NFC West News & Notes - 9/18/07

In today's News and Notes: The Seahawks get two losses for the price of one, there's a ground game developing in Arizona, the Rams learn that life without Orlando Pace will be no picnic, and the 49ers balance a 2-0 record with an offense that needs to get out of the mud.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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To the Seahawks, the 23-20 loss to Arizona seemed like more than just one defeat. As it was their fourth consecutive loss to NFC West opponents, the Hawks could see the age of divisional dominance slipping away. "I think they are obviously getting better," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "One thing we try not to do is focus too much on our opponent. We try to focus more on us. We just had missed opportunities and we didn't play our best. As these teams are getting a lot better, you can't do that, especially on the road."

The Seahawks face Cincinnati this week, and meet a team that has stopped nobody thus far. It should be a chance for the offense to rebuild its confidence after fumbling away the chance to win at Arizona in the final two minutes.

The defense, however, will face a few obvious challenges.

Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh will again test the Seahawks' smaller cornerbacks, particularly Kelly Jennings, who had the ball taken away from him a time or two by taller Larry Fitzgerald.
The Seahawks came away from the loss with considerable motivation.

"We didn't play good enough," safety Deon Grant said. "We played better in the second half than we did in the first half, but we gave up too many first downs. Even when they got that (last) fumble, that's something our defense stands for. That is something we are not going to stand for the rest of the year."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Deion Branch had zero catches in the season-opening win over Tampa Bay, but came up with seven in a loss to Arizona. Branch would rather have the first outcome. "It's no good," Branch said. "I mean, I can catch 20 balls today, we lose the game, and it doesn't make any difference. I'd rather win the game and have one or two catches than have 20 balls and lose the game. It defeats the purpose."

Branch broke free for receptions of 37, 27 and 22 yards.

"Really, that's the key, just getting the balls in (the wide receivers') hands," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "Deion had some great plays. To keep the ball out of their hands is a mistake so we have to keep getting them the ball."

--Behind 17-7 in the third quarter, coach Mike Holmgren decided to take a gamble on fourth-and-one at the Cardinals' 16. He sent Shaun Alexander into the line behind guard Rob Sims and tight end Marcus Pollard, who created a lane that led Alexander into the end zone. "I just said, heck, let's try it," Holmgren said. "Sometimes you have to go against conventional wisdom and it worked for us today."

Hasselbeck said he did some unspoken lobbying to go for it by getting the offense back in the huddle after third down so it looked as if there was never any question of not going for it.

--The Cardinals set up their first field goal with a block of a Ryan Plackemeier punt in the first quarter. The unusual thing about the block was that the Cardinals had a return set up, not a block.

"I'm not quite sure what happened," Plackemeier said. "It was something where they were setting up a return and they only forced it with one guy." That guy was Sean Morey, who got past Seahawks up-back Mike Green to get a hand on the ball as it left Plackemeier's foot.

"No punt should be blocked, whether they're bringing 10 guys or one," Plackemeier said. "We all need to get better as a unit ... everybody. (Special teams coach Bruce) DeHaven has a great scheme for punting the ball and protecting for it, so we're just going to have to keep working on it."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Leonard Weaver played a larger role in the offense, getting a carry and a reception while also being used as a lead blocker on occasion to rest fullback Mack Strong.
--RB Shaun Alexander played the game with a cast on his left hand/arm to protect a sore wrist. It was not considered to be the cause of the fourth-quarter fumble on a handoff from Matt Hasselbeck.
--LB Lofa Tatupu, after forcing a pair of fumbles in the opener, added an interception and a dozen tackles against the Cardinals. He's missing fewer tackles this season and showing impressive range.
--WR Deion Branch was a focus for the passing game after having been blanked in the opener. With Branch targeted as the primary receiver, he pulled in seven passes for 122 yards.
--RB Alvin Pearman, recently added as a free agent, saw his first action and came up with a short reception and two kickoff returns for an average of 19 yards.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL - REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS

PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Matt Hasselbeck was sharp with a 94.8 passer rating while being sacked only once. Getting the ball to Deion Branch was a goal, and they succeeded. Four drops kept this from being an "A" grade.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Shaun Alexander had a nice 16-yard touchdown run, but he blew his assignment on a key play late in the game that led to a critical fumble.
PASS DEFENSE: D -- The Hawks pressured Matt Leinart, but didn't sack him once. Tall receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald gave the Seahawks' short cornerbacks problems.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- Edgerrin James picked up 128 yards with a 5.3 average. The small Seahawks defense had to get a lot of helmets on James before bringing him down, even with eight in the box at times.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- Getting a punt blocked when the Cardinals had a return called is inexcusable.
COACHING: C -- The Hawks showed the capacity to make adjustments while scoring 20 unanswered points in a rally. But they were hardly ready for the game as they fell behind 17-0 in the first half.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals served notice Sunday against Seattle that they are going to try to run the ball, no matter the circumstances. Despite starting two rookie offensive linemen -- center Lyle Sendlein and right tackle Levi Brown -- the Cardinals were committed to the run. It showed in the results. Running back Edgerrin James gained 128 yards on 24 carries, including four straight plays that set up the game-winning field goal by Neil Rackers.

"Edge has looked good," said coach Ken Whisenhunt. "A lot of people had questions about him running behind a fullback, but it's obvious to me that 'Edge' has good vision, he finishes runs, he's hard to bring down and the offensive line's obviously been doing a good job."

Most impressive was the Cardinals' ability to run the ball when the Seahawks knew what was coming. After recovering a fumble at the Seattle 46 in the final two minutes, James carried four times for 22 yards, even though Seattle was stacked to stop him.

That consumed valuable time and set up Rackers' game winner.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RB Edgerrin James played seven years with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, so he knows what a great quarterback must do to become great. He is imparting that knowledge on Matt Leinart. "I want to ride all the way to the top with him," James said. "I won't let him breath or give him a chance to slack off. I'll be in his ear constantly, regardless of how he takes it. I really don't care how somebody takes something.

"This is what we got to have. I've been around the best quarterback in the game, and if you want to be the best you have to do what the best do."

--A very loud crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium played a part in the victory. The Seahawks had two critical false starts, and the mixup that led to their disastrous fumble was caused because Shaun Alexander thought he heard an audible.

"We've got to get it to where they (the fans) believe in us and they're going to come in here and lose their voices and go in hoarse on Monday."
Leinart spent long hours at the team's facility last week after a horrible performance in the opener. "I put in time this week to really understand our offense and know where every one is on every play," he said.

--With 161 yards rushing last week in San Francisco and 132 yards on Sunday, the Cardinals have opened the season with consecutive 100-yard games for the first time since 1988.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--NT Alan Branch will have his left hand examined Wednesday afternoon and is hopeful of playing. Branch said this is the first time he's ever missed practices or games.
--C Nick Leckey might not be with the club much longer. There are four centers on the roster and Leckey is the odd man out. He makes $1.3 million a year, which is a contributing factor to his lack of job security.
--RB Edgerrin James was not caught for a loss on Sunday. He had only five such games last year.
--WR Sean Morey is proving to be the special teams ace the team expected. He deflected a punt in the first quarter that set up a field goal.
--MLB Gerald Hayes doesn't get much attention but he's an effective run stopper. Hayes had seven tackles and forced the final fumble against Seattle.
--C Lyle Sendlein will get his second straight start Sunday in Baltimore.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL - REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- QB Matt Leinart was efficient. He did have one interception but he wasn't sacked and he was excellent on third down.
RUSHING OFFENSE A -- Edgerrin James is showing that last year's problems were a result of poor coaching, not that his skills were diminishing.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- A decent job, although Seattle started picking at the corners in the second half and Matt Hasselbeck was sacked just once.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals stopped Frank Gore last week and Shaun Alexander last Sunday. Seattle never developed a consistent threat.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- A deflected punt and a downed punt at the 1 led to 10 points. The Cardinals haven't seen that kind of production in forever. The return games are still shaky.
COACHING: A -- The offensive game plan was scaled back, but creative. There was a pass for a touchdown on third-and-one. The defense kept Seattle off balance in the first half. At least this year, the Cardinals have a philosophy and are sticking with it.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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It was fairly certain there would be some protection issues in Sunday's game against the 49ers. San Francisco comes with numerous blitzes from the 3-4 defense, and the Rams were set to play with three players in positions different from the week before. Quarterback Marc Bulger passed for 368 yards, but he was sacked six times and hit on many more occasions, resulting in sore ribs. The pass rush against the makeshift line affected how Bulger would go through his progressions.

