SAN FRANCISCO -- Don't call him Captain Comeback just yet, but Alex Smith seems to have a knack for lifting the San Francisco 49ers out of their doldrums at just the right time.
After the 49ers' defense held down the Arizona Cardinals for most of the clubs' opener on Monday night, Smith and his teammates had one last shot at redemption for a terrible performance. Smith came through with the second big-time comeback victory of his short career, leading a sterling drive in the final three minutes to win it 20-17.
"The biggest thing I took from this is character and maturity," Smith said. "We were struggling on offense, but really hung in there and knew we were going to get it done. We believed in one another and marched down the field to get the win."
Smith had a hand in both of the biggest plays on the drive, scrambling 25 yards on a fourth-and-1, before hitting Arnaz Battle across the middle on a pass that ended up at the Arizona 1. Battle scored on a 1-yard end-around with 22 seconds left, keeping coach Mike Nolan unbeaten in three home openers at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco's offense didn't manage much before the final drive. Only one of the Niners' first 11 drives went longer than 21 yards, and they had three consecutive three-and-outs before the last drive.
Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore ran for 55 yards and a score, but acknowledged a little rust after sitting out the preseason to heal his broken right hand.
"They came to stop the run, but we stayed together and got it done," Gore said.
Surely the offense gets credit for getting it done at the end, but the defense gets even more credit for keeping it close the entire game. Nolan had high praise for rookie defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
After allowing an NFL-worst 412 points last season, San Francisco's six new defensive starters were tenacious while limiting the Cards to 261 yards and just one lengthy touchdown drive.
Arizona averaged more than 326 yards in its four consecutive victories over the 49ers in Nolan's first two seasons with the club.
"They did some great things against an explosive offense with some very good players," said Nolan, who allowed Manusky to call all the defensive formations. "You just have to be pleased."
Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis had an outstanding debut, making 11 official tackles, 15 by the 49ers' own estimates. Willis also forced a fumble and constantly seemed to be around the ball.
The Niners' 3-4 defense could come to depend on a one-two punch from Willis and Derek Smith, who had eight tackles.
"I thought I did pretty good out there," Willis said. "Those guys have a lot of good players, but we feel that we do, too, on our side of the ball. I felt we can be really good as a unit and keep improving throughout the season."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press