The Good, Bad and Ugly from the San Francisco 49ers' Week 12 Win over Washington
With Colin Kaepernick throwing for more than 200 yards for only the third time this season and a dominant defensive performance, concerns that have orbited the team for the past few weeks have at least for the moment been put to rest. The team has a way to go before it's back to the form it was at last season but, for six days at least, the team can rest a little easy.
Even in the biggest wins, however, there are some players who drag the team’s performance down. Even in the biggest losses, there are some players whose terrific play stands head and shoulders above the rest.
This slideshow will address which players deserve the most credit for the comfortable victory and which ones don’t get a pass simply because their poor games happened to occur in a San Francisco victory.
Good Day: Aldon Smith
I think it's fair to say that Aldon Smith is fully back to game speed, after missing five games in the middle of the year as he attended rehab. Though he didn't get the start, with that role still going to Dan Skuta, Smith did end up playing 45 defensive snaps, his most since his return, as he continues his transition from situational pass-rusher back to full-time starter.
Presumably, Robert Griffin would have preferred Smith to take another week or two to get fully healthy.
Smith racked up two sacks, another quarterback hit, and five hurries over the course of the game, able to enter the backfield almost at will. His first sack was a thing of beauty, running through Trent Williams as if he wasn’t there to bring down RGIII.
He didn’t always have to reach Griffin, either. One of his quarterback hurries forced RGIII to throw into tight coverage, where Donte Whitner was able to haul it in for an interception. That play doesn’t happen without Smith making a mess of the backfield.
This was Smith’s best game of the season, and the first one in which he made a real impact since back in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks. Getting him back from rehab and up to full speed gives San Francisco a dangerous new element to its defense.
And not a moment too soon.
Good Day: Justin Smith
A number of pass-rushers had good days against Washington's porous line, with Justin Smith recording his best day in over a year.
Smith never officially sacked the quarterback, according to the NFL's official stats, but his forced fumble at the end of the second quarter was just as good, knocking the ball out of RGIII's hands and nearly keeping Washington off the scoreboard at the end of the half. It's not Smith's fault the ball bounced into the hands of Pierre Garcon.
Smith was also credited with four tackles and three stops—plays in which he stuffed runs for short gains or negative yardage. In addition to the forced-fumble of Griffin, Smith came up big on two third-down plays, forcing Washington to go three-and-out and short-circuiting the offense before it could ever get going.
The left side of Washington’s offensive line allowed both Smiths to regularly penetrate and disrupt plays. By the end of the game, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) charted left tackle Trent Williams having allowed two sacks and five quarterback hurries, with left guard Kory Lichtensteiger on the hook for another couple hurries by himself—and that’s not counting the three sacks PFF held Griffin responsible for on his lonesome.
With the two Smiths operating at full efficiency, the left side of any team's offensive line is going to suffer significantly.
Good Day: Right Side of the Offensive Line
With Mike Iupati out on the left side of the line, protecting Colin Kaepernick and providing holes for the ground game were causes for concern for San Francisco.
However, in the wake of San Francisco's their third game with more than 200 passing yards, we have to give credit to the beef on the right side of the line—right tackle Anthony Davis, right guard Alex Boone and center Jonathan Goodwin.
Together, they kept Kaepernick upright all night, not allowing a single sack from a very solid left side of Washington’s defense that includes Ryan Kerrigan and Barry Cofield. Only Kerrigan getting a couple of hurries against Davis kept that side of the Niners line from having a completely clean sheet for the night. The vast majority of the pressure Washington was able to get came at the left side of the San Francisco line.
Right guard Boone was the man of the hour, putting up his best performance of the year, making Jarvis Jenkins almost invisible in this game. Jenkins did get one sack, but that was when Kaepernick scrambled into him due to pressure from the QB's left—more on that in a later slide. Boone was also the offensive line's best run-blocker on a generally poor day for San Francisco's rushing attack; he and Baldwin were the only positively graded linemen in the 49ers rush game, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It was that time the line was able to provide for him that allowed Kaepernick to complete nine out of fourteen passes deep down field, sparking the pass game and providing two of his three touchdowns. The headlines will credit Kaepernick—but those plays don’t happen without the big guys up front winning the battle play in and play out.
Bad Day: Adam Snyder
As mentioned earlier, the right side of the offensive line did a great job keeping Colin Kaepernick upright. The same can’t really be said for Adam Snyder, filling in at left guard for the injured Mike Iupati.
Snyder was credited with four hurries allowed. It would be a bit hyperbolic to compare him to a turnstile, but he was beaten on multiple occasions by Kedric Golston and Brian Orakpo, and represented a clear step back from Iupati, even with as inconsistent Iupati has been in 2013.
Snyder's play is not a surprise—in 2012, as a starter in Arizona, he was rated as the fourth-worst guard in football by Pro Football Focus, with his season-long performance in the run game receiving an especially subpar evaluation.
He’s simply not a starting option for a team with playoff hopes, and if he has to play against St. Louis, he may struggle against Michael Brockers. With Joe Staley likely locked in against Robert Quinn, there’s not a lot of help upcoming, either.
If Mike Iupati can’t go, Snyder vs. Brocker will be a key matchup to watch Week 13 against St. Louis.
Bad Day: Backup Running Backs
Frank Gore had his reps limited against Washington, playing only 35 snaps. He didn’t appear to be injured, but, whatever the reason, Gore's absence meant a chance for his backups to get some playing time.
More than one of the backup running backs, LaMichael James in particular, have grumbled about not having enough carries. The results against Washington weren’t very conducive to Gore's replacements getting more snaps in the future.
Kendall Hunter had eight carries for a total of twelve yards, his longest run being just four yards. Yes, the Washington defense played the run tough, but Gore managed to slog for 2.4 yards per carry; Hunter couldn’t even get past 1.5. A disappointing effort.
LaMichael James did have a good day on special teams, averaging 26.0 yards on two kickoff returns and 14.0 yards on five punt returns, demonstrating nifty footwork down the sideline on one attempt. On offense, however, he failed to use his explosiveness, dropping a key 3rd-and-4 pass from Kaepernick.
He’ll get more chances in the future, but Hunter may be running out of time.
Bad Day: The Kicking Game
You know San Francisco as a team had a good day when you're calling out the kicking game.
Phil Dawson has been solid all year long, with opposing teams starting on average inside its own 21-yard line on kickoffs. And no 49er fan needs to see Andy Lee’s credentials; the four-time All-Pro is in the conversation for best punter ever.
Still, on a cold night in Washington, both turned in less than their greatest efforts.
Dawson had six tries to boot the ball through the back of the end zone on kickoffs. Every single one of them was returned, and a few kickoffs amounted to awkward squibs. I’m not sure if that was an intentional strategy or a product of the freezing weather, but if the former, the tactic seemed a bit excessive, given that no one's going to confuse Niles Paul with a Devin Hester.
As for Lee, his four punts averaged a hang time of only 4.6 seconds, a full second off of his average this season. Again, the cold weather likely had an impact there, as the ball becomes rigid and hard to kick, but booting the ball into the end zone on one punt and giving Santana Moss an opportunity for a return on another is not Lee’s normal style.
Chalk it up to the weather and the fact that even the best can have a poor day. Watch them improve when they return to comparatively balmy San Francisco next week.