Throughout last week, I continued to call the San Francisco 49ers matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles a "marker game" for this team. This meant that their performance would indicate exactly where this team stood a quarter of the way through the season.
Well, considering that this might have been the most dramatic victory for the 49ers since coming back from a 24-point deficit against the New York Giants in the 2002 playoffs, I would have to conclude San Francisco showed what they are all about.
This team showed a lot of moxie, confidence and strength in overcoming a 20-point deficit on the road against the self-anointed "dream team." As Harbaugh said, the 49ers didn't blink in the face of adversity. Instead, they picked up the pieces from a dreadful first half and came out firing on all cylinders when it counted the most.
Alex Smith was a perfect nine for nine in the third quarter, including two key touchdown passes. Michael Crabtree stepped up a great deal, the offensive line learned it could actually block, the defensive front seven held their ground and Frank Gore went off.
The victory is going to build confidence for this talented team. It is now the only team in the NFL with a two-game division lead and in a bad division. You can expect the 49ers to take the momentum from this improbable comeback and run with it.
So today, I am going to focus on five huge improvements the 49ers made in order to upset the heavily favored Philadelphia Eagles and what they mean moving forward.
It took the San Francisco 49ers to be down by nearly three touchdowns in order to open up the offense. Not to beat on a dead horse, but I have been calling for this the last three weeks.
So, what happened? The 49ers had nearly 300 yards of offense in the second half. Yes, 300 yards. You saw San Francisco maintain drives of 80,77 and 77 yards, all for touchdowns. Not only did San Francisco open up the offense, it put Alex Smith in an opportunity to succeed: allowing the quarterback to go back to his Utah roots with Urban Meyer. The 49ers spread the field, allowed Smith to get out of the pocket, called for quick passes (a staple of the west coast offense) and were successful running out of these formations.
This also enabled Smith to spread the ball around to eight different receivers. In fact, six different players had more than one receptions. This confused the defense and its ability to zone in one on area of the field. It created mismatch problems on the outside because the Eagles had to focus on the middle of the field with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
If something is successful, there is no reason to change it. San Francisco finally opened up its offense and the results were nothing less than spectacular. Moving forward, I fully expect Harbaugh and Greg Roman to continue utilizing these types of formations. This will lead to continued success on offense because San Francisco still won't be going up against a trio of corners like Philadelphia has for the remainder of the season.
Don't expect an explosion of 300 yards of offense in one half like we saw in Philadelphia, but you can expect a lot more long scoring drives that result in six. With the way San Francisco's defense is performing, this will only add to the 49ers' ability to stay in every game.
Folks, this is the new and improved Alex Smith. It is kind of like Microsoft building six different Windows systems that were utter failures and coming back with a seventh that defied all odds. I call it "Alex Smith 7.0."
He just looks like a new quarterback, has much more confidence, understands what needs to be done within the confines of a given play and is reading the field great. I had advocated that Jim Harbaugh allowed Alex Smith to open up the offense because the latter had given him ample reason to do so.
Despite the fact that stats didn't indicate success, Alex Smith didn't look too bad in the first half against Philadelphia. He did put the ball on target numerous times, but a combination of dropped passes, offensive penalties and missed opportunities disabled the 49ers to put together anything of significance on offense. Instead, they went into the locker room down 20-3.
Once Smith returned to the field in the second half, he looked like a reincarnation of the 49ers greats of the past. He had pinpoint accuracy, audibled at the line, scrambled outside the pocket to keep plays alive and was the best player on the field: for either team.
San Francisco didn't only put up 300 yards of offense in the second half, it blew the Eagles defense off the field. The 49ers averaged nearly nine yards per play, Smith completed 12 of 15 passes for a 198 yards and all was running great.
Alex Smith doesn't need to have this type of game for San Francisco to win in the future, but it sure does help. Instead, he needs to continue improving as a quarterback and do more than controlling the game. This is what Alex Smith has done over his last 10 starts: improve.
Now, through four games, Alex Smith is playing the best football of his career. He ranks fourth in the NFL in completion percentage, eighth in quarterback rating, is tied for the least amount of interceptions and is tied for the second best TD/INT ratio in the NFL.
