Article Title: Never dismiss a loss.
In Heinz Field in Pittsburgh the terrible towels were in such abundance at times they nearly blocked out the sun. The San Francisco 49ers took the field offensively with a new sense of purpose as it seemed from the opening snap but clearly found a reality check each time they neared the red zone. Time and time again the inconsistencies of our offense were read like an open book from one play to the next.
49er quarterback Alex Smith clearly had his best game of the 2007 season despite losing 37-16 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Statistically he seemed to be more successful in moving the ball and sustaining the drive as far as time of possession was concerned. Yet execution of the plays was something that clearly was an eroding factor in converting on third downs and ultimately making it into the end zone.
None of us believed that we would carry an undefeated season in the first quarter of this season now at (2-1) and having division rival Seattle Seahawks on our doorstep next, but we did expect our offense to show some resemblance of improvement over it’s ineptitude to break into the end zone by now. Frustration is a better name for it when it comes to our minds and as we see the replays as it does surely for the coaches that watch game film with the players from one day to the next.
Mike Nolan made reference to “We never want to dismiss the loss, we need to learn from it and move on.” It is without saying that a superior opponent defeated our team last Sunday. But at the same time we had enough opportunities to stay close and pull an upset had we just executed better and played with a more aggressive conviction.
Nolan disappointed by the loss believes that we all start in one place and need to finish in yet another. The San Francisco 49ers that defeated Arizona and St. Louis over two weeks ago was a better team but not clearly at the same level as the Pittsburgh Steelers that have members from the previous Super Bowl where they won their fifth ring but a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger that is once again back to championship performance.
Offensively we stayed with the Pittsburgh Steelers vividly right through three quarters of play and we moved the ball in a variety of ways utilizing more of the arsenal we had pickled in a jar following our other two victories. We trailed 17-9 entering the fourth quarter but were playing and holding our own against a seasoned veteran championship caliber team that continued to play hard with an “air of confidence,” as described by Mike Nolan in that they believed without a doubt that they would leave this field triumphantly one way or the other.
Alex Smith went 17-of-35 for 289 total yards getting sacked twice for a loss of 11 yards and threw one interception to Bryant McFadden and ended the day with a quarterback rating of 65.1. Ben Roethlisberger on the other hand went 13-of-20 for 160 total yards getting sacked twice for a loss of 15 yards and ended his day with a quarterback rating of 106.2. The San Francisco 49er offense increased its yardage intake like never before but failed to break the will of the Steel Curtain that came from all directions and formations to smother Alex in a way that compounded our troubles on third down conversions.
The passing attack by the 49ers registered 209 total yards with Darrell Jackson leading the way with four receptions for 69 total yards and believe it or not tight end superstar Vernon Davis with four receptions for 56 total yards as well. Third-tier wide receiver Taylor Jacobs secured the longest pass reception of 21 total yards for the only 49er touchdown of the game from Alex Smith in the fourth quarter. Ashley Lelie was a disappointment in his debut with the 49ers for not catching the ball that was thrown to him via Smith and tight end Delanie Walker dropped a potential chain moving reception as well.
There were a lot of passes by Alex Smith that were gunned at the last second with multiple pressures in and around his face that appeared off mark, but there were some throws made to areas of expected positioning by the wide receivers with their route running that again illustrated that Alex and his receiving units remain far apart on knowing where each other is anticipating where the other is going to be and do. This is allocated credibility as you watch all three games from an observatory standpoint and leads one to ponder how long it will take for this to be a non-issue.
In third down efficiency we only converted 5-out-of-15 for 33%, which isn’t enough to get the job done. In total net yards we fell behind Pittsburgh with 289 to their 350 total net and lost time of possession, as is the case in any loss 28:40 to 31:20 for Pittsburgh.
Vernon Davis after the victory against St. Louis entered Mike Nolan’s office in Santa Clara and petitioned him for more opportunities with the football as he made his case that he could be the playmaker he was drafted for to become. Jim Hostler our new offensive coordinator still under a lot of criticism from the majority of us made that commitment and Davis clearly was made a priority on many pass attempts via Alex Smith.