He acknowledged often throwing quickly to his primary receiver. "I probably held on to the ball too long in certain circumstances, but we definitely have some corrections to make," Bulger said. "The more you wait, that's where fumbles happen and sacks. Sacks really hurt on offense. They put you in second-and-long and third-and-long, and it's tough to overcome that."

One of those third-and-longs came on their final possession of the game, when an eight-yard sack on second-and-10 from the San Francisco 45-yard line created a third-and-18 play. Bulger hit wide receiver Isaac Bruce for 15 yards, resulting in a 56-yard field-goal try that just fell short.

"I thought we had a little bit of trouble identifying things," center Brett Romberg said. "We struggled a little bit for the most part. I know Marc got pinged off a couple of times. I don't know who pinged him off, but we'll go back over the film and figure it out."

Said left guard Mark Setterstrom, "Our job is to keep Marc upright, and we didn't do that today. Anytime you see him on the ground, you take it personally."

The Rams played with right tackle Alex Barron at left tackle replacing Orlando Pace, who is out for the season; Milford Brown at right tackle for Barron and Claude Terrell at right guard for Richie Incognito, who is out with an ankle injury. Brown had trouble with the 49ers' speed on the edge, not a surprise since he is normally a guard and played tackle only briefly in one game during his previous five years in the NFL.

"I felt pretty comfortable, but I guess I didn't do good enough," Brown said. "We lost. That's the way I feel about it. They were bringing more than we could actually block at times. They disguised it pretty good."

Bulger added, "Give San Francisco credit. They put together a plan and we had some guys in different spots. There was a lot of pressure, but I can't really tell until we see the film what the issues were."

Said coach Scott Linehan, "I think he played fairly good considering how much pressure he had on him."

The offensive line wasn't the only culprit. Running back Steven Jackson also had some problems picking up the blitz.

NOTES, QUOTES

--For two straight games, the Rams have done well on third down early, then struggled. They also have two turnovers in each game in the third quarter. Against Carolina, the Rams converted their first five third-down plays, but were two-for-11 the rest of the way. Also in that game, running back Steven Jackson lost two fumbles in the third quarter, one at the Panthers' 26-yard line.

Against the 49ers, the Rams converted three of their first four third downs, but were just two-for-10 the rest of the game. In the third quarter, Bulger lost a fumble on a sack, and wide receiver Torry Holt fumbled at the San Francisco 8-yard line and the ball bounced through the end zone for a touchback. In both games, the Rams led 13-7 in the third quarter, and the second turnover led to a 14-13 deficit.

--The Rams traded a fifth-round pick in the offseason for kick returner Dante Hall, but so far the reviews have been mixed. Except for an 84-yard kickoff return, Hall hasn't made much of an impact and his turnover late in the fourth quarter Sunday prevented the Rams from attempting to run out the clock with a 16-14 lead.

