It was the first back-to-back road victories on the East Coast since 2001; the first time they had back-to-back road wins since 2006. That right there should tell you something that the 2011 San Francisco 49ers are a little different.
In Sunday’s 24-23, come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the 49ers made the biggest statement that this is a transformed team from the Mike Singletary Era. It was a team down 20-3 at halftime, 23-3 after a blocked field goal in the third quarter.
It was a hostile environment against a team that has one of the league’s most dangerous and dynamic players: Michael Vick. That the 49ers came out of it with a thrilling yet convincing victory, one that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (I’m sorry, the cliché was right here; couldn’t refuse), tells us much about this team is so much different than the 49ers of years past.
Credit coach Jim Harbaugh and staff. Of course, Eagle fans will say just credit Justin Smith for running down behind the screen play and punching the ball out of the grasp of Jeremy Maclin, which in turn led to the 49ers securing the win.
Nonetheless, this is a team that inspires belief and is worthy of attention. It is a team that is getting better and seems to be able to continue to improve. Here are five things we learned in San Francisco’s 24-23 win over Philadelphia.
No quarterback makes the plays that Michael Vick made to give his team that 20-3 halftime lead. From ducking a sack from Parys Haralson that led to the Eagles’ first TD, to the escapes out of the pocket for drive-sustaining first downs, Vick is the best.
As a defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio of the 49ers can only draw up and call the coverage-rush schemes that give his team a chance. And he did. And, too often, Vick, thanks to his remarkable physical skills, escaped.
Vick ended the game 30-of-46 for 416 yards. His one interception came early in the game, and ultimately didn’t figure into the final outcome. The point is, the 49ers played him when he was at his best and he had the team moving, and yet they came away with a victory.
The Eagles had seven visits to the Red Zone (inside the 49ers 20-yard-line) and came away with 23 points. That is a big credit to the 49er defense. Of course, it helps that Eagle kicker Alex Henery missed two field goals, the latter within 40 yards, to abet the 49er comeback. But Eagle coach Andy Reid will say that those misses shouldn’t have been a factor; the Eagles had a chance to put the game away and they didn’t. Why?
Good 49er defense. And the fact that Vick can only do so much.
Final note on Vick: The hits he took against the Niners seems to me to portend a short season for Vick. Yes, he is elusive and fast, but too often, opposing defenses focus on getting to Vick. In contrast, Alex Smith came out of this game considerably less sore from tackles and hits on passes. Watch out, Eagle fans.
The 49er defense, by and large, did a good job against Phildadelpia. Granted, Vick alone accounted for 491 yards in offense (416 in passing, 75 rushing), yet the Eagles couldn’t get into the end zone.
Still, there were big plays downfield. DeSean Jackson (pictured) had over 160 yards in total yards, including a huge 61-yard reception in the third quarter when San Francisco was mounting its comeback. That play resulted in poor pass coverage from Tarell Brown and Reggie Williams, and it came on a third-and-long play.
The good news is that, late in the game, when it all has to be done, the 49ers forced Philadelphia into a third-and-long. The bad news is that Vick, after sitting in the pocket, found Jackson open down the middle of the field.
The 49ers won. But in the minds of opposing offensive coordinators, it will be remembered and called again. The good news for the 49ers is that it is easier to defend the long pass than the short pass. This should be correctable. Of course, if it is not, bad things will ensue.
At one point in the second half, he was 9-of-9 for 179 yards. He finished the game 21-of-33 for 291, a nice 8.8 yards yards per attempt. Moreover, when the 49ers were down 23-3 midway in the third quarter, we saw an offense break out of its stilts.
There was the scramble and short throw to Kendall Hunter that resulted in the big gain that energized the 49ers first TD scoring drive, capped by the 20-yard toss to Joshua Morgan. And that play came on a simple slant pattern against the blitz—proof that the Niners knew how to handle the Eagles defensive scheme on that play.
On the second TD drive, the opening play was a stop-and-go pattern up the left sideline to Michael Crabtree. Again, a nice 26-yad pickup on a good call at the right time. Smith made the throws he had to when he had to.
Kendall Hunter was a big influence, no doubt. His bursts outside the tackles coupled with short passes that he turned into big plays is a good sign.
Don’t be fooled, though. Frank Gore closed out the game. His ability to read the creases on interior runs, including a crucial third-and-inches call late in the fourth quarter, proved his worth. When the game had to be closed out, it was Gore middle for 5, Gore right tackle for 3 and then Gore again, bouncing it outside for 5. First down, good night. Turn off the lights.
With about three minutes left in the game, the running back stats for the 49ers were:
Gore: 10 rushes, 101 yards
Hunter: 8 rushes, 40 yards
Hunter: 2 receptions, 62 yards.
Total: 20 touches for 203 yards.
It all adds up to a team that is slowly—perhaps too slowly—compiling all the elements needed to become a team that can go far in the NFL.
The offense found a gear that, in the end, produced 442 yards of offense. Doomsayers will say yeah, but, the “but” being the 512 hung on them by Philadelphia. Most of those came on the innovative skills of one Michael Vick.
The 49ers, in turn, have to feel good about the fact that major playmakers like Michael Crabree, Joshua Morgan (both pictured above), Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Alex Smith all had key contributions to this memorable victory.
This is the sort of win that, from a coach’s standpoint and even an organizational standpoint, is something on which to build a foundation.
Down 23-3 midway in the third quarter against Philly? Why not bag it and head home 2-2 and call it a day?
Last year, you never saw the 49ers come out in the second half and have the quarterback light it up over a stretch on 9-of-9 throwing for 179 yards and the offense outgaining the opponent 199-23.
Still, they had to battle back due to the amazing play of Michael Vick and the miscues of a vulnerable defense. And they did.
This is a victory to rejoice and upon which to build. The 49ers are 3-1 and in control of the NFC West. It’s too early to sat they are in control of their destiny, but it definitely is the time to say they are a team much more vibrant and gutty compared to 2010.