49ers special teams had a few bright spots and a devastating black hole with the kickoff return that went for 98 total yards for a touchdown following a successful Joe Nedney field goal on the opening 49er offensive drive by Allan Rossum. Joe Nedney connected on three total field goals in this game and punter Andy Lee proved why he is one of the better paid punters in the NFL by averaging 57.2 yards a punt with three touchbacks and two dropped inside the 20-yard line with a long punt of 66 total yards on top of that.
Frank Gore was neutralized by the Pittsburgh Steeler defense like never before with just 39 total yards and 2.8 yards averaged per carry. From the very beginning as has been the case before opponents are stacking eight to nine men in the box to take away Frank Gore as the ultimate offensive weapon of the San Francisco 49ers. The offensive line last year took a great deal of pride in making lanes for Frank to run through and produce encouraging statistics. That seems to be a ghost as of late in that the new and improved offensive line minus Kwame Harris is not playing to it’s best capability in my opinion.
Will they get in sync? Mike Nolan seems to think so. But I am wondering based upon the sack totals and the rushing statistics like in this game with 91 total rushing yards, is it becoming a legitimate worry? Rookie Joe Staley seems to be doing a wonderful job so far but the blitz reaction time and the pulling of the line to feature Frank Gore as a legitimate weapon is yet to happen in my book. In fact the best rush of the game occurred with Michael Robinson on a seven-yard gain that was a play sold on trickery.
Defensively our units kept us in this game despite the outcome of the score. We played without linebacker hybrid superstar Manny Lawson and felt the ill affects of it from time to time in passing coverage. Hannibal Navies played the majority of the time and proved capable in that he was credited with a nice sack and four combined tackles.
Defensive lineman Marques Douglass was the real superstar in this game with a game-high eight tackles and credit for half a sack along with strong safety Michael Lewis who had five total tackles as did rookie linebacker Patrick Willis. They were unable to hold Pittsburgh Steeler running back Willie Parker as he generated 24 carries for 133 total rushing yards averaging 5.5 yards a carry with a long run of 23 total yards. Parker gashed the line time and time again as he provides a lethal offensive weapon out on the outer fringes of the line of scrimmage and requires the line to react and have to pursue better ultimately creating exhaustion for a heavier line that Nolan wants featured.
In the air it was a different picture as the elite 49er secondary held the Pittsburgh assault to 160 total yards with tight end Heath Miller being their featured receiver for four receptions for 82 total yards and averaged 20.5 yards a reception.
The turning point in the game occurred in the third quarter on a San Francisco 49er offensive drive that had us on third down and thirteen from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line with 5:08 left to play in the quarter and Alex Smith connected with tight end Vernon Davis who caught the ball 22 yards in and fell to the ground.
Upon that fall Vernon Davis came down and the ball popped out and was recovered by Pittsburgh on the assumption that it was a fumble. The play was challenged and the call was reversed to be called an incomplete pass that had all 49er die-hards foaming at the mouth as it did Nolan on the sidelines. Clearly from most of our eyesight vantage point we saw it as a completion and the ground cannot cause a fumble, yet we were forced into a field goal rather than scoring a very potential touchdown at that point.
Once this happened and the fourth quarter reared its ugly face, everything went south for us including the interception Alex Smith threw to Bryant McFadden intended for Taylor Jacobs yet again that made the score 30-9 Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is one of those (3-0) elite teams that were a proven adversary for us this past Sunday. They are a team based upon principle and play with consistency expected from a team just recently having been a Super Bowl Champion well over a year ago.
The San Francisco 49ers are still trying to reach that plateau so to speak in Mike Nolan’s specific terms. We came into Heinz Field with an air of improvement and a sense of renewed offensive purpose but not with the “air of confidence,” Nolan referred to as being a necessity someday for us to be a championship team back to the glory days of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. There is still real hard work to do and in order to push the envelope a bit further we’ll need to make the adjustments necessary to incur a bigger payoff in the end result.
We will never get out of the freezer offensively until certain criteria’s are met by all parties involved with Jim Hostler and Mike Nolan making the tweaks necessary to get better production in moving the ball forward instead of just flirting with the red zone like we have been as of late. We need to penetrate with authority and confidence. There is a stigma about us right now that we can’t do it, so we all have to partake in building that confidence level with vocal support, hope and prayers.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.