Article Title: Showing the right stuff.
The Battle of the Bay at Monster Park this past Saturday night took on a renewal of spirits for the San Francisco 49ers after a loss against the Denver Bronco’s the week before and the final memorial services had come to a conclusion for our legendary Maestro in the fine art of being a champion in Bill Walsh.
The rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders goes way back and is well documented. So many of the fans on both sides of the Bay can tell you their memories of it and translate it into what it means today. Some have taken the confrontations to a new level over the past several years by becoming more violent in both a vocal aspect and even more physical altercations like never before.
On the field the spirit of competition remains the same and that is where we must focus our attention as fans of a mutual community striving to put a name upon an event that is supposed to form new bonds and relationships with one another. As a die-hard San Francisco 49er fan I have come across the lines and have shaken hands with a few Oakland Raider fans that are now mutual friends and continue to be within the spirit of competitive football.
That is why I take great satisfaction in our victory over them, winning 26-21 in our second pre-season game of 2007. Almost every aspect of our game improved over our first which signals the awakening of a proud franchise to endless possibilities on the new season that still stands right in front of us. I am excited and confident in everything that has culminated with the entry of Mike Nolan as our new head coach and director of operations with the continued blessings of owners Dr. John York and Denise DeBartolo.
University of Utah star quarterback Alex Smith is looking dynamic and pinpoint accurate in everything that he does. He is defining himself on the field by being surrounded by some real talent that is lending him the ability to make plays and to move the team forward on almost every offensive drive he starts out on.
All of the pre-game jitters and indecision you usually could sense about Alex Smith are now gone. He takes the field and the helm of the offensive line with a new purpose and a determined path to that red zone destination that all quarterbacks that are to become successful must do so without any kind of hesitation.
Alex Smith went 8-for-12 for 106-yards and one touchdown in this game playing right up until the first half had come to its conclusion. My favorite play of the game was on the Oakland Raider 19-yard line in which Alex Smith found tight end Delanie Walker for a spectacular touchdown pass that validates my prediction that Walker will be that dark horse of an offensive threat that I’ve been talking about for some time now.
His orchestra was his offensive line that played well for him throughout the entire first half of the game in which he commanded three successful offensive drives with two for Joe Nedney field goals and the last with a Delanie Walker touchdown pass. The continued progress of his ability to manage the game and lead the team to scoring is now right off the charts and he is showing so much of the right stuff coaches and fans alike are drooling about, that Alex Smith is now experiencing a bit of swagger in his step as he takes the field now.
As a fan and as a writer I can now see what Alex Smith is headed for now. I can see him becoming a real legend in that San Francisco 49er uniform and stepping a little bit into the oversized shoes that are Joe Montana’s and Steve Young’s. We have waited an eternity it seems for someone to come in and revitalize this fallen franchise after the 2002 season had come to an end. We thought we had that in Jeff Garcia but the coaches at that time and the salary cap were proving to be too much of a handicap for us to deliver honest results.
Tim Rattay turned out to be one bad experiment after another and along came Mike Nolan and his first pick of the 2005 NFL draft in Alex Smith. From there we can now see the transformation in its prime time form right now and we can see the direction and the plan that has been laid out before us. As Alex becomes more comfortable and ever so confident so will the rest of the team every time they take to the field.
The 49er offense remained a constant throughout the game even when Trent Dilfer and third-string quarterback Shaun Hill took command. Newcomer wide receiver and ever so talked-about Ashley Lelie was electric with four receptions in this game for 57 total yards with a long completion of 22-yards and one touchdown in the third quarter from veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer who looked a lot more comfortable and in his element within this game.
In the running game that generated 125 total rushing yards rookie Thomas Clayton led the way with 10 carries for 42 total yards and one touchdown that he ran in from one- yard out after the handoff from 49er quarterback Shaun Hill late in the fourth quarter that sealed the defeat of the Oakland Raiders in this second pre-season game of 2007. Another impressive aspect of the offense was the ability to score within the red zone with all three of the 49er quarterbacks orchestrating successful drives.
