Dolphins vs. 49ers: Final Report Card, Player Grades for San Francisco
Maybe THAT'S why Jim Harbaugh decided to go with Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback over Alex Smith.
A read option call on 3rd-and-5 at midfield with 2:10 to go in a 20-13 game turned out to be brilliant as Kaepernick took advantage of Dolphins end Jared Odrick pinching in, turned the corner and had nobody in front of him on a 50-yard touchdown (his second straight game with a 50-yard run) to make it a 27-13 final.
It's the kind of play that, when the defense guesses wrong, it goes bad for them in a major way. It's the one real arrow Kaepernick has in his quiver over Alex Smith, even more so than his arm strength.
The great equalizer in Smith's favor, of course, has been his experience and ability to avoid turnovers, but when Kaepernick plays mistake-free too, Harbaugh's decision looks self-evident.
The Dolphins had a chance to tie it, with 1st-and-10 at San Francisco's 35-yard-line, but the 49ers secondary covered well, and four incomplete passes and one missed gap assignment later, it was all she wrote.
The 49ers improved to 9-3-1 and put more distance between themselves and the NFC North for the second overall seed in the conference and a first-round bye. With Atlanta losing to Carolina in the morning, San Francisco still has an outside chance for home-field advantage throughout, if it can win out.
However, with the Seahawks destroying Arizona on the afternoon, even the NFC West title isn't a mere formality for the Niners, and a loss at New England on Sunday Night Football next week would make the division race very interesting.
Colin Kaepernick: A
Kaepernick got the NFL's attention in San Francisco's 32-7 throttling of the Bears on Monday Night Football, but in many respects this was his real breakout game, as he showed the full arsenal against an aggressive Dolphins defense.
Not only was Kaepernick mistake-free, which is always the first priority for a San Francisco quarterback, but he was also dynamic in all the ways he was hyped up to be, repeatedly looking to test the Dolphins secondary deep and willing to throw the ball into tight windows.
It's hard to be aggressive, accurate and smart all in one package, but Kaepernick pulled it off masterfully, and unlike the Chicago game, he got better as this one went along, building toward a fourth-quarter crescendo.
Kaepernick's passing stats don't look overwhelmingly impressive. He had only 185 yards on 18 completions with no touchdowns. But Randy Moss dropped what should've been a score on a flea-flicker, and there were a number of eye-popping throws in limited attempts.
The piece-de-resistance was Kaepernick's 50-yard score on a read-option play to ice the game. Steve Young held the old franchise record for longest run by a quarterback with a famous 49-yard score against Minnesota, and Kaepernick has beaten it twice in two weeks.
Frank Gore: B+
The numbers don't stand out. Gore had 63 yards and a touchdown and 22 more receiving yards, with most of his damage coming in one third-quarter touchdown drive. Milestone-wise, he tied a franchise record with his 50th career rushing touchdown and eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the sixth time in his career.
The biggest number for Gore, though, was 14, as in only 14 touches in the win. He looked far fresher and more explosive in this game than at St. Louis last week and had a couple of plays where he made a gaggle of Dolphins miss without any help from his blockers.
The hope for Niners fans and coaches alike is that the emergence of LaMichael James can take some of the load off Gore's shoulders, especially with Brandon Jacobs becoming persona-non-grata.
LaMichael James: A-
That James, who hadn't played a single regular-season down of football the first 12 weeks of the season, had nine touches from scrimmage for 45 yards is somewhat incredible to believe.
In retrospect, what choice did the coaching staff have? Kendall Hunter is out for the season, Gore was banged up and worn down, and they're clearly fed up with Brandon Jacobs.
James clearly did more than just spend the past three months playing video games against his Twitter followers, and while he did have a couple of cover-your-eyes moments in blitz pickup, there was so much to be excited about with him.
James and Kaepernick developed good chemistry with each other in the preseason, and it was nice to see it carry over some 13 weeks later.
Bruce Miller: B
Two catches for one yard doesn't sound particularly impressive, but Miller picked up an important first down on a 3rd-and-short reception in the second half and blocked quite well throughout the game.
Anthony Dixon: B
Dixon had two carries for nine yards, including a one-yard touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter. He isn't a good, or even servicable player by any stretch, but his attitude has clearly served him well this season and kept him atop Jacobs on the depth chart.
Michael Crabtree: A-
Kaepernick's No. 1 target all game, Crabtree terrorized the Dolphins all over the field, lining up left, right and in the slot and taking on all comers. His ability to break tackles and gain YAC is impressive, and more and more both he and his coaching staff seem to know what he's capable of and what his limitations are.
Nine catches for 93 yards on 11 targets is an impressive ratio, and Vernon Davis' disappearance in the offense has been to Crabtree's gain.
Randy Moss: B-
Moss had a couple of second-quarter receptions in quick succession, but he wasn't heard from again. He was interfered, slightly, on a flea-flicker, but still should've pulled in the ball, which was absolutely thrown on the money by Kaepernick.
Vernon Davis: D
At a certain point it doesn't matter how well you block or how much you're double-teamed or how much the team won by. One catch for four yards is one catch for four yards.
Delanie Walker: C
He had a 20-yard grab on the first play from scrimmage and spent the rest of his afternoon wham blocking to his heart's content. No drops though.
Joe Staley: B
Staley allowed an early sack and had a couple of sloppy running plays too, but he got better as the game went along. He was dominant by the end and set up Kaepernick's score nicely.
Mike Iupati: C
A rare off-game for Iupati. He wasn't impactful in his blocks, his timing was off on a few traps and pulls and he allowed too much penetration in his gap.
