SAN FRANCISCO— The San Francisco 49ers returned Monday from their bye week a bit wary of the winless opponent they will meet next.
The St. Louis Rams can have that effect on a team and the 49ers say they’re not fooled by the surprising 0-4 record the Rams will bring to San Francisco on Sunday.
“Certainly, it’s a different record than we anticipated them being when you look at your schedule prior to the season,” 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said Monday. “But they’re a good team and they’re going to come out swinging. Until somebody knocks them off, they’re the defending (conference) champion.”
The Rams won their second NFC championship in three years last season and have became an obstacle the 49ers couldn’t overcome in the NFC West on their climb back to playoff competition.
San Francisco tried to do something about it during the offseason. The 49ers added speed and bolstered their defense through the draft and free agency.
St. Louis has beaten the 49ers six consecutive times, and San Francisco has been pointing toward ending that streak this week at home since losing to the Rams in St. Louis last December.
But instead of being the significant hurdle to San Francisco’s progress, the reeling Rams have stumbled into the NFC West basement. The 49ers (2-1) have an opportunity to bury them there this week, but they still respect their West Coast foes.
“The Rams have beaten us six straight times,” tackle Derrick Deese said. “You can’t take them lightly. The Rams are the Rams and you kind of got to go by what they’ve done to you, and they’ve beaten us.”
The Niners, after a week off to heal several injuries, would seem to be catching the Rams at a good time. St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner, last year’s NFL MVP, was lost Sunday with a fractured finger and the Rams also will be without Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Pace this week.
But Niners defensive coordinator Jim Mora said that’s no reason to think the Rams can’t regain their offensive explosiveness at any time. “It would be ludicrous for anyone to think you’d count the St. Louis Rams out,” Mora said. “Those guys are winners and they’ve got great pride. I mean, they’re scary. They can still get you in a lot of different ways.”
The Niners received some good news Monday when offensive lineman Matt Willig returned to practice after missing two games following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
San Francisco appears to be leaning toward rookie Eric Heitmann as their new starter at left guard to replace Dave Fiore. Willig, however, gives the team valuable depth as the top reserve along the line and a viable alternative if Heitmann struggles.
Fiore was placed on injured reserve last week after tearing knee ligaments in San Francisco’s 20-10 victory over the Washington Redskins on Sept. 22 that left the 49ers in first place entering their bye week.
They can take a major step toward remaining there Sunday against the Rams.
“We have to find a way to win back the division,” Mariucci said. “So, that’s the first thing we’re trying to accomplish. (The Rams) have too many veterans, and too many Pro Bowlers and too many prideful guys to just let this season slip away. We have to play well to beat these guys, believe me.”