Our third down efficiency registered 9-out-of-16 attempts for a 56% rating that was a solid improvement over our last game against the Denver Broncos. The San Francisco 49ers put up 312 total yards of offense and allowed but three sacks for a loss of 22 total yards. Overall it was an offense that is finding a distinct rhythm and is well rounded with depth and expertise in moving those chains on a consistent basis.
Interesting competition appears still at right tackle between the veteran Kwame Harris and rookie Joe Staley as is the wide receiver position that is in a logjam of sorts with so many of them playing at a high level. The job of determining who will be left on the final roster at this position will be a very tough one based upon the ability and talent that is more evident than ever at this position. Also at the right guard position veteran Justin Smiley who is already playing well is trying to fend off David Baas who came in and played well and is contending for the starting position.
On defense we saw some immense improvement in all areas with the play of the game going to free safety Mark Roman picking off Oakland Raider quarterback Andrew Walter that eventually led to the Delanie Walker touchdown pass from Alex Smith. Strong safety Michael Lewis is everything I thought he’d be as a tenacious run defender as being almost identical to a linebacker within the 49er secondary. His stopping power was something to behold on several hits and tackles throughout the past few games.
2007 first round draft choice in linebacker Patrick Willis was the most impressive defensive athlete on the field on this particular day with seven total tackles and an assist on one other. He has a distinct nose for where the ball is and can be seen all over the field patrolling and hitting wherever and whomever has the ball in their possession.
Some concerns with the 49er defense exist though as they continue to give up rushing yardage at a steady rate with the Oakland Raiders generating 133 total yards on the ground with Raider running back LaMont Jordan carrying the ball eight times for 67 total yards and a touchdown. In the air the 49ers gave up 246 total yards and allowed the Oakland Raiders to go 4-for-10 or 40% on third down efficiency. In all the defense allowed the Oakland Raiders 381 total yards in offense.
A great deal of the defensive expectations have yet to be seen with so many of the veterans out due to various reasons one being nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin with a sprained knee and Bryant Young with a questionable back. Marques Douglas stayed out for personal reasons and cornerback Walt Harris continues to nurse a sore calf he sustained in training camp.
Nose tackle Isaac Sapoaga is in battle with rookie nose tackle Joe Cohen and even defensive end Ronald Fields from time to time as Aubrayo Franklin remains sidelined due to injury. Besides Willis that obviously turned my head both Manny Lawson and Tully Banta-Cain looked sharp during and right after this game as did the corners in Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson.
The depth along the defensive front and secondary has Mike Nolan and Personnel Vice President Scot McCloughan beaming with a sense of great accomplishment as their entire plan and purpose was to accumulate enough talent to create an atmosphere of incredible competition to identify and award the best possible talent at the starting position.
But the longevity of the defense to play all four quarters collectively seems to be the new question that is surrounding the team and fans alike. Because after the first quarter of play that ineptness to stay complete and stand firm was a missing element on this defense even though there are a few veterans and newly acquired free agents still out nursing wounds.
I am soundly impressed with the play of outside linebacker Manny Lawson as he continues to climb the ladder of becoming an elite force on this team to be reckoned with. His ability to play both the run and pass with the arm span of an albatross is just incredible to watch as is his ability to sack the quarterback at any given time and place as he demonstrated in this particular game against the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland Raider veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper was the premier thrust of the Oakland Raider offense along with the running attack led by LaMont Jordan. The Oakland Raider offense was able to sustain offensive drives and eat a lot of clock time by negotiating many successful long drives with multiple first downs and an 8.4 yards average per carry by LaMont Jordan to boot.
You can be sure that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and linebacker/assistant head coach Mike Singletary will be looking at these situations with immense scrutiny to find out solutions to these predicaments we found ourselves faced with. As with any game and even with a victory to hang your hat on, the San Francisco 49ers still have areas in need of examination and improvement.
That is where pre-season games come in to iron out the wrinkles in one’s laundry so to speak. Not only are players fighting for starting and back-up positions, but coaches are watching specific areas that are in need of tweaking and adjustment as well. Certainly the defense will continue to be a work in progress and will still be a unit that comes out as being one of the most improved in the NFL in my opinion.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.