Monday, October 28, 1991

49ERS MUSCLE UP,
BREAK DOWN EAGLES

By Ann Killion
San Jose Mercury News

With critical, do-or-die games a weekly occurrence for the rest of their season, the 49ers needed to make a strong statement Sunday. That they can win on the road. That they can dominate a game defensively. That they can control the ball. That they can exploit a less-talented opponent.

The 49ers made their statement against the Philadelphia Eagles with a 23-7 victory. And now the rest of the NFL is listening.

The victory -- their first road win of the season -- gave the 49ers a two-game winning streak and moved the team to the .500 mark at 4-4. New Orleans lost to Chicago, so the 49ers are three games out of the division lead and are in a second- place tie in the NFC West with Atlanta.

''It's important for us to start putting some wins together," Coach George Seifert said. "We would win, then we would lose. . . . Coming in here facing a tough defensive team, it was important for us to have a good showing."

The last time the 49ers visited Veterans Stadium, they relied on last-minute thrills and bombs to overcome the Eagles' awesome defense, which sacked Joe Montana eight times.

Sunday, they let their own defense steal the show and played it conservative offensively against the second-ranked defense in the NFL, taking a page out of the smash-mouth, ball-control playbook of the New York Giants.

Linemen step forward

''I don't know if it was a conservative game plan, but it's the kind of game plan an offensive lineman loves," center Jesse Sapolu said.

The game plan might not have been conservative going in, but the results certainly were of the gray-flannel-suit variety:

* 15 passes, the fewest of the season.

* 96 yards passing, the lowest total of the season.

* 222 net yards, the lowest total of the season.

* Jerry Rice had two receptions for 4 yards, his lowest yardage total since his rookie season, 1985.

No need to open up

''Obviously, we're going to have to be more explosive throughout the season, and we will be," quarterback Steve Young said. "We didn't have a conservative game plan. But we didn't open up the offense, because we really didn't need to."

The Eagles have the NFL's top-ranked defense against the pass, so the 49ers came out running. The 49ers' first drive chewed more than eight minutes off the clock, covered 80 yards and consisted of 13 plays, only three of which were passes.

''The first drive was the key to the game," tackle Steve Wallace said. "We established the run and moved the ball."

Taylor scores opening TD

On third-and-14 on the 21-yard line, Young stepped up in the pocket and completed a pass to John Taylor in the end zone.

''A drive like that is really important on the road," Young said. "You want to set the tone for the game."

Young kept the drive going twice when he scrambled on third down to elude Eagles rushers.

''I got out a couple of times and ran for first downs and made them rethink the way they were going to play us," Young said.

The Eagles, who came into the game second in the league in sacks, got to Young twice in the first half. But for the most part, the 49ers' offensive line was able to keep the fearsome Eagles defense under control.

''With the mano-a-mano type stuff against a really good defense, they didn't back down," Young said of the 49ers' offensive linemen. "That's important mentally. . . . I don't know if you can dominate these guys, but you can definitely hold your own."

On the other side of the line, the 49ers defenders definitely were dominating Philadelphia's hapless offense.

Taking advantage of immobile Jim McMahon and his brace- covered legs, the 49ers broke their pass-rush drought. The 49ers had been held without a sack for two straight games, and Charles Haley hadn't had a sack since the second game. But Sunday, 49ers defenders had six sacks, Haley leading the charge with three.

''We got more pressure than we had and came up with some timely sacks," Seifert said. "But in some situations, we have to learn to play with more poise."

Seifert was referring specifically to the Eagles' first drive, when on third-and-23 from their 9, McMahon completed a 31-yard pass to tight end Keith Jackson. The Eagles kept the drive alive and scored on a 19-yard pass to Keith Byars.

The touchdown was the Eagles' first offensive score since they beat Pittsburgh on Sept. 22.

But that was the Eagles' only score of the game. The 49ers added another touchdown in the second quarter, when Tom Rathman's 2-yard run capped a 35-yard drive.

Philadelphia was hard-pressed to come back. McMahon reinjured his knee at the end of the first half. Newly signed backup quarterback Jeff Kemp came in but was sacked by Larry Roberts on the second series of the second half and left the field on a stretcher with a concussion. McMahon returned for the next series and moved the Eagles to the 49ers' 17.

The drive stalled, and the Eagles attempted a 37-yard field goal. But Antonio Goss blasted up the middle to block the field goal, the first block for the 49ers' special teams since the second game of 1990.

If the Eagles had kicked the field goal, they would have closed to within 14-10. Instead, the 49ers took over and drove into position for Mike Cofer's second field goal, a 25-yarder, which made the score 20-7. Cofer, who had kicked a 45-yard field goal in the third quarter, kicked a 50-yarder late in the fourth.

Though the 49ers controlled the tempo of the game, it never got easy for the offense. Philadelphia's defense, which is the team's only hope for survival, never gave up.

''It was almost like (the Eagles') defense was their offense," Wallace said. "They felt like they had to score and were doing everything possible. I've never seen a defense fight that hard when they were down."

The 49ers know what it's like to be down, and they're not through fighting yet.