San Francisco 49ers Report Card Week 8: Grading Each Unit
San Francisco has always been a city of rich, diverse culture. But seen through the prism of the NFL, the city’s local team seems to run contrary the current NFL trends.
Next week will yield grades for at the halfway mark, but here’s a breakdown of each unit’s performance vs. Cleveland.
Wide Receivers B
Overall, a good day with a few nicks to bring down the grade. Braylon Edwards carelessly stepped out of bounds before catching a short pass in the second quarter. Michael Crabtree (15) gained his first TD of the season on a short goal-line pass, but one ball in his hands got knocked away thanks to good defense.
Edwards and Crabtree had nine passes thrown their way, and their seven catches netted 46 yards, or about five yards per attempt. Again, it isn’t the number of catches as much as yards per throw. The Niners rank among the lowest in the NFL in terms of how capable the wideouts are of breaking big plays.
Offensive Line: B+
One sack allowed is a good start. So was an offense that clicked off 253 yards in the first half in an eclectic mix of run and pass plays. Much credit goes to offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but the line still performed and performed well, as seen in Joe Staley’s rather exuberant celebration of his first-down pass reception.
The only drawback came in the second half. Cleveland made adjustments and the running game stalled while big pass plays downfield went missing. Nonetheless, the line performed on its last drive that led to the game-clinching field goal.
Tight Ends: B
They were targeted only three times on the day, with Vernon Davis catching two and Justin Peelle catching one. However, Davis had a key reception on the Niners’ second drive in the second quarter that led to a field goal, and Davis’ 19-yard reception ignited the second-quarter TD drive.
Running Backs: A-
Frank Gore’s 134 yards rushing was his third straight game over 125 yards. This is a running team in a passing league. Kendall Hunter added 26 yards on three carries. The reverse to Ted Ginn Jr. lost eight yards, but Alex Smith contributed some key runs either on planned plays or scrambles.
Overall, the 4.5 yards per attempt is very strong. One thing about Gore: His inside running is remarkable in that he hits the seam and gets very low and churns his legs for added yards while defenders attempt to bring him down. It adds up to an additional yard here, two more there, but overall, it makes a huge difference.
Alex Smith’s rating for the game was 98.8, and yet you can’t say that he made that much of a difference. To his credit, he didn’t throw an interception, and at least two more passes should have been completed.
That said, Smith did make some plays when he had to, and that counts. Granted, the passes to Joe Staley and Isaac Sopoaga were easy throws, but they had to be the right easy throws to ensure these non-receivers made the plays. And they did. If Smith had hit Michael Crabtree up the right sideline when the receiver broke free in the fourth quarter, the mark would have improved significantly.
Defensive Line: B+
A strip-sack and fumble recovery on the first play set the tone: The Niner defense was way ahead of Cleveland’s offense. Again, the front three and pass-rusher Aldon Smith put good pressure on Browns QB Colt McCoy.
Telling stat No. 1: McCoy was the second leading rusher for the Browns, with 30 yards on eight attempts. He was flushed on most of those runs, which usually portends bad things.
On the game’s second play, Ahmad Brooks lost his helmet, sacked McCoy and forced a fumble, which resulted in a split lip. It set the tone. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis (52) combined on 18 tackles, with Willis adding a sack. Aldon Smith also had a sack.
Cleveland’s TD came on a 45-yard throw to Josh Cribbs, with 49er corner Tarell Brown putting in a good effort. Take away that throw, and Cleveland’s average gain per play drops to just above four yards, excellent for a defense.
Together with the defensive line, the Niners defense held the Browns to 2.9 yards per rush attempt. Also, the team has allowed a league-low 107 points in seven games. The front-seven has a lot to do with this being the best defense in the league.
Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner provide plenty of pop on hitting receivers and ball carriers. Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver were strong in coverage, with Cribbs’ TD reception being the one mark. To Brown’s credit, he was at the play; it's just that Cribbs (16) made a good catch.
In a way, this should be an A, but the Browns receivers rank among the least effective in the league. The Niners played as expected and shut down the Browns. Granted, Cleveland netted 224 yards in the air; only one play really hurt, as seen in the fact that Cleveland never got in the red zone.
Special Teams: B+
Josh Cribbs is an All-Pro returner, and the Niners contained him to 11.3 per punt return and 25.5 per kick return. At first, those numbers don’t seem all that great, but they were enough to make McCoy and Cleveland drive a good distance to get into scoring position.
David Akers made two short field goals and Andy Lee netted 43 yards per, with two inside the 20. Solid.
The Niners were ready to play, as seen in their 253-93 advantage in first-half yards. Alex Smith was 10-of-13 in the first two quarters, and only Frank Gore getting stopped on a fourth-and-1 at the 1 kept this game from being a blowout.
Granted, Cleveland adjusted well in the second half and the Niners couldn’t run in the third quarter, and Smith missed on a deep throw to Crabtree. In the end, it doesn’t matter, and it also shows the team that more work has to be done.
Nonetheless, it was a solid if not spectacular win, and the team matched last year’s win total before Nov. 1—an amazing accomplishment for coach Jim Harbaugh and staff.