Article Title: Sixty Minute Team.
Last Monday Night inside Monster Park and upon Bill Walsh Field something happened that may change the way the San Francisco 49ers play the game for the remainder of the regular season. It was an 86-yard offensive drive that culminated with a fumble into the end zone by way of wide receiver Arnaz Battle that could’ve been a catastrophe but ended up as a victorious gift by being given a second chance at redemption.
The San Francisco 49ers have been a team that in 2006 was all about hanging around in games right up and until the final minutes in several games, but this night was different in a sense that Alex Smith took the team on his back and helped propel them with a pair of legs on fourth down and a flurry of well intended passes that ultimately tallied a 20-17 victory over the dreaded Arizona Cardinals in Week One of our new season.
Game Ball was presented to the San Francisco 49er defensive secondary after the game and rightfully so as they held a lethal Arizona Cardinal passing attack at bay for the entire game with the longest pass for but 15 total yards and 102 total yards overall. Mike Nolan made reference to it emphatically with these post -game remarks: “Over the past four games, Arizona has had a passing average of 326.8 yards against us. Tonight, it was 100 yards.”
The $80 million dollar investment we made in acquiring Nate Clements from the Buffalo Bills was a deal that after this night seemed so logical. Rarely did the Arizona Cardinal offense throw the ball in his direction and when they decided to throw at Walt Harris he made them pay and pay dearly with an interception of his own very early on in the game. The 49er defensive backs in Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Mark Roman, Michael Lewis, Keith Lewis, Shawntae Spencer and Mark Hudson played brilliantly and allow us distinct hope of future games to be decided on their merits as elite players in this league.
The three headed-monster that the Arizona Cardinals employ in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson and being one of the best trios in the NFL were nullified by a secondary second to none on this particular night, as they stayed with each receiver stride per stride and clearly anticipated a lot of the routes that they would take for positive yardage. In fact the defense was so smothering it allowed us to remain in the game and created the hype that we could overcome and win this game.
Up front I still give credit to the line although not perfect for holding Edgerrin James to 92 total yards for 3.5 yards per carry. Both Bryant Young and Marques Douglass had lapses here and there but made the star running back think before running. Young was called for a facemask penalty inside the game early in the fourth quarter that was of the 15-yard personal foul kind that clearly wasn’t that.
And Mark Roman was called for taunting and a personal foul as well right after the Bryant Young penalty that resulted in the Arizona Cardinals scoring a touchdown to go up 17-13. Mike Nolan noted that all defensive backs and wide receivers carry an unwritten rule that cut blocks are dangerous and not condoned by either party, yet there was one here that scared Roman and he reacted to it accordingly.
First round draft pick San Francisco 49er linebacker Patrick Willis clearly showed what he is capable of in being the bloodhound of the defense in sniffing out the ball for 11 combined tackles and one smack on Matt Leinart that made him think twice about his presence. Manny Lawson and Brandon Moore were both seen flying in and around the ball as it was in action as well.
Overall it was a defense we aren’t at all accustomed to watching as die-hard 49er fans. Although some semblance of greatness was starting to show signs back in 2006, the off-season investments and draft picks this year clearly show that the San Francisco 49er defense has it going on in more ways than not.
This game was all about being a defensive struggle between both teams as even the Arizona Cardinal defense stepped up and stymied our offense for 194 total yards and Alex Smith looked very uncomfortable for most of the game being under relentless pressure and being sacked three times and hurried countless others.
Alex Smith was 15-for-31 with 126 yards and zero touchdowns with a passer rating of 59.3. He was sacked three times as mentioned for a loss of 24 total yards and in his defense had about 50% of his passes dropped and fell incomplete. Many are pointing at new offensive coordinator Jim Hostler as being the culprit for some of this and that maybe a small percentage.
But the offensive line failed repeatedly to pick-up on the many blitzes that were applied and Alex saw nothing but red and white in his face for most of the game with Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby pressing him up the middle as a bad case of hemorrhoids as you ever saw with the middle of the line splitting open like a cornucopia of fallen fruit.
Certainly adjustments were made throughout the game but protection seems to still be an issue even with right tackle Kwame Harris being deactivated and rookie Joe Staley still trying to become acclimated to the speed and ferocity of the NFL. George Warhop along with Jim Hostler will have to revisit the protection schemes more and the blitz package shield that we need to have in place more to ensure Alex has the time needed to deliver the ball.