Jonathan Goodwin: B+
This was Goodwin's best game in a while, with no bad snaps and no opposing nosetackles stuffing backs eight yards behind the line. Still, he needs to communicate better with his QB.
Alex Boone: C-
Boone had a false start penalty early, a sack allowed in the third quarter and didn't open up too many holes. His performances have tailed off a bit after his brilliant start.
Anthony Davis: D
Speaking of tailing off, Davis' Pro Bowl push has taken a major hit these last couple of games. He surrendered two sacks to the Dolphins, with the second coming on a miscommunication between him and LaMichael James.
Justin Smith: B-
Five tackles overall, one solid shot on Ryan Tannehill and a ball batted down for Smith. Not quite as forceful as the past couple of games, but not approaching the "Is he done?" lows of October, either.
Isaac Sopoaga: C+
He had three quiet stops but not much impact. Slowly but surely, Sopoaga is being phased out for Ricky Jean Francois.
Ray McDonald: C-
Are we sure it's not Kentwan Balmer in a McDonald jersey? Another "blah" game in a season filled with them.
Demarcus Dobbs: Inc.
Dobbs hurt his knee during a rare play from scrimmage in the second quarter, and though it looked quite bad (Dobbs was carted off), Jim Harbaugh said there's a chance it's not season-ending in his postgame presser, for what that's worth.
Aldon Smith: A-
He cannot be stopped; he cannot even be slowed down. It's almost impossible for an offense to keep Aldon Smith off its quarterback for an entire game. He just has too many moves, too many counters and he's too relentless.
How anybody with his slender build could bull-rush an opposing left tackle right on his rear end before enveloping the quarterback is beyond me, but Smith is incredible. He collected his second sack on a typical effort play, rounding the tackle and chasing down Tannehill from behind late in the game, and he just missed on a strip sack in the third quarter.
Smith has 19.5 sacks on the season, which is a new franchise single-season record, and just three off ex-Giant Michael Strahan's record of 22.5. With three games to go, you have to like Smith's chances.
Ahmad Brooks: C-
Brooks tallied three stops, including one behind the line, but did not generate much pressure otherwise. He wasn't terrible setting the edge, but he wasn't consistent either.
Patrick Willis: B+
Willis had six stops and a forced fumble, with some decent blitz pressure thrown in for good measure. Reggie Bush got away from him a couple of times, but not nearly enough for the Dolphins.
NaVorro Bowman: B-
Though he had a team-high eight stops, Bowman missed a few tackles in the game and didn't have his usual impact. He took a personal foul penalty for the second straight game, with a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tannehill.
Carlos Rogers: B
Davone Bess got the better of him a couple of times, but overall Rogers had one of his stickiest games of the season and had a lot to do with holding the Dolphins in check.
Chris Culliver: A-
He was superb in coverage and didn't allow anything. Culliver was whistled for one short pass-interference infraction, but it was declined because Bowman committed a personal foul on the same play.
Tarell Brown: C-
Beaten like a mule all night long, Brown was lucky enough to be aided by several overthrown balls by Tannehill and a couple of Dolphins drops. It was a game to forget for Brown.
Dashon Goldson: B
Goldson had no huge plays, but he was solid and rangy in coverage all game long and had no bonehead moments.
Donte Whitner: D-
The veteran safety missed a few tackles, gave up a touchdown (though it took a perfect throw and catch) and dropped a first-quarter interception that was thrown right at his hands. It's just unbelievable how poor his hand-eye coordination is.
David Akers: B-
Akers made both of his field-goal attempts, with a long of 37 yards. But he didn't have a touchback and Dolphins kick returners averaged over 30 yards.
Andy Lee: C
With only a 40.8 net average and just one plunked inside the 20-yard line in four tries, it turns out Lee is human after all.
Brian Jennings: A
Unlike Jennings, the Darth Vader of long snappers.
C.J. Spillman: A-
He hasn't had as good of a season without tag-team partner Blake Costanzo, but he was on the spot for the critical play in the game, scooping up Marcus Thigpen's muffed fumble in the third quarter at the 9-yard line.
Ted Ginn: C
Ginn had one punt return for 12 yards and was unlucky on a couple of others that he let bounce over his head. He seems to have lost the kick returner job.
LaMichael James: B-
The rookie had a pretty solid 26.3-yard average on three kickoff returns, but it's not wise to try to pop one on balls kicked nine yards deep in the end zone.
If the 49ers go on to have a spectacular playoff run, December 9 versus the Dolphins might well go down as the game where Jim Harbaugh took the handcuffs off Colin Kaepernick and the offense.
The results were largely mixed on the scoreboard and even in the box score, quite frankly, but the game plan was dynamic and aggressive, and it was designed to play to Kaepernick's strengths. He was in the pistol formation a bunch, rookie LaMichael James was involved early and often, and the passing game continued to look downfield and take chances regardless of how much heat they were facing or how little success they were having.
The Niners have played a few 27-13 type of games this season, but the offense looks harder to prepare for and stop than ever, and more and more it looks like they have the answer for every question opponents can throw at them.
It's just a question of whether they can eliminate the sloppy mistakes in terms of missed blocking assignments and the penalties, but there was a real blueprint here and lot to build off of.
Harbaugh and his offensive coaches must spend the week figuring out how to stop killing themselves while keeping the attacking mentality.
Defensively, 13 points allowed doesn't look shabby at all, but coordinator Vic Fangio has to sense that trouble is looming ahead if they can't force turnovers. There just wasn't a whole lot out there to be excited about, Aldon Smith excluded.
It's also a "back-to-the-drawing-board" week for special teams coordinator Brad Seely, though James is a shiny new toy to play with.