In Week 1, Hall was caught from behind on the 84-yard return at the Carolina 17-yard line, and the Rams settled for a field goal. On four other kickoff returns, he gained 17, 15, 15 and 15. Two punt returns went for six and minus-one. Against the 49ers, Hall had three kickoff returns of 17, 17 and 20 and three punt returns of zero, one and seven. His muffed punt was the turning point. The Rams had taken a 16-14 lead, and the defense stopped the 49ers at the San Francisco 32-yard line with 5:54 left in the game. Hall couldn't handle the punt at his own 25-yard line and the 49ers recovered. Four snaps later, Joe Nedney kicked the game-winning 40-yard field goal.

"I knew they were coming down on me, it was just a bonehead play," Hall said. "I have no excuse. That's a routine play for me -- fair catch it. It's frustrating, trying to make a play and I should have just fair caught it. I eff-ed up."

--Kicker Jeff Wilkins was just short on a 56-yard field-goal attempt that would have given the Rams the lead with less than a minute remaining in the game. The decision was made to kick rather than try for a first down on fourth-and-three from the San Francisco 38-yard line. Earlier in the game, Wilkins made a 53-yard field goal that had plenty of room to spare. "I would have liked to get five or six more yards for Wilky," quarterback Marc Bulger said. "It's risky there if we don't kick the field goal on fourth down. Obviously, we could go back and say that we wish we would have went for it, but that was probably as good a chance as we were going to get."

Since 2003, Wilkins is now 16-for-19 on field-goal attempts of 50 or more yards. Wilkins' only misses aside from Sunday were from 56 yards in 2004 and from 53 in 2005.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--OG Claude Terrell, who injured his knee and thigh in Sunday's game against San Francisco, could be limited in practice this week. That could lead to another change in an offensive line that continues to be shuffled.
--RT Milford Brown missed some plays in Sunday's game against San Francisco because of an ankle injury. Coach Scott Linehan believes Brown will be able to practice this week.
--OL Adam Goldberg played both guard and tackle Sunday against the 49ers in relief of OG Claude Terrell (thigh/knee) and OT Milford Brown (ankle).
--TE Randy McMichael was fairly sore Monday with a tight hamstring suffered early in Sunday's game against San Francisco. McMichael continued to play with the injury.
--CB Tye Hill missed Sunday's game because of a fractured transverse process and ribs problem. The injury takes four-to-six weeks to heal, but the best-case scenario is he could be back in two-to-three weeks if he can deal with the pain.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (foot) will be evaluated this week to see if there's any chance he can practice. Tinoisamoa was inactive for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
--RG Richie Incognito was inactive for Sunday's game against San Francisco because of an ankle injury and will be evaluated this week to see if he can practice.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL - REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- QB Marc Bulger passed for 368 yards and WR Isaac Bruce had eight receptions for 145 yards. However, Bulger was also sacked six times, thanks to the relentless pressure from the 49ers and the Rams' shuffled offensive line. TE Randy McMichael had two receptions early, but by the end of the game, he was needed to help on pass protection.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- RB Steven Jackson started strong like the week before, but wasn't able to finish. Jackson had 12 carries for 43 yards at halftime, and just 17 yards on nine attempts in the second half. Most of the time, there was little room to run.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- Except for one 34-yard pass play, the makeshift secondary did a solid job with CB Tye Hill sidelined by bruised ribs and a back injury. CB Ron Bartell was excellent, and the Rams sacked QB Alex Smith four times and limited him to 126 passing yards on 11 completions. Without Jackson's play, the 49ers totaled 92 yards on 10 completions.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- It would have been better were it not for the breakdown that led to a 43-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore on a fourth-and-one play. The Rams ran to the ball and mostly bottled up Gore. He had one other 13-yard run on third-and-18, so 56 of his 81 yards came on two plays. His other 18 attempts gained just 25 yards.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- A mixed bag. The coverage units were good, but the return game was awful. KR Dante Hall muffed a punt, LS Chris Massey had a holding penalty that wiped out a 55-yard punt, and rookie Darius Vinnett had a costly running-into-the-returner penalty that gave the 49ers excellent field position for their first touchdown. Hall totaled eight yards on three punt returns and just 54 yards on three kickoff returns. He wasn't very good, nor was the blocking. One saving grace was PK Jeff Wilkins, who made a 53-yard field goal and nearly hit one from 56 yards.
COACHING: C -- Third-down plays were predictable, although some of that could have been attributed to protection issues. A spike on first down late in the game was unnecessary with more than a minute to go in the game and the Rams at the San Francisco 45-yard line. Coach Scott Linehan was animated in making sure the spike happened when being in control was called for where there was plenty of time to call a first-and-10 play.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers might be 2-0 and all alone atop the NFC West, but they certainly haven't been perfect. The 49ers have averaged just 190 total yards in their two games but somehow have won both. Quarterback Alex Smith has passed for 252 yards in the first two games, and the stodgy play-calling has been called into question.