Of the receivers that Alex did connect with, Arnaz Battle played a sensational game with not only the last offensive play that culminated with a touchdown but with five receptions for 60 total yards and a 12.0 yards per reception average to be proud of. Darrell Jackson was key to falling on the fumble in the end zone towards the end of the game and had critical catches four of them for 36 total yards. Taylor Jacobs dropped the only pass thrown his way and looked out of sorts in my opinion, but I’ll wait and reserve my opinion as it was only one pass as will Mike Nolan from his indication.
In the rushing category Frank Gore returned after suffering a broken hand in training camp and missing all of the pre-season. He looked like he never had missed a beat but found the running lanes clogged with Cardinal defenders as he had 18 carries for only 55 total yards averaging 3.1 yards a carry. He was successful though in finding the end zone for a touchdown in the first quarter.
In all the San Francisco 49ers put up 92 total yards in rushing and 126 in passing. It wasn’t anything near the offensive statistics one likes to see, but nothing could replace the mentality of the offensive unit on that final drive in the fourth quarter with everything on the line. The 49ers suffered setbacks on nine third-down attempts with three of them being sacks to Alex Smith, still on four others as indicated in the game Smith’s targeted receiver either dropped the ball or short-armed the attempted reception.
Being Week One, one has to think that mistakes more than likely will show-up on the playing field. Certainly offensively we saw the worst in most scenarios but they still managed to secure good field position thanks to the special teams units and managed to put up 20 points on the board for the victory.
Mike Nolan in a news conference made reference to that the team as a whole plays sixty minutes of football on any given day that they play against someone. Meaning that they don’t come out and dominate a team right off in the beginning but claw, fight and scratch their way through the entirety of the game itself. The goal in everyone’s mind including Mike Nolan’s is to try and reverse that trend where we can become dominant.
Defensively I think we saw that in this game against Arizona and hopefully it will carry over into our game against the even more high-powered St. Louis Rams. Offensively the team is still heavily reliant on Frank Gore as an offensive weapon merely because Alex Smith is still exploring that comfort zone.
Being able to stand up and in the pocket and plant his foot and throw the ball was more than a chore in this particular game. Even breaking the pocket he found himself running for his life on several occasions, but it proved worthy on several as indicated from the results. I believe he’ll have to get better at running the ball here and there to achieve first downs if the line is unable to get better at picking up blitzes and moving maximum coverage to allow him more time to make that critical throw.
As a whole the team came together and proved once again that it can overcome adversity. It was yet another melting pot of questions that we had more answers to than not. Consistency is something Mike Nolan believes that is crucial to the offense and defense working together to achieve the same common goal and that is to win and win at all costs.
The offensive line was not playing to the strength of Frank Gore by shifting Frank to the left side where he could find better penetration behind Jonas Jennings and Larry Allen. The learning curve on rookie right tackle Joe Staley was evident as he was beat on several occasions to where Alex Smith had to make rash decisions based upon the time that was allocated to him. I feel that the gaps on the line will start closing better as we move further into the regular season.
I am impressed at the fact that Alex Smith is now taking more ownership of this team, as his career progresses because I think that will translate into even more confidence down the road. His criteria has to be about getting warm faster in games then waiting for the second half to come and moving the team from behind in the scoreboard on a consistent basis. Alex is still building a comfort zone with Darrell Jackson and himself because of his missed training camp due to his toe injury.
Unfortunately we didn’t see any kind of fireworks involving tight end Vernon Davis as well as he had only two receptions for four lousy yards. However he was being covered creatively by the Arizona defense that seemed to anticipate our interest in trying to feed him the ball. I would also like to see more of Ashley Lelie on the field to see what he can do in his pivotal competition against Taylor Jacobs.
An “ugly win,” so they are saying that this is. There are no ugly wins just wins according to those that really care the most. Never surrender never say ‘die,’ we will always try and overcome. However we all still want as fans some games to be of domination and intimidation so as to rise above the mediocrity that is prevalent on a lot of teams this year.
The San Francisco 49ers of 2007 have a mission to fulfill not only for themselves but for its fans as well in making that next level called the post season and throwing the anchor on the division title for awhile and staying there. Anything less is a disappointment to all parties involved.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.