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Fortunately for the 49ers, they escaped unscathed and look to remain undefeated as they visit the Rams in an NFC West clash on Sunday.
Neither team lit up the scoreboard in Week 1, but the 49ers did enough on their final drive of the game to beat Arizona 20-17 on Monday night. Picked by many to be the surprise team of the season, San Francisco struggled to move the ball before Alex Smith led the team on a 12-play, 86-yard drive that culminated with Arnaz Battle’s one-yard touchdown on a reverse with 22 seconds remaining.
“The biggest thing I took from this is character and maturity,” said Smith, who was only 15-of-31 for 126 yards. “We were struggling on offense, but really hung in there and knew we were going to get it done. We believed in one another and marched down the field to get the win.”
Frank Gore had 55 yards rushing and a touchdown in his first action since breaking his right hand in the preseason, but admitted he was rusty.
“They came to stop the run, but we stayed together and got it done,” Gore said.
The entire St. Louis offense seemed rusty in a 27-13 loss to Carolina last Sunday. Steven Jackson had only 58 yards rushing and fumbled on consecutive snaps in the third quarter while quarterback Marc Bulger averaged only 3.98 yards per pass attempt, the lowest in his starting career.
“I didn’t intend for my season to start off like this,” said Jackson, who had no carries in the preseason. “But since it did, I will not back down.”
The news got worse for St. Louis this week as they learned former All-Pro tackle Orlando Pace is out for the season after tearing his labrum and rotator cuff. Pace also missed the last six games of 2006 with a torn left triceps.
“I feel very bad, obviously, for Orlando,” Rams coach Scott Linehan said. “He had a real unfortunate injury and we’ll have to pick up the pieces. Come Sunday, we’ll have our best five out there.”
The Rams signed former Patriot Brandon Gorin on Wednesday to fill Pace’s roster spot. Gorin started 18 games for New England from 2002-05, including the team’s Super Bowl victory in 2005. St. Louis might also shift right tackle Alex Barron to the left to protect Bulger’s blind side.
“We played a lot without him last year,” said Bulger, who had only 167 yards against the Panthers. “So unfortunately, we have some experience with it.”
The Rams have typically been one of the NFL’s best home teams and have beaten the 49ers in seven of the last eight meetings at the Edward Jones Dome.
But despite going 46-19 at home since the start of 1999, St. Louis has lost nine of its last 13 there, including Sunday’s loss. And the Rams have struggled against the 49ers lately. After winning 10 of 12 against their division rivals, the Rams have lost three of the past four meetings between the teams.
For St. Louis to get back on track, the team will need its stars to play much better. Jackson, who led the NFL with 2,334 yards from scrimmage last season, was held below 100 total yards on Sunday for the first time since Nov. 19 against Carolina. He had 192 total yards in his last meeting with San Francisco and is looking for his third straight 100-yard game against the 49ers.
Bulger, who signed a $60 million contract extension in the offseason, is 24-9 at home as a starter, with a 97.5 passer rating.
The Rams will be facing a rejuvenated 49ers defense that shut down Arizona on Monday. San Francisco allowed an NFL-worst 412 points last season, but limited the Cardinals to just 261 yards.
“They did some great things against an explosive offense with some very good players,” said 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who allowed rookie defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to call all the defensive formations. “You just have to be pleased.”
The 49ers will also be looking for a better game from Gore, who was second to Jackson in the NFC in 2006 with 2,180 yards from scrimmage. Gore has four touchdowns in his last three games against St. Louis and rushed for 261 yards in two meetings last season.
San Francisco, which went 3-5 on the road last season, plays at Pittsburgh next week, then faces four straight 2006 playoff teams. After Sunday, St. Louis plays four of its next five on the road.