Nine sacks and 12 other hits on Smith present a set of stats too much for the 49ers to overcome. It was the most Smith had ever been sacked in a game. And with that, the game brought back the feeling of futility that 49ers fans had felt so many times from 2002 through this season.
But the Niners are 9-2 and possess the second-best record in the NFC. Yet, Thursday’s game showed us nothing more than the Ravens as a more developed versions of 49ers—fierce pass rush, great run defense and a careful, but effective offense. In that guise, here are five things we learned in the 49ers' 16-6 loss.
The one player the Niners have who needs to provide big-play capability is Braylon Edwards. And the Niners took a shot at him against Raven CB Lardarius Webb. Edwards is 6’3”, Webb 5’10”. But Smith threw to the inside of Webb, who came up with the interception.
It was one of those plays that appeared not to matter. The Niners were trailing 6-3 at the time. It was near the end of the half.
But the game was at a tipping point, and it appeared the Niners were again going to grab control of the game—that is, if they could get a score. But the interception ended that proposition.
Edwards’ knee surgery in September has kept him on the sidelines for a month. And in-season, when a team needs to refine every facet of the game, such little adjustments need to be second-nature. It comes from lots and lots of work, usually something that’s gained in the offseason.
Edwards finished with one catch for five yards; that’s not enough to help the offense hold off the top-notch defense.
In such a close game, every play has an impact; some plays have much more impact. Niner fans can point to a questionable chop-block foul on Chilo Rachel that negated a 75-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn, Jr. as a key play. And it was, but it came early enough in the game that there was enough time for the team to absorb it and move on.
The other was the pass interference call on Tarell Brown (pictured) when he was covering Torrey Smith. It looked like a good play—an amazing play by Brown—but the official covering interpreted the in-flight tussling as an “arm lock,” enabling Brown to come up with the ball. That led to the pass interference call, setting up the Ravens for a field goal.
Note: The 49ers' defense, facing a first-and-goal, kept the Ravens out of the end zone, a remarkable feat against a strong running team with a fleet, effective back in Ray Rice.
Nonetheless, if you add in Ginn’s play for a TD and take away a field goal by the Ravens. it equals a tie game.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the effect of what a short week does for a team having to travel across the country to play a football game is the lack of preparation. Alex Smith mentioned that in his post-game comments—the Ravens bring so much from so many different looks, it’s difficult to get ready for it all in such a short time.
Nonetheless, the offensive line took a pummeling Thursday. The loss of right guard Adam Snyder to a hamstring injury required the services of Chilo Rachel. And it seemed he wasn’t up to the task. He played only one series—which included the controversial chop block—before Snyder returned. But Haloti Ngata, the Ravens’ nose tackle, beat Snyder soon thereafter.
In that, however, there’s a positive. The 49ers got a first-hand look at an elite defense playing at playoff speed. Now they know the standard.
Two of 12 on third-down tries, again, presents the one obvious weakness in the 49ers: the lack of a third-down passing game. There are teams—Green Bay comes to mind–that can face the third-and-longs and make enough plays to keep a drive going. Right now, the 49ers can’t say the same.
Anything over five yards seems an adventure. One telling reason: the offensive line needs to hold off the rush long enough for receivers to get into the secondary. Notice that there were no double-moves by 49er receivers for deeper passes. Simply, Smith didn’t have the time.
After Thursday’s game, the Niners will be right around 30 percent for the season—maybe just a little under—on third-down conversions. The best teams are higher. The lone TD in the game came at the end of Baltimore’s 16-play drive in the fourth quarter. Joe Flacco was 4-for-4 on that drive in large part because the 49ers defense couldn’t get to him.
That’s a standard the Niners need to strive for.
It was a unique game—brother versus brother, holiday game on a short week, under the lights in front of a national TV audience. In other words, it was like a playoff game.
The two defenses played like it, and the weak link proved to be the 49ers' offensive line. Nine sacks and just four yards per pass attempt proved that the Ravens defense was first-rate. Terrell Suggs (55) had three sacks and three tackles for loss; proof that SF couldn’t handle it all.
Now they know. And if you have to rank losses, one that comes to an AFC opponent is the least damaging because in tiebreakers for playoff positioning, it’s the last consideration. Call it a "lesson game."
This is a team that hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2002. With the NFC West title all but locked up, they know the level of play needed to survive the postseason.