San Francisco 49ers Report Card Week 10: Grading Each Unit
This game against the Giants was their most impressive victory of the Jim Harbaugh era. Both teams lead their respective divisions and the 49ers proved that they belong in the conversation pertaining to the top teams in the NFC.
Let's take a closer look at the performance of each position group of the 49ers. I will give each unit a grade for this past game.
Alex Smith played arguably his best game as a San Francisco 49er. He threw the ball well, made good decisions and made the plays necessary to help lead his team to victory.
Smith completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown. He also had one interception, but that was the result of Ted Ginn missing a pass thrown right to him, which went through his hands and bounced off his helmet into the arms of a Giants' defender.
Smith had a passer rating of 85.7, but that would have been much better had Ginn made the catch he should have.
In addition to Smith throwing the ball well, he also ran six times for 27 yards, including a key 14 yard first down scramble, which kept a drive alive.
What impressed me most with Smith was his presence and command on the field. His confidence level has never been higher and it showed. He showed excellent leadership and poise throughout the contest.
On a day where Frank Gore rushed six times for zero yards, this game was put on Smith's shoulders. He had to come through for the 49ers to get the win and he did.
Quarterback: Grade = A
The New York Giants had a defensive game plan focused on stopping Frank Gore and the 49ers' rushing attack. For the most part, they were successful.
Gore was nursing a bad ankle and also tweaked a knee in the first half. He was ineffective, rushing six times for no yardage. If you told me that Gore would gain nothing on the ground, I would have said there's no way the 49ers could win.
Gore's backup Kendall Hunter played well. He carried the ball six times for 40 yards, including a 17 yard fourth-quarter touchdown that gave the 49ers a 14 point lead. I was also impressed with Hunter's blocking on blitz pickup. He was in the right place and blocked effectively throughout the game.
Rookie fullback Bruce Miller did not carry the ball, but his blocking was also very strong. He made a key block that helped to spring Hunter on his touchdown run.
In all, the 49ers' running backs rushed 14 times for 50 yards. Alex Smith added 27 yards on six carries, giving the 49ers a total of only 77 yards on the ground.
Running Backs: Grade = C+
The San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers were only modestly effective against the Giants. Of the 19 completions by Alex Smith, only eight were to wide receivers. These accounted for 121 yards out of the 49ers' total of 242 through the air.
The wide receivers also made some key mistakes that could have cost the 49ers the win. Michael Crabtree was called for offensive pass interference wiping out a sizable gain in the first half. He also missed a ball he probably should have caught for a touchdown, in the third quarter.
Braylon Edwards led the wide receivers with 47 yards on three receptions but also committed a silly penalty by lining up offside on a play.
Ted Ginn had the most egregious error for the wide receivers as Smith hit him right in the hands with a pass that would have been a first down, deep in New York territory. Had Ginn caught the ball, it would have given the 49ers a chance to score a late first half touchdown or minimally had an easy field goal try.
Instead, the ball went right through Ginn's hands, bounced off his helmet and right into the hands of Corey Webster for a drive stopping interception.
Throughout the course of the game, I also felt that the 49er wide receivers often were having trouble getting open or gaining separation from the defender guarding them.
Wide Receivers: Grade = C-
The San Francisco 49ers received excellent contributions from tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. With the running game only marginally effective and the wide receivers often covered, the onus went to the tight ends to make plays in the passing game.
Both Davis and Walker stepped up and the two combined for nine catches, six by Walker and three by Davis. Walker gained 69 yards and Davis 40 yards, including a 31 yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Davis and Walker create match up problems for any defense. The two are fast enough to make it hard for linebackers to cover them. They are also bigger and stronger than defensive backs.
Tight Ends: Grade = A
The San Francisco 49ers' offensive line has improved greatly since the early part of the season. Against the New York Giants and their strong front seven, the 49er line was facing its biggest test of the year.
Although Alex Smith did get a lot of pressure, he was only sacked twice. The 49er line held up fairly well under the constant pressure from the Giants' defensive front.
Although the running lanes were few and far between, the offensive line did spring Kendall Hunter for a big 17 yard touchdown run, that turned out to be the margin of victory.
Offensive Line: Grade = B
The San Francisco 49ers' defensive line was solid, although generally unspectacular. They were unable to get to Eli Manning, although they did apply good pressure to him a few times.
The defensive line did not allow a Giants' back to gain 100 yards on the ground for the 31st week in a row. Brandon Jacobs was the top New York running back with only 55 yards on 18 carries. The 49ers' only allowed a total of 93 yards on the ground.
