Niners try to reverse trend against St. Louis

Sunday, September 11, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Nolan got a twinge of nostalgia and excitement when he learned his first game as a head coach would be against the San Francisco 49ers' oldest rivals.

Nolan, whose father also held this job, is more aware than most new coaches of the history in this matchup, back to the blue-and-white uniforms of the Los Angeles Rams.

"This is one of those rivalries that makes the NFL great," Nolan said. "It doesn't matter the year, and it doesn't matter the players. The 49ers and the Rams just have something between them."

But when St. Louis lines up on the other side of Candlestick Park on Sunday, Nolan hopes he'll do better than his recent predecessors in this job, who have been trounced by Mike Martz and Dick Vermeil in recent seasons.

When Nolan took the job, his first announced goal was to win the NFC West this season. When the players reported to training camp, they were greeted by banners featuring the helmets of division rivals St. Louis, Seattle and Arizona all crossed out with red X's.

And though there's little reason to suspect rebuilding San Francisco can stay with resurgent St. Louis this season, Nolan eventually hopes to do better in this rivalry than his father: Dick Nolan went 2-13-1 against the Rams while coaching the 49ers from 1968 to 1975.

"The Rams have an identity that we're aware of," Nolan said. "They refer to themselves as the Greatest Show on Turf. We're searching for our identity, which is where you expect to be. For us it will be a first step in finding what that identity is.

"All those things that the Rams are, nobody knows what the 49ers are."

While the 49ers look for the strengths that will define them, St. Louis will attempt to tweak its winning formula this season.

The Rams' high-powered offense has been their trademark ever since Martz arrived as a coordinator in 1999. He became head coach a year later and earned a maverick reputation for his willingness to pass early and often, no matter the consequences.

St. Louis eroded to an 8-8 team last season that made the playoffs but got stomped by Atlanta. So the Rams retooled, signing linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley to shore up the defense while promoting running back Steven Jackson over Marshall Faulk for a starting job.

"And we're healthy for the first time in a long time to start off with," Martz said. "We tried to change our approach to the game a little bit while still keeping in mind all of those things that we do well."

But that's nothing compared to the heavy construction going on in San Francisco, where Nolan simply is patching holes and building new schemes to shore up a team left nearly bereft of talent while GM Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson were in charge.

After allowing a league-high 452 points last season, the 49ers switched to a 3-4 defensive front for Nolan, the former defensive coordinator in Baltimore. Nine NFL teams primarily run the 3-4, but Dallas is the only other NFC team using the set.

The look could be effective against the Rams, perhaps allowing linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter to put enough pressure on Marc Bulger to take the burden off the defensive secondary -- at least, that's the plan.

"Right now, we have the advantage that it's a brand-new defense, and nobody has been exposed to it," 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. "We don't have tendencies yet."

Davis has a point: Those changes, plus the 49ers' resumption of the West Coast offense, have effectively turned the Rams' game film of San Francisco last season into nothing more than useless highlight reels.

"You're never really quite sure what to expect," said Martz, who coached with Nolan for two seasons in Washington. "It gives you some trepidation."

Tim Rattay seems confident in the 49ers' ability to move the ball despite last season's struggles against St. Louis, when he got sacked seven times and threw two interceptions.

But the 49ers are most excited to see how that new defense fares against the Rams offense. Players acknowledge the defense's success or failure could set a tone stretching well beyond this game -- and coloring this rivalry into the future.

"Me, personally, I don't like the Rams. I can't stand them," running back Kevan Barlow said. "Last year, they embarrassed us. Our fans don't like them either. ... I believe the Rams are going to come in here, and they're going to sleep. That's what a lot of teams are going to do against us. We're going to prove them wrong."

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