. The club has a 3-1 record with the last-second loss to Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings on the road standing as the team's only defeat.

"Obviously, I'm going to say that the first quarter of the season went well," Singletary said. "We just have to continue to focus on the goal at hand, knowing that as we go forward, it's only going to get tougher. It's only going to get rougher, and we have to make sure mentally that we rise to the occasion."

Singletary said he believes the 49ers have a lot of room for improvement on offense – especially the offensive line.

Rookie running back Glen Coffee averaged just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt on Sunday, and quarterback Shaun Hill was sacked four times. The 49ers' offense was merely along for the ride in the 35-0 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

"When it's all said and done, our offensive line will be one of the best lines in the league," Singletary said. "I think sometimes we just cheat ourselves out of what we can be. We just have to take it to the next level and I know they will."

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The 49ers' 3-1 record and NFC West division lead is not giving Singletary a false sense of security.

Singletary has based much of his hopes for this season on a stout defense and an offensive line that controls the line of scrimmage. Singletary said he expects the 49ers' offensive line to be one of the team's strengths this season.

But the line, especially guards Chilo Rachal and David Baas, have gotten off to poor starts this season. Despite the 49ers' rout of the Rams last week, the offensive line did not play up to the standard Singletary has set for his team.

"When it's all said and done, our offensive line will be one of the best lines in the league," Singletary said. "I think sometimes we just cheat ourselves out of what we can be. We just have to take it to the next level and I know they will."

Coffee, making his first career start in place of injured Frank Gore, rushed for 74 yards on 24 rushing attempts against the Rams while finding little space to roam between the tackles.

"There are a lot of areas that I need to refine and get better, but it was all right," Coffee said. "The biggest thing is we got the victory.

Hill was sacked four times while throwing for 152 yards.

The members of the offensive line were the biggest critics of the 49ers' offense, and for good reason.

"We need to play better," 49ers guard David Baas said.

Said left tackle Joe Staley, "I'm not sure our personality on the field in the first half was quite what it needed to be. We just have to do a better job of playing tight and executing. We have to do a better job of giving the running back some running room."

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Linebacker Patrick Willis has already been to two Pro Bowls in two NFL seasons, but Sunday's game might have been the best of his career. Willis returned an interception for a touchdown, recorded 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.

"I'm glad he's on my team," Hill said. "That guy, he's awesome, flying around making plays. That whole defense, the way they're playing is unbelievable. I love watching them play."

Singletary said Willis -- and many others on the team's defense -- has yet to "scratch the surface."

And what happens when that happens?

"Wow," Singletary said. "Just 'wow' would be the only thing I can say. Wow, because he has so much talent. He just has to tie his talent and knowledge together and that's where he's going to take it to the next level."

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The 49ers needed a fortunate bounce in the second quarter to head to the locker room with a 7-0 lead. Andy Lee's punt clipped off the foot of Quincy Butler, who was blocking 49ers' gunner Tarell Brown, at the 14-yard line. The live ball bounced into the end zone, where rookie Scott McKillop recovered it for a touchdown.

"Right place, right time," McKillop said. "I jumped on the ball, with a little help from Jeff Ulbrich in the pile. It was an important way to start off. In the past couple weeks, we haven't been performing as well on special teams as we'd like to. So that was one of the things that myself and my fellow special-teamers took upon ourselves to perform a little better."

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Hill, linebacker Takeo Spikes and receiver Jason Hill wore pink shoes as part of the NFL-wide recognition for breast cancer awareness. Shaun Hill said he shook hands with some cancer survivors on the sideline before the game.

"I could hear them talking about my shoes and how much it meant to them," Hill said. "I just felt very grateful that they were there. Obviously, the strength and courage they have shown."


REPORT CARD VS. RAMS

PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus --
Quarterback Shaun Hill does not make mistakes that put the offense in bad situations. He threw for just 152 yards, but had two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked four times for minus-20 yards. Josh Morgan dropped a deep pass, but came back later to make a nice leaping grab of a 24-yard touchdown pass.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- With Frank Gore out of the lineup with ankle injuries, rookie Glen Coffee stepped into the featured role and didn't have much room to run. He also did not take any runs out of the designed hole. He rushed for 74 yards on 24 carries, as the 49ers managed just three first downs on the ground in their 29 rushing attempts. The offensive line did not do a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- The pass rush was consistently good, as the 49ers recorded five sacks. Linebacker Patrick Willis also returned an interception 23 yards for a touchdown. The 49ers surrendered just 82 net yards passing. The secondary, including cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements, had a very strong game, as the Rams were unable to get anything going down the field.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- Aubrayo Franklin did a strong job at nose tackle, and strong safety Michael Lewis was dynamic in playing close to the line of scrimmage and making plays. It was a strong performance across the board for the 49ers' defense as it held Rams running back Steven Jackson to just 79 yards on 23 carries.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- The 49ers delivered the first big punch of the game when Scott McKillop recovered a live ball in the end zone after a muffed punt. Tarell Brown and Jason Hill had good, aggressive sequences on that play to lead to the touchdown. The rest of special teams play was forgettable. Joe Nedney missed his only field-goal attempt, and Arnaz Battle really struggled on punt returns.

COACHING: B-plus -- Difficult to fault anything with defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's plan after the 49ers recorded their first shutout in 119 games. The 49ers did a good job of mixing pressures on coverage to keep Rams quarterback Kyle Boller off balance. The 49ers kept it simple enough to allow the defense to play fast and make plays. Offensively, the 49ers finally showed some life in the second half with two offensive scores. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has done a good job of featuring tight end Vernon Davis.



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