The Good, Bad and Ugly from San Francisco 49ers' Week 11 Loss to the Saints
The San Francisco 49ers, for the second time this season, suffered back-to-back losses in their quest to return to the Super Bowl.
This time around, they fought a tough, back-and-forth battle with the New Orleans Saints, one that could have gone either way. Unfortunately, they found themselves on the wrong end of 23-20 score, and likely watched their last hopes to claim the NFC West title go down the drain in the Superdome.
Even in the worst losses, however, there are some players who stand head and shoulders above the rest. Even in the biggest wins, there are some players who drag the team's performance down.
This slideshow will go through which players are the most to blame for the last-second loss and which ones get a pass for their outstanding performance in a losing cause.
Bad Day: Tight Ends
This goes for both Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald; both players had games they will want to forget.
It's not their receiving performance that has them down on this list, however.
While neither Davis nor McDonald were able to produce huge gains in the passing game, that can be somewhat chalked up to the solid New Orleans pass defense, which was ranked 11th in the league against tight ends by Football Outsiders coming into Week 11, allowing only 46.3 yards per game. By those standards, the 43 yards they were able to put up through the air are right in line with any reasonable expectations, and while Davis having a larger role in the passing game certainly would have helped, that's not enough to really put them at the bottom of a list like this.
McDonald does get a slight bigger penalty for a key drop on third down in the second quarter, forcing San Francisco to settle for a 55-yard Phil Dawson field goal, but at a certain point, you realize rookies are rookies and give him a bit of a pass for that.
What is enough to put them down towards the bottom, on the other hand, was their inability to open lanes for Frank Gore and the running game. Pro Football Focus charted the two tight ends as being involved in run blocking on 37 plays, and almost no positive value came out of any of it. On runs around end, where the tight ends are more directly involved in the blocking schemes, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter averaged less than a yard per carry.
The run game as a whole was disappointing, with some writers pointing to a soft New Orleans defense as being vulnerable to a huge day on the ground. Indeed, the 49ers seemed to buy into that philosophy themselves, with tight ends combining for 97 snaps and receivers participating on just 94. They seemed to choose to go big in an effort to overpower the Saints' defensive front, and the lack of success there has to be disheartening.
For Davis, this game was more of a fluke than anything else; while Davis is known more for his downfield playmaking ability, he's also developed over the years into a very capable run-blocker. You can also put a bit of an asterisk on his performance, considering he was coming off of a concussion which limited his practice time. I'd expect him to be back to full strength against the Washington Redskins.
McDonald had had quite a good game run-blocking against the Carolina Panthers, actually, but this was his worst game of the season in that respect. He's still developing, but has yet to flash the potential San Francisco saw in him when they selected him in the second round. He was used mostly in the slot in college, so he wasn't asked to run block very much. It's a skill that's very much a work in process for the young tight end.
Bad Day: Tony Jerrod-Eddie
Tony Jerrod-Eddie, for the first time this season, started at left defensive end against New Orleans. He was forced into duty because of an ankle an ankle injury to Ray McDonald, whose veteran presence the 49ers definitely missed.
In their 2012 matchup against New Orleans, McDonald was a force of nature. In that game, he hurried Drew Brees eight times, chasing him all around the field, forcing bad pass after bad pass and plowing through offensive linemen as if they were not there.
Jerrod-Eddie's day was not nearly as good.
The young replacement did manage to rack up two quarterback hurries, but against the run, he was a complete non-factor.
Jahiri Evans dominated him on play after play. For an example, look at the hole Mark Ingram had to run through on this play, as Evans holds Jerrod-Eddie stationary at the line of scrimmage. That's fairly demonstrative of Jerrod-Eddie's entire performance, as he only made one tackle all game long.
The Saints ran towards the right guard 12 times over the course of the game, picking up 67 yards, or more than 5.5 yards per carry. Against a Saints team that hasn't exactly been lighting the world up on the ground—it was ranked 20th in the league by Football Outsiders—that's disheartening. Considering how well the defense dealt with New Orleans' passing attack, had they been able to slow down the running game, the end result of this one might have been very different.
Jerrod-Eddie isn't a starter, and perhaps it's not fair to hold him up to the same standards that we would McDonald. In work off the bench as a rotational end, Jerrod-Eddie's been solid in limited snaps, with 12 quarterback hurries on the season. He is not a run-defender by any stretch of the imagination, however, and that hurt San Francisco in this game. He essentially was put in a position that, as of yet, is beyond his skill set.
McDonald is suffering from a high ankle sprain, which is a rough injury to come back from. Perhaps, if McDonald is not ready next week against Washington, we will get our first look at the heralded rookie Tank Carradine at the left end spot.
Bad Day: Frank Gore
Frank Gore has been a rock for San Francisco this season, but Sunday's game will be one to forget.
His blocking certainly wasn't up to par, and no matter how talented you are, if you're repeatedly hit in the backfield, you're going to have a rough day.
All that being said, his 13 rush attempts did go for 48 yards, which isn't horrible in and of itself. Yes, half of those yards came on one play, and you can question why he had only 13 carries if you're concerned with his yardage numbers and how the team is using him, but if that had been all that he had contributed to the game, it wouldn't stand out as exceptionally notable.
The problem Gore had against the Saints was in the passing game, and, specifically, one play.
