You've suspected it for years. Mike Nolan is turning the 49ers into Baltimore Ravens West, a town where passing statistics go to die. Sure, there were always the former Ravens - guys like Marques Douglas to Chad Williams to Trent Smith --Nolan brought to San Francisco. And there was Patrick Willis, who reminded Nolan so much of his beloved Ray Lewis that he not only drafted him 11th overall this spring, but gave him Lewis' number, 52.
The latest - and most damning - evidence is an offense that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Ravens', circa 2000. It's blah. It's cautious. It does the bare minimum. It's 11 men in a plain brown wrapper. It's the Gerald Ford of NFL offenses. Even writing about it makes me... (yawn) ... want ... to ... fall ... zzzzzzzz.
Nolan, of course, doesn't think so. He resisted the comparison Monday (he seemed ready for the question), noting that he spent his first two seasons rebuilding the offense not the defense. "We're not trying to build a football team like that at all," he said. "... I want to be well-balanced."
The truth is that the 49ers have more offensive talent than the Ravens did during their Super Bowl run. They don't need to throw two-yard dumps to the fullback on third and eight. They don't have to run six straight times at game's end. They have two capable wideouts in Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson. They have a tight end, Vernon Davis, who insists he is open on every play. The only thing Nolan and the 49ers must do is, you know, actually use them.
I anticipate writing the following sentence a lot this year: Patrick Willis led the 49ers in tackles on Sunday. The official game book has the rookie linebacker finishing with eight stops. His best play, however, was a pass break-up in the back of the end zone on a would-be touchdown pass to Drew Bennett. When you watch the replays from Marc Bulger's vantage point, Willis is not even in the picture before springing - Matrix-like - in front of the pass. The Rams had to settle for a short field goal on the drive.
I had no room to include this in today's paper, but Maurice Hicks' one-handed snag of an Alex Smith pass in the fourth quarter was a big play. Screens have not gone well for the 49ers so far. They require a good deal of coordination, and coordination is not exactly what the offense is known for at this point. Hicks' play, however, was a rare third-down conversion at a time when the 49ers desperately needed one.
Speaking of third downs, the 49ers were even worse against St. Louis than they were against Arizona. Jim Hostler said the goal is to finish the season with a conversion rate of 40 percent or higher. The Niners' rate Sunday was 23 percent. Against the Cardinals, it was 25 percent. There are too many third-and-long situations, which is partly due to a stagnant running game and partly due to a lack of creativity on offense.
The 49ers reported no injuries but Nolan admitted that Jackson and Gore were nicked in the game. Jackson hurt his back making a block while Gore strained his leg and was limping following the game. Gore is now in South Florida for his mother's funeral. Running backs coach Bishop Harris, fullback Moran Norris and tackle Jonas Jennings will accompany him. All are expected back in the Bay Are by Tuesday night.
-- Matt Barrows