Niners Pin Hopes on Hearst
Jan. 02, 1999
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The Green Bay Packers have ended the San Francisco 49ers' season three straight years, but they've never had to worry about a rushing attack like this.
The 49ers were the NFC's top-ranked rushing team thanks to Garrison Hearst, who is questionable for Sunday's showdown between the Packers (11-5) and 49ers (12-4) because of a mild right hamstring pull.
San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci is confident Hearst, who was ineffective in the NFC title game last year after returning from a broken collarbone, will be productive against the Packers, who have allowed only 85 yards rushing per game.
Hearst rushed for a club record 1,570 yards, third in the NFL and 44 more yards than the Packers rushed for as a team. He added 39 catches for 535 yards.
``He's a durable back, a physical back, a smart back, a good receiver, will block, he's very versatile,'' Mariucci said.
And he's the one the 49ers are pinning their hopes on.
Hearst gained 99 yards on 17 carries in the 49ers' 36-22 loss at Green Bay Nov. 1, when Mariucci inexplicably didn't let him touch the ball after the third quarter. Quarterback Steve Young was sacked five times in the fourth quarter as the Packers pulled away for their fifth straight victory over San Francisco.
Mariucci is hoping a retooled offensive line, three exceptional wideouts in Jerry Rice, JJ Stokes and Terrell Owens and a healthy Hearst will keep Reggie White and LeRoy Butler at bay this time.
Young, who set club records this season with an NFL-high 36 touchdown passes and 4,170 yards passing, never has been able to put together a solid game against the Packers, who take no solace in their 8-0 mark against the 49ers' 37-year-old quarterback.
``He's playing this year as well as he has ever played,'' said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, who coached Young as an assistant at Brigham Young and with the 49ers. ``He's amazing. He has taken such good care of himself over the years and he is such a superb athlete and he is throwing the ball as well as I have ever seen him throw the ball.
``He's had some great years prior to this, but it's amazing what he can do at his age. And he has taken more than his share of getting knocked around.''
Thanks in large part to the Packers, who have sacked him 16 times in the past three games, including a career-high nine times Nov. 1.
In all five of the losses, the 49ers have fallen behind. They have been outscored 54-6 in the first quarter of those games, allowing the Packers to rush the passer with abandon.
``That's the spot they want to put you in and that's what we've got to avoid, because then they can create a lot of havoc,'' Young said.
That's where Hearst comes in.
His 99 yards rushing at Lambeau Field two months ago was the best showing by a 49ers running back in the past five games against Green Bay. In the previous four meetings, San Francisco running backs averaged only 2.3 yards per carry on 61 attempts.
``If you remember the last couple games when we didn't run the ball effectively in the NFC championship, that allowed them to tee off on Steve.'' Mariucci said. ``They have very good pass rushers. If we can continue to mix and match, Reggie White and Santana Dotson will have to play the run and pass, screens and draws, and they may not get to Steve as easily.''
White plans not to get drawn into that indecision.
``I've always said what makes a great defensive line is when you shut the run down because that gives you the opportunity to rush the passer,'' said White, who led the NFC with 16 sacks, including three against Young.
A key to San Francisco's hope for a balanced attack will be Hearst's health.
Terry Kirby, who played the final three quarters Sunday against St. Louis in Hearst's place, took more practice snaps in his absence.
``I'm ready, but I think Garrison is going to be fine,'' Kirby said.
The Packers also are counting on a healthy lineup in the playoffs.
Tight ends Mark Chmura and Tyrone Davis, receivers Robert Brooks and Corey Bradford and defenders Vonnie Holliday and Craig Newsome returned to practice this week and should play Sunday.
``It hasn't been this way for a long time,'' Packers All-Pro receiver Antonio Freeman said. ``But the army's starting to reassemble.''
And that makes Packers quarterback Brett Favre confident.
``I think we can make a run at the Super Bowl,'' he said. ``With all our guys back, we're basically the same team that got there last year.''