Gore has been a solid, if unspectacular, safety valve for Colin Kaepernick this season. He's catching 60 percent of the passes thrown his way, and Football Outsiders rates him as the tenth-best running back in terms of average value per reception.
No one is going to mistake him for Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead any time soon, but he's been solid and consistent all season long.
That makes his one drop in this game particularly heartrending.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the 49ers holding to a three-point lead, San Francisco needed a drive of some point. Preferably, they'd like to have put some points on the board but even draining some of the seven minutes left on the clock would have sufficed.
On 2nd-and-9 from San Francisco's own 21-yard line, Gore dashed out to the left flank on a little swing route, which he took up the sideline as Kaepernick scrambled. Gore got past the last defender on that side of the field, and Kaepernick hit him in stride well beyond the first-down marker. It was set up for a huge gain, possibly even a long touchdown; but Gore saw the pass bounce of his hands and fall harmlessly to the turf. Two plays later, the 49ers had to punt from deep in their own territory, leading to the Saints driving for the game-tying field goal.
The drop was very unlike Gore and could have dramatically altered the ending of the game. It's not indicative of a trend, nor is it a sign that Gore needs to work on his receiving. It was simply a lack of execution at the worst possible time.
In a game that came down to one score, every mistake adds up, and Gore's drop quite possibly hurt the 49ers more than any other single offensive play in the game. He'll be seeing that pass in his dreams for a week.
Good Day: Left Side of the Offensive Line
Offensive lines work best when they have strong guard-tackle tandems, and left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati had stellar games against a tough Rob Ryan defense on Sunday.
Together, they nearly kept Kaepernick's jersey clean, with a lone QB hit allowed by Iupati preventing the duo from having an unblemished sheet in pass protection. While Kaepernick did get sacked on a stunt from the left side, that came after Iupati was forced to leave the game with a left leg injury, suffered when Frank Gore rolled up on him in the third quarter. The starters, then, did a very solid job giving Kaepernick time to throw the ball.
They also were very good in run-blocking. The 49ers only ran to the left four times all game; a curious strategic decision considering how well Staley and Iupati were handling New Orleans' pressure. Those four plays went for 32 yards, including a 24-yard dash by Gore, his longest of the afternoon. Note how Staley and Iupati split the down linemen on that side, providing room for Gore to squirt through.
This is nothing new for Staley, who continues to make a case for being the best offensive tackle in football this season. Iupati's had a much more up-and-down year, trading off good weeks in the running game with poor ones in pass protection, so keeping Kaepernick upright through two-and-half quarters was a very promising sign. Seeing him carted to the locker room was disheartening, and he left the locker room on crutches and a brace.
Adam Snyder replaced Iupati and played decently, but he did allow a crucial sack late in the game. Snyder as a run-blocker is also a step down from Iupati in terms of sheer drive-blocking power. Losing Iupati for an extended period of time would be very problematic for an already-shaky offense.
Good Day: Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis has had a rough year by his standards, having missed a couple games due to injury and basically being banged up for most of the season. He had a very nice game on Sunday, however, chasing Drew Brees around.
Willis isn't much of a pass-rusher, all things considered: He has only 18.5 sacks in his career. It's simply not something he's normally asked to do very much of. In fact, against New Orleans, he was only let loose at Drew Brees three times.
Each and every one of those rushes, however, got to its target.
While Willis never managed to bring down Brees, he disrupted and blew up those three plays before they could get started. He also recovered the football on the controversial personal foul call late in the fourth quarter. Had that play stood, Willis would have been a key contributor on the single biggest play of the game.
Of course, the play did not stand, and it was the right call according to the letter of the rules, but that shouldn't be held against Willis, who hardly put a foot wrong all day. His four tackles and two assists included two stops, most prominently holding Pierre Thomas short on a 3rd-and-long situation, and he was generally a disruptive force over the middle.
That makes three consecutive solid games for Willis, indicating that the groin injury that had bothered him early in the year is pretty much behind him and that he should again be a force to be reckoned with over the remainder of the season.
Good Day: Anquan Boldin
Much has been made of the fact that Colin Kaepernick was held, yet again, to under 200 yards passing, but you can't put any of that blame on Anquan Boldin this time. Boldin, who was held more or less in check against Carolina last week, bounced back nicely with six key receptions and a touchdown.
Boldin worked short in this game, with no targets thrown to him over 20 yards downfield, as seen in Pro Football Focus' game-charting stats (subscription required).
He made the most of his work underneath. The highlight, of course, was his touchdown catch in the second quarter, a little back-shoulder fade on which the veteran wideout overwhelmed New Orleans corner Corey White. Boldin used his body to block White off, make the easy catch and walk practically untouched into the end zone.
The lack of a deep threat means that Boldin only managed 56 yards on his six receptions, an average of only 9.3 yards per catch. What that hides, though, is the usefulness of Boldin's receptions: Each and every completed pass resulted in either a first down or a touchdown, making his receptions extremely valuable over the course of the game.
Yes, it would be nice if the 49ers had the weapons and tools to produce 40- and 50-yard touchdown plays, but that's not how this team is built at the moment. Boldin's ability to move the chains is just as important and just as valuable.
It may not be a performance that lit up the fantasy sheet, but it was a very solid day for the receiver.