It hardly can be recommended for presenting at a coaching clinic. It had all the thrills of two sluggish heavyweight boxers standing in the middle of the ring intent on pounding each other into submission. But it was a victory—a road victory at that.
Coach Jim Harbaugh can knock another peg off his to-do list as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He won his first game and his first road game. Granted, it was against the Cincinnati Bengals, who showed some promise and plenty of defensive spirit. But they are the Bengals.
Prior to Sunday’s game, the 49ers in the last eight years had gone 14-50 on the road. That’s right—didn’t even average two wins a season on the road. They won on Sunday thanks to a 10-play, five-minute drive engineered by Alex Smith and capped by Kendall Hunter’s seven-yard run with less than four minutes remaining.
It was a drive they had to have, and it was one they performed flawlessly. It’s also another step for a team that, after last week’s 27-24 loss in overtime to the Cowboys, has questions about whether it can “finish the game.”
The Niners did that, controlling Cincinnati’s offense in the second half, forcing rookie quarterback Andy Dalton into mistakes or hurried throws and relying on good special teams to secure the win.
It may not have been artistic, but it does make the 49ers 2-1. Last year at this time, they were 0-3. In that perspective, here are five things we learned from Sunday’s win over the Bengals.
Frank Gore struggled on first down runs
The fourth-quarter drive came at the right time and had all the right calls. Interestingly, it started 1st-and-10 from the 28 with a trips-left formation. That opened up Joshua Morgan for a 13-yard gain.
That formation is in stark contrast with the usual tight formation, one receiver wide, with a fullback in front of Frank Gore. Most of his 1st- and 2nd-down runs out of that formation were stuffed, a sign that teams know what’s coming and it’s time to send everyone to the line of scrimmage.
As such, it’s important to remember that the Niners started each first-half drive deep in their own territory, and never crossed the 50. They had minimal 1st downs. They looked like they might never score.
But they also never made the big mistake: the fumble deep in their own territory, the interception returned for a TD. They didn’t gain many yards, but they also didn’t do anything stupid.
For a team as limited offensively as the Niners at times appear to be, this is a strength: They don’t beat themselves.
Mr. Dalton, meet Mr. Brooks.
Andy Dalton took the Bengals down the field on their first possession so efficiently it looked like Wednesday seven-on-seven passing drills. He got them to the 5-yard line. And the defense held and forced a field goal. That was a win.
The next series, the defense adjusted, but also, the Bengals adjusted. Those quick, short throws were turned into deeper drops in the pocket. San Francisco started getting pressure on the rookie quarterback, and it had to send thrills through the Niner fandom to see Ahmad Brooks knock Dalton flat in the first quarter.
It seems to show that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio made the right adjustments after the initial drive. What’s more, the defense got better and better, perhaps the key play of the game coming when Reggie Smith intercepted Dalton with just less than two minutes left in the game. Of course, Carlos Rogers’ interception on Cincinnati’s possession after SF took the lead was crucial, too.
Dalton finished the game with 152 yards passing on 17-of-32. He made some plays, but so did the 49er defense.
Gore has had a very tough time of it this year. Every time he gets the ball, it seems he has a team picture (everyone on the team, smiling) waiting for him. And in the fourth quarter, he fought through a tackle but dropped the ball.
The Bengals had 1st-and-10 on the 16, and then Cedric Benson busted a run for 10 yards. On 1st-and-goal at the 6, the defense held, leading to a field goal. That was a huge win for the defense.
The Niner offense finally clicked and went 72 yards for the go-ahead TD. Holding Cincinnati to a field goal and then scoring a TD meant the world. Cincinnati had to score a TD to win. That meant driving the length of the field, giving the 49er defense some time for Dalton to falter. And he did, twice, once to Rogers and again to Smith.
Davis makes the catch for a 39-yard gain.
Vernon Davis was the star for the 49ers with nearly 120 yards in catches. Take note that the first big play came in the third quarter. The Niners had finally crossed midfield and had a 2nd-and-2 from the 46.
Smith spread out Davis from the line and sent him downfield. Smith’s ball was perfect, and it turned into a 39-yard play, leading to David Akers’ tying goal.
Davis made plays, but so did Michael Crabtree, who was apparently robbed of a TD catch by a disputable call that he had stepped out of the end zone prior to making a wonderful catch.
Patrick Willis made some key tackles, and penetration by Ray McDonald on a key play inside the 5 stalled Cincinnati’s first scoring drive and forced a field goal.
There is a lot of talent, and there are a lot of faults (10 penalties, many of them false starts) and limitations (average 1st-down gain in the first half might have to be measured with a microscope).
But they won. On the road. It’s something to make everyone feel proud, especially Davis and his big plays.
Alex Smith after Kendall Hunter's go-ahead TD.
The offense is, shall we say, limited. Breaking 200 yards in total offense has been the norm. If they ever get to 300, there might be a local holiday the day after.
Smith was sacked five times and hurried 12. Pass protection is a concern to say the least. But he didn't throw an interception. He made a great pass to Crabtree in the fourth quarter that was dropped.
And so far, you’d have to say that the Niners are the contrarians of the NFL. While everyone else is playing shoot-em-up football, high-scoring affairs with lots of offense, the Niners play this limited, controlled, don’t-make-mistakes brand of ball.
And in that mode, they only had one turnover by Gore. Their special teams were strong again, and David Akers' 53-yard field goal to give them a 13-6 lead with just over two minutes left was crucial.
Jim Mora, the former Seattle Seahawks coach, made a telling comment late in the game. Smith had been sacked for the fifth time. He’d been hit aplenty. And Mora noted that in games in the past, Smith, after repeated beatings, would get anxious and try to force things. Now he’s much more relaxed and appears confident. To that, Mora credits Jim Harbaugh.
Kendall Hunter appears to be a good change-of-pace back for Gore. Joshua Morgan made some good plays, as did Delanie Walker.
So there you go. The Niners are a team with an offense built for Woody Hayes (most of the time), with a defense that seems resilient enough to make the right plays at the right time (Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner screwing up last week in overtime notwithstanding) and special teams that make the other team go long distances for scores.
It’s not an innovative formula, nor one that will be made into a slogan to sell more T-shirts (David Akers, Mr. Consistency!), but it’s one that has the team with two wins and a place atop the standings of the NFC West.
There’s plenty of improvement needed, but at least the 49ers did the right things at key times to win the game. It’s two more wins than they had at this time in 2010.