If your generic bandwagon sports fan asked your typical die-hard follower of the NFL the following question: "What matchups are the hardest for a NFL team to win?" The answer would probably include at least one of the following: road game in a loud stadium, inter-divisional game, and a game against the defending conference champions.
Well, the 49ers opening win on Sunday was on the road, in a loud stadium and against the defending NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals. Now, considering that the overwhelming majority of NFL analysts on all marquee media outlets still underrate the 49ers, you would think their "upset" over Arizona would have been all over SportsCenter.
But then again, even with an upset, we all know about ESPN's east coast bias probably getting in the way. After all, the Patriots and Bills play on "Monday Night Football" tonight, and that game is what ESPN will be focusing on all day long.
However, it is pretty safe to say that the Patriots are the heavy favorites to win tonight's matchup. To the contrary, on Sunday afternoon in Arizona, despite the Cardinals being the defending NFC champs, there really wasn't a favorite because the matchups between Arizona and San Francisco are always a coin toss. But even though neither team dominates the historical head-to-head record, Arizona is a team on the hot seat this year, trying to prove last season was no fluke.
Coincidentally, the expectations going into Sunday's game were that Arizona's Kurt Warner would hook up with receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for big yards through the air. And it was also expected that Frank Gore would go over 100 yards on the ground for the 49ers.
Yet, as the old saying goes, "on any given Sunday" something unexpected can happen. The unexpected that happened in Arizona on Sunday was that the 49ers came away with a 20-16 victory with Frank Gore amassing just 30 yards rushing on 22 carries.
With Gore stuffed all game long and quarterback Shaun Hill not exactly being the Brett Favre of the '90s, it is crystal clear who won the game for the 49ers.
Mike Singletary's smashmouth defense held Arizona's lethal offense to under 300 total yards and won the turnover battle 2-0 with two interceptions off Warner. However, the interceptions were not just great individual plays, but were team turnovers as both were due to an intense pass rush by outside linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson who got in Warner's face all game long.
Combined with the intense pass rush that the 49ers haven't shown in years was the absolute dominating play by middle linebacker Patrick Willis. The former defensive rookie of the year and former Pro Bowler is in just his third year out of Mississippi, but is already considered by many as the best linebacker in all of football. Against Arizona on Sunday, Willis led the team with 13 tackles, 11 of which were solo tackles and a huge leaping interception that gave his offense starting field position inside Cardinal territory.
Just to put those numbers in perspective, the next highest tackle total by a 49er defender was five total and four solo. Essentially, when a play does not go as an incomplete pass, Patrick Willis is making the tackle.
Albeit, as good as Willis performed on Sunday, the entire squad chipped and played their roles. Along with the aforementioned Lawson and Haralson, cornerback Nate Clements came up with the San Francisco's second interception and made quality tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Not only that, but first year starter Dashon Goldson at free safety enabled 49er fans to see how strong safety Michael Lewis can punish tailbacks when allowed to sniff the run. In years past, Lewis would have to sit back and compensate for former starter Mark Roman's poor coverage abilities but on Sunday, the former Eagle looked like a shadow of his former self, stepping up to put hard hits on opposing runners.
And, finally, defensive end Justin Smith deserves much more credit than he has received over his career. Playing for a much-maligned Bengals defense and of recent, a poor 49ers defense, has made Justin Smith a name most NFL fans would not be aware of. But despite being the only legitimate force on the 49er defensive line last year, Smith managed seven sacks and started out this season with a game-ending sack of Kurt Warner.
Now in his ninth year in the NFL, Smith has recorded 51.5 sacks in 128 career games and in those nine seasons has missed just one single game. Add that to the fact that Smith almost never comes off the field, and you have one of the most underrated defensive ends in football.
With Smith and the rest of the defense clicking right out of the gate (as shown by the 49ers shutting down one of the best offenses in the NFL), the rest of the league ought to be fearful of the dominant style of football the 49ers defense can bring into a game.
The 49ers held Boldin and Fitzgerald to just eight catches, 90 yards and one touchdown between them. And the touchdown to Fitzgerald would be the only trip the Cardinals made to the end zone all game long. Just one touchdown against the 49ers defense? Who saw that coming?
Now the defense won the game, but the winning score was on the right shoulder of Shaun Hill. On the game-winning drive, Hill went 9-13 for 72 yards and threw the winning touchdown pass to Frank Gore. It was Hill's ability to find the open receiver that overwhelming lead to the go-ahead score as Gore ran just twice for four yards on the drive.
This was not the way the 49ers were supposed to win this game. Struggling to run the ball, scoring only field goals on their first few possessions, and then letting Arizona find a groove and score 13 unanswered points to take a 16-13 lead was not the formula for a 49ers' victory.
Yet, despite all that, the 49ers won their season opener on the road, in a hostile environment, against the defending NFC champions.
Now, the fact they came away with this opening week victory without firing on all cylinders shouldn't go overlooked.
Despite being held to 30 yards on the ground, Frank Gore did score both 49er touchdowns. Although he still contributed big time in the victory, one thing is certain: Gore is not going to be held to 30 yards very often.
Imagine how dominant this 49er team can become when "Frank the Tank" starts rolling over opposing defenders. The sky is the limit for this team. Along with Gore prone to eat up yards on the ground, the much-maligned Vernon Davis seems like a much more mature team player. Combine that with the fact new coordinator Jimmy Raye's system is geared towards the tight end, opposing defenses are going to have to game plan for Vernon's game changing ability as a receiver.
Plus, if the defense can stay healthy, there is no reason why they can't keep up their dominant play from week one all season long. Especially with a "no-nonsense" type of coach in Mike Singletary, the defense should be making big plays all season.
With a stout running game and a dominating defense, all quarterback Shaun Hill needs to do is continue limiting the interceptions (zero in Week One) and make the throws when needed. If he can do that, the 49ers are a team that the rest of the league ought to look out for because if they don't, the 49ers will "hit them in the mouth."
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