After the 49ers' 17-16 victory over the Rams, coach Mike Nolan faced a barrage of questions about his ineffective offense. He said he sees that as a good thing. "People are now expecting (us) to win," Nolan said. "So now they're talking about, 'How did you win?' The last two years, people weren't talking about how we won. They were just happy we won the game. If people are talking about how we won, we're making a step in the right direction."

Frank Gore has three touchdowns in two games, while Smith is still looking for his first touchdown pass. The 49ers have had 26 drives in two games, and 21 of those drives have produced one or fewer first downs.
Tight end Vernon Davis, expected to be a big part of the offense, virtually disappeared in the first two games. He was perturbed that he wasn't given many opportunities.

"There wasn't too much double-team," Davis said. "Every route I ran, I got open -- every route."

The 49ers ran the ball six consecutive times near the end of the game. The first three runs set up Joe Nedney's 40-yard go-ahead field goal. The second set of running plays led to a punt, giving the Rams a final chance to win the game.

"I was screaming," he said. "I want the ball. I don't know what it is. I got one or two passes thrown to me. I feel like I should have had more."

Davis caught just two passes for 23 yards. Those were the only two passes that went Davis' way the entire game. He has four catches for 27 yards in two games.

"He was open more than he caught the ball," Nolan said of Davis. "There were a couple other guys, too. We left some yards on the table, no question. We have to play better than that when you get under 200 yards. We got to play better. Vernon has to continue to do what he's doing and his opportunities will come."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Running back Frank Gore went to Miami after the game in St. Louis to attend his mother's funeral. Liz Gore died Wednesday at 46 from heart and kidney failure. Running backs coach Bishop Harris and teammates Moran Norris and Jonas Jennings accompanied Gore to Miami. Gore said it was especially difficult to play in Sunday's game. Usually, he speaks to his mother when he arrives at the stadium on game day.

"It was tough getting up," Gore said. "Me and my mom talk when I get to the stadium. This morning, I just kept looking at my phone. She didn't call. It's tough, you know. I shed a few tears. It was tough to get up for the game, but I decided to play. And I had to do my best out there for my team. I know my mom and the Man up above are watching over me, and I knew I was going to be all right. I had to get my mind right."

Gore provided the defining play of the game when he broke off a 43-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-one play late in the third quarter.

"They had nine (defenders) in the box and everybody on the offensive side got a hat on somebody," Gore said. "I got through and kept pumping my legs and got in the secondary. I made a move on the safety and it was over from there.

"She had to be with me on that one because there were a lot of people on me."

--Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris struggled on Sunday against a fellow NFL veteran. The Rams' Isaac Bruce, 34, caught eight passes for 145 yards, mostly against Harris.

"It was a long day for me," Harris said. "We knew they were going to throw the ball a lot. Sometimes you just have one of those days. Coming out with the win made me feel a whole lot better. If we'd lost, I'd definitely be in the tank."

--Cornerback Nate Clements has fit in quite well with his new team since signing an eight-year, $80 million contract. Clements came up with one of the key plays of the game after giving up a 20-yard pass completion to Torry Holt. Clements punched the ball from Holt's grasp at the 8-yard line and the ball went through the end zone for a touchback.