Not bad if you ask me,
The 49ers' rushing attack didn't put up 100 yards in any of their first three games and averaged 2.5 yards per rush. It was well noted that Frank Gore struggled a great deal and the run-blocking was absolutely horrible.
More than anything, this caused San Francisco's offense to rank among the league's worst up until Sunday's game against Philadelphia. There were issues in regards to zone blocking, sweeping to the outside and I noticed a great deal of confusion in the running game as well.
Like almost everything else on the offensive side of the ball, this changed against the Eagles. San Francisco put up 164 yards on the ground (more than double their previous high) and averaged over 6.5 yards per attempt. Now, I understand it was going up against one of the weakest rush defenses in the league, but it was impressive nonetheless.
San Francisco's offensive line opened up holes outside and up the middle, but more on that later. However, the most dramatic difference that I noted was play-calling in regards to runs. They rushed out of the shotgun and in spread formations multiple times. This takes eight out of the box and gives your running backs more lanes to run through—essentially more green. If you give either Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter open field running downhill, they will eat you apart all day long.
Another aspect of San Francisco's running game that may have been overlooked is how it opened up the passing game for Alex Smith. If you can get a nice balance on offense, Smith will be able to open up the passing lanes, find hot reads and pass downfield.
This is exactly what happened against the Eagles.
If San Francisco can get this mix of run and pass to continue to take shape moving forward, it is going to make its offense so much better. Michael Crabtree proved he can be a huge threat downfield. So, if you are able to push the defensive secondary closer to the line, it will mean a lot more big plays in the secondary. San Francisco figured this out against Philadelphia and there is no reason to believe it will stray from it.
Normally, when you give up 500 yards of offense, there is no reason why your defense should be on this list. However, there are so many more variables to take into account than pure yardage.
First and foremost, San Francisco now has the best inside linebacker tandem in the entire league with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman—I really don't even think it is that close. Bowman, a 2010 third-round pick, continues to play like an All-Pro. He had four stops on third down alone: two forcing punts and the other two taking touchdown opportunities away from Philadelphia. Some have even concluded it is hard to gauge who makes the tackles for San Francisco: Bowman or Patrick Willis. Well, this is a great sign for the young linebacker considering Willis is one of the best defensive players in the league.
San Francisco sure bent a whole lot on Sunday against Philadelphia, but rarely did it break. Even on the Eagles' first touchdown of the game, Michel Vick was stopped for dead, but got away. You won't see other quarterbacks be able to do that in the future.
Despite Michael Vick's career passing day, the 49ers secondary outplayed Philadelphia's version of the "three-headed monster." It compiled seven passes defended and was able to guard good Eagles receivers on the outside, except for when the offensive play broke down in the backfield and Vick escaped pressure.
San Francisco also continued its streak of 26 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, which is just plain stupid.
If San Francisco's defense can play like this moving forward, it just enhances its already great chances of winning the NFC West and ending its playoff drought.
This has been a much maligned unit over the course of the first three games and for good reason. It has played some of the worst football that I have seen in recent memory. This unit couldn't open up holes, nearly got Alex Smith killed a couple different times and just stunk it up out there.
Well, that didn't happen on Sunday.
Despite Jason Babin recording three sacks, this unit was pretty solid in pass protection. A lot of that had to do with the 49ers' switch to open up the offense with quicker reads and more timing routes. However, some of it had to do with just better play.
More than what we saw in pass protection, San Francisco's offensive line dominated Philadelphia in the trenches and up the middle. I absolutely loved the push it got at the point of contact; this enabled the 49ers to run it up the gut when trying to kill the remaining time off the clock.
Listen, we all know the 49ers' offensive line has a lot of talent, it just hasn't been able to put it together yet. Sunday's game was the first time in a while I have seen this unit play at an extremely high level.
It would be a big mistake to get ahead of ourselves at this point, San Francisco still has a lot of issues it needs to address. Still, the way this team played against Philadelphia and how it came back has to be defined as a marker victory. Now, the 49ers honestly believe they can go into any stadium and win any game. This is a huge confidence-builder for the young team.
And, as San Francisco 49ers fans, you should be living in glory for the remainder of the week. After all, this is the best 49ers win in nearly a decade.