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49ers pick on Rams QB, find victory
Bulger was sacked six times in St. Louis' 20-13 loss to San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO -- When Antonio Bryant heard the next play-call, he stuck his head in the San Francisco 49ers' huddle and yelled something foolish.
"Meet me in the end zone," the receiver told his offensive line.
That would've been downright hilarious from a member of last season's woeful 49ers -- but then Bryant made a 72-yard touchdown catch, keying San Francisco's 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
Perhaps these 49ers are capable of such boldness after all. They certainly made enough big plays to stun the Rams for the third straight time.
"I had my mind made up. That's how you build confidence in a team and get guys believing in me," said Bryant, who had four catches for 131 yards and his first touchdown for his new team. "We got it done, and we should have got even more touchdowns."
The 49ers' defense also looked tougher than most expected, sacking Marc Bulger six times and holding strong in the final minutes of San Francisco's second straight home-opening win over its oldest rival.
Though the postgame scene wasn't nearly as festive as the back-slapping, handshaking party after last season's opening win, coach Mike Nolan again sees progress from his club. Alex Smith passed for 233 yards and Frank Gore rushed for 127 -- including a 32-yard score -- as the 49ers (1-1) followed up a narrow loss at Arizona last week with a cohesive victory.
"We're not doing everything right, but it's nice to be able to get some rhythm," Smith said.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's defense forced Bulger's fourth-quarter fumble and made another big stop in the closing minutes, showing off a pass rush that didn't exist in the preseason.
"There's things you hide in the preseason. We were hiding all our sacks," Nolan said with a smirk.
The Rams (1-1) have abandoned the "Greatest Show on Turf" offense that tormented the Niners for so many years -- and they've scored just one touchdown in their first two games under new coach Scott Linehan.
Stephen Jackson rushed for 103 yards, but mistakes and big stops limited the Rams to three points and 118 yards in the second half.
"We're moving it well at times, but we're not finishing enough," said Bulger, who took a beating while going 19-of-34 for 185 yards. "We're learning this new system. It's going to take time and reps. We've got to grow with it. It's painful, but it's reality."
Coordinator Jim Haslett's defense played well again, but yielded those big plays by a San Francisco offense that rarely gained yards in bunches while going 4-12 last season. The Niners scored two touchdowns in the first 5 minutes after halftime, and the defense made them stand up.
After Bulger's fumble was recovered by Isaac Sopoaga at the St. Louis 17, Joe Nedney hit his second field goal to finish the scoring with 5:20 to play.
The Rams then went three-and-out, with Bryant Young sacking Bulger -- and the Niners ran out the clock, with Gore surging for key gains just as Marshall Faulk often ground up time against the 49ers in years past.
"Sacks are big momentum plays, and they're hard to overcome offensively," Linehan said. "Even if you get no yards on a run or throw an incomplete pass, you're still starting over where you were. That's something we have to fix."
Torry Holt caught an early TD pass for the Rams, who also lost two key starters to injuries.
Left tackle Orlando Pace, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, left the game at halftime with a concussion, while linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa dislocated his elbow in the third quarter. Pace was taken to a hospital for tests.
The 49ers played without their two best offensive linemen -- left guard Larry Allen and left tackle Jonas Jennings -- because of minor injuries, yet still operated well with Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge filling in.
St. Louis led 10-3 at halftime when Bulger capped a short scoring drive with a 4-yard TD pass to Holt, but Maurice Hicks returned the halftime kickoff 59 yards for the 49ers, and Gore then cut nimbly outside St. Louis' defense for a score.
Three minutes later, Smith hit Bryant in full stride down the Rams sideline.
Rookie linebacker Manny Lawson and blitzing safety Chad Williams had two sacks apiece for the Niners.
49ers cornerback Walt Harris made a team-high seven tackles and defended three passes.
Nolan is unbeaten in three games against the Rams. His father, Dick, went 2-13-1 against the Los Angeles Rams while coaching the Niners from 1968 to 1975.