The defensive line was also an important part of the entire defense, which again did not allow a rushing touchdown. They have not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, which is an amazing feat.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and defensive end Justin Smith both played well. Smith had five tackles and also batted down Eli Manning's final pass, on a fourth-down play, late in the game, which secured the 49ers' victory.
Ray McDonald was back after missing one week due to injury and his was a welcome return.
Defensive Line: Grade = B
The strength of the 49ers' defense is their linebackers and Sunday was no exception. They played very well against the Giants.
Patrick Willis was credited with nine tackles, including the 49ers' only sack, and one assist. NaVorro Bowman had a game high 10 tackles and four assists. Willis and Bowman are the best inside linebacker tandem in the NFL. They were all over the field, making plays from sideline to sideline, against the Giants.
Outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Aldon Smith combined for four tackles and four assists. Smith was unable to increase his team-leading sack total of 6.5. I did feel the outside linebackers were not as effective as they have been in some of the prior games.
Linebackers: Grade = A-
The 49ers' defensive secondary was under constant attack from Eli Manning and his receivers. Manning completed 26 of 40 passes for 311 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Wide receivers Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz combined for 14 catches, 202 yards and both Giants' touchdowns.
Carlos Rogers came up with two big interceptions which were momentum changers. The second one led to a Kendall Hunter touchdown on the very next play.
However, Rogers, Terrell Brown and Chris Culliver were beaten on several pass plays and had trouble with the Giants' receivers.
I thought safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner were solid, for the most part.
Defensive Backs: Grade = B-
The unsung, yet collective heroes of the 2011 season is the San Francisco special teams. They have been excellent all season.
David Akers converted all four of his field goal attempts, including a 52 yard boot in the first half. His kickoffs were routinely kicked deep into the end zone, which allowed the 49ers to limit the Giants' returns.
Akers also successfully executed an onside kick, following a 49ers' score.
The 49er coaches noted a flaw in the first wave of blockers on the Giants' kickoff team. Some of them start to turn and retreat, before the ball is kicked off. This enabled Akers and the 49ers to successfully execute the onside kick.
Punter Andy Lee was also very good, with an average of 54.7 yards, on his three punts. Lee and Akers are instrumental in helping the 49ers gain the field position advantage.
The coverage units were good again, which is one of the biggest improvements on the team.
Ted Ginn returned two kickoffs for 55 yards. He did not attempt any punt returns.
Special Teams: Grade = A
Jim Harbaugh has got the 49ers playing outstanding football. They are the surprise of the league and the victory over the very tough New York Giants is one that legitimizes their standing in the league. With a record of 8-1, they are one of the upper echelon teams in the NFL.
Harbaugh has the 49ers believing in the system and believing they can win. This is a team that has indeed bought in to what the coaching staff is teaching them.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have helped turn Alex Smith into a productive and winning quarterback. Their offensive play calling is excellent and keeps the opposition off balance.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who is left alone by Harbaugh, runs the defense. He has built this unit into the top defense in the league in terms of points allowed.
Special teams coach Brad Seely has also done a fantastic job. This area does not get a lot of notoriety, but they help the 49ers win the field position battle and also convert on their field goal opportunities.
Against the Giants, the 49ers were very well prepared, as they always are. They kept New York off balance and once they realized the ground game was having trouble, they allowed Alex Smith to throw the ball a lot more.
The key is the variety of plays enables Smith to find open receivers, or have outlets if protection is breaking down.
There were two very notable plays which point to great coaching. The onside kick, which I discussed on the special teams slide was one. The other was when the 49ers scored their first touchdown to take an 18-13 lead. Instead of kicking the extra point, the 49ers went for two.
What was noteworthy is that they had no question or hesitation about what to do. They called a special goal line play with Michael Crabtree coming out of the backfield and heading to the front corner of the end zone. With Smith rolling right, there was no way the Giants could stop the play.
The 49ers were prepared and ready to execute that play. They did not need to call time out or organize their personnel. Everyone was on the ball and that's good coaching.
Coaching: Grade = A
The 49ers Are Playoff Bound
The San Francisco 49ers have a record of 8-1 and a commanding five game lead in the NFC West. With only seven games left in the regular season, the 49ers are a virtual lock to make the playoffs.
This has been an incredible resurgence and was totally unexpected. The 49ers' victory against the New York Giants, who are a good football team and played well, legitimizes them to the league and the media.
49er fans are catching the gold rush fever and there is true excitement in the San Francisco Bay Area.