Sometimes, stats don’t mean a thing. Late in Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers had converted only two of seven third downs. The Buccaneers had converted seven of 15 and because of that had run three more plays from scrimmage.
A year ago, the Bucs came into Candlestick Park and held San Francisco to 11 first downs and zero points. So, for someone who saw only that stat at this point in time might be a little more than surprised to find out that Tampa Bay trailed the 49ers by 45 points at the time.
It was a magical victory for the 49ers, 48-3, representing a breakthrough in offensive, defensive and special teams execution. These were two teams that on paper coming into the game seemed very similar—run-oriented on offense, stout-up-front on defense. Tampa had the better secondary, but San Francisco had more weapons (if only slightly more so) on offense.
Looking back, we realize that the famous words of famed Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman hold so elegantly true. The man who wrote the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Marathon Man, among others, has said that among the experts of the business “no one knows anything.”
The early predictions for “Butch” from studio execs were failure. The early predictions among many for the 49ers were that Alex Smith would continue to fail in San Francisco. Here are the five things we learned in San Francisco’s 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay.
New coach Jim Harbaugh said it. The players have been saying it. The new coaching staff came in and told the players that they can win. The players said they believed it.
To outsiders, casual fans and the die-hard acolytes, it’s as regular as taxes and the latest Lindsay Lohan controversy. In other words, it happens all the time for every team. It’s part of the preseason deal. Everyone believes. Then the play on the field determines who speaks the truth.
For a team that has limitations, Sunday’s win proves that Harbaugh has his team buying into his feeling, his mojo and his thought processes. The 49er defense was all over the Buc offense, which totaled 272 yards. Moreover, very few plays came off with the prospect of being something more than it was designed to be.
In other words, the SF defense did much to control the offense so that no major breakdowns occurred. No one slipped in pass coverage. No one missed a lane on run coverage. Tampa got a few plays and 14 first downs. They didn’t get into the end zone.
That’s a credit to a defensive unit that is now starting to jell. Aldon Smith is becoming a force as an outside pass rusher. Dashon Goldson is establishing a reputation as a big-time hitter at safety. The linebacking corps might be as good and as deep as any in the NFL.
If we look back to last January, when all of a sudden a hot college football coach at Stanford was suddenly whisked to Miami for some last-minute talks about becoming the Dolphins’ head coach, perhaps it is OK for the 49er fan to consider what Jim Harbaugh had in his mind.
He knew that the Niners had the makings of a solid defense in the NFL. With that, you can compete. Sunday, the Niners took apart Tampa Bay in sections, loaded up the parts in boxes and packed them off for shipping.
Harbaugh knew back in January. Now you know why.
LeGarrette Blount (No. 27) is a threat. Nearly 250 pounds, his speed and elusiveness make him a force to be reckoned with. Of course, Dashon Goldson’s hit on him in the third quarter took Blount out of the game in the physical sense, but the 49er offense had already accomplished that fact in the previous half.
Having a 24-3 lead at halftime had the same effect on Blount’s overall effectiveness as Goldson’s hit. Being up three TDs in the NFL is the signal to the defense to forget the run and go after the quarterback.
If Tampa wanted to grind it out with long, time-consuming drives oriented around Blount, the Niners were happy to oblige. All they had to do was stop him on one of many third downs and they’d get the ball back—even after a field goal.
What the use of Blount meant that there was going to be no big play – no breakaway run of 70 yards. In other words, being up three TDs at halftime in the NFL negates the running game because in the end the offense that trails ends up battling the clock as much as the defense.
Credit San Francisco’s defense with scoring off an interception, stopping another drive with an interception and credit the SF offense by capitalizing to score 14 points off these two Tampa turnovers.
In other words, as the players headed to the locker rooms at halftime, the 49ers and that halftime lead got to say, “Goodbye, LeGarrette.”
Tight end Kellen Winslow led the Bucs in receiving with five catches for 54 yards. Receiver Mike Williams had four catches for 28 yards, a long gain of 13 being the standout.
This suggests that the Bucs have less than what you would call a dynamic offense. It’s not all that, uh, expansive. Quarterback Josh Freeman, when forced to make plays down the field, which employs being able to make reads and accurate throws, proved less than adequate.
It’s a harsh analysis, but his 17-of-33 performance for 187 yards, no TDs and two interceptions for a 43.4 QB rating suggests that he’s not all that much to worry about. That is, when he has to carry the team.
With the running game negated by the large first-half deficit, Freeman had to carry a larger load. He didn’t have the greatest cast of characters to help him. And it showed.
For those who have been paying attention, Harbaugh’s offense at Stanford oriented on the effectiveness of the tight ends. He has done it again in San Francisco. With Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and Justin Peele, the Niners were able to gain decisive advantages when the play headed away from the central part of the field.
This occurred because Davis, Walker and others were able to use their large bodies to block smaller cornerbacks and safeties. The result was that plays from Ted Ginn Jr., Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter were all potential big gainers. The 49ers racked up three running plays over 20 yards and had several over 15. That’s huge against one of the best run defenses in the league.
Tampa’s strength was its front four. But they were useless when trailing behind a play that enabled running backs Gore and Hunter to get the ball on the edge quickly.
Against what had been one of the league’s better run defenses (Tampa’s rush allowed average as about 100 yards a game) got turned out for a 5.9 yard per attempt average (embarrassing) and 213 yards total.
The 49ers outgained the Bucs 418-272, had a 3-to-1 turnover edge, including two key first-half interceptions, and committed three penalties to Tampa Bay’s nine.
The last statistic, which included a personal foul against Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, suggests that the Bucs had lost their composure.
Perhaps that is the ultimate victory for Harbaugh, the staff and the team. They were able to take a team that was seemingly built along the same lines as the 49ers and San Francisco was more than successful. Call this domination.
The 49ers are 4-1 and have a lock on the NFC West. Moreover, they have momentum and the understanding of what they can do. This is a team that can score points when need be, but can also force a good team into its weaker elements (such as Josh Freeman having to find less-than-superior wideouts).
This was a win that proves Harbaugh was right in choosing the 49ers. It’s a talented team with good potential.