"They made a good throw and catch," Clements said. "It's something I've been working on in practice. I always run to the ball because you never know. I kept running and never gave up on the play and I saw the ball and punched it out."

--Coach Mike Nolan announced that game balls went to defensive lineman Bryant Young, who recorded two sacks, Gore and punter Andy Lee, who had a 71-yard punt and a 41.8-yard net average on eight punts.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Darrell Jackson left the Rams game with a "tweaked back," but coach Mike Nolan said he expects him to play Sunday against the Steelers. Jackson led the 49ers with 61 yards receiving on three catches against the Rams.
--CB Nate Clements recorded his second career sack, but it almost didn't happen. After hearing the defensive call in the huddle, Clements was then reminded by safety Mark Roman that he was blitzing. "I'm not used to blitzing," said Clements, who dropped Rams quarterback Marc Bulger for an 11-yard loss.
--WR Ashley Lelie signed a two-year, $4.3 million contract in the offseason but he has had a difficult time getting on the field. Lelie is the No. 4 receiver on the team, and he played just two offensive snaps on Sunday.
--LB Patrick Willis continues to impress. He recorded a game-high eight tackles against the Rams on Sunday, and added a quarterback hurry and batted down a pass in the end zone.
--FB Moran Norris played 29 offensive snaps as the 49ers went mostly with a two-back formation Sunday against the Rams. Although his main duty is as a lead-blocker for Frank Gore, Norris also picked up a first down on a third-and-one running play.
--LB Manny Lawson has gotten off to a strong start this season. He recorded seven tackles, a sack and broke up a pass in the 49ers' victory over the Rams. Three of Lawson's 3.5 career sacks have come against the Rams.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL - REPORT CARD VS. RAMS

PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Quarterback Alex Smith did not turn the ball over. That's about the best thing that can be said for the 49ers passing game. He completed 11 of 17 passes for just 126 yards. There were no touchdowns and no interceptions, but he was sacked four times and lost a fumble. Darrell Jackson contributed a 34-yard reception, the longest pass play for the 49ers in two games. Smith held the ball too long and did not see open receivers down the field.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Frank Gore posted decent numbers despite being held down for most of the game. He rushed for 81 yards on 20 carries. His darting-and-dashing 43-yard third-quarter touchdown run came on a fourth-and-one. It was the defining play of the game. He scored earlier on a six-yard TD run, too. The 49ers wanted to pound it out late in the game to run out the clock, but six consecutive runs netted no first downs and opened the door for the Rams.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- Sure, the 49ers surrendered 368 passing yards to quarterback Marc Bulger, but they allowed the Rams to get into the end zone just once. The 49ers sacked Bulger six times, including two by veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young. Cornerback Nate Clements made one of the plays of the game when he punched the ball free from Torry Holt after a long completion. Holt had gotten inside the 10-yard line but the fumble went through the end zone for a touchback. Pro Bowl corner Walt Harris had a difficult game, as he was responsible for many of Isaac Bruce's 145 yards.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- Young and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga did a nice job inside, while rookie linebacker cleaned up most of everything with eight tackles. The 49ers did a good job of wrapping up Rams running back Steven Jackson, who gained just 60 yards on 21 carries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- After Brandon Williams' muffed punt resulted in a Rams field goal, the 49ers' special teams turned in a masterly performance. The coverage units were fantastic, as they recovered Dante Hall's muffed punt, which provided the 49ers with field position for the winning score. Joe Nedney calmly made the 40-yard field goal for the winning points. Punter Andy Lee had a strong performance, including a 71-yard punt to help the 49ers in a game in which field position was key.
COACHING: D -- A win is a win, but coach Mike Nolan's conservative approach made this one a lot more harrowing than it had to be. With the 49ers down by two points with six minutes remaining, the team decided to play for the field goal from the 26-yard line. It was questionable strategy. The 49ers ran three straight times. When they got the ball back protecting a one-point lead, they again ran three straight plays, giving the Rams an opportunity to win the game.


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