49ers vs. Saints: Full Report Card Grades for San Francisco
San Francisco pulled off the 27-24 overtime victory against New Orleans who, previously, had yet to lose a game this year at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
After getting out to a 14-0 lead, New Orleans was able to close the gap, especially in the second half—an area in which the 49ers offense has struggled over the course of the season.
The Saints took a 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter, but this was answered by a late fourth-quarter field goal by Phil Dawson, which sent the game to overtime.
After exchanging a handful of drives, linebacker Ahmad Brooks was able to force a fumble from Drew Brees, which was subsequently recovered by rookie Chris Borland. San Francisco sealed the deal with another field goal by Dawson.
San Francisco's victory wasn't perfect. But the 49ers did seem to address some key elements that have followed them over the course of the season. One critical aspect was the ability to run the ball. For the first time in recent memory, San Francisco's ground attack proved to be decisive.
The 49ers also got great defensive efforts from a number of up-and-coming standouts—all of which worked their way into the eventual victory.
Let's take a look at a unit-by-unit breakdown of San Francisco's Week 10 efforts in this critical victory over New Orleans.
But, as we all know, games aren't won strictly by the numbers. Nor do numbers occur in a vacuum.
Kaepernick finished the day with 14 completions on 32 attempts for 210 yards. He had one touchdown against zero interceptions. But Kaepernick was victimized by a bad case of the dropsies. Both Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree plagued the 49ers' signal-caller throughout the contest.
Crabtree drop on 3rd and 10 at own 22, 49ers 8th drop of the game... 4th down, 1:34 left— KD Drummond (@KDP10for10) November 9, 2014
Had Kaepernick's receivers done a better job hauling in passes, San Francisco's quarterback would have posted some better numbers en route to something higher than his eventual 76.3 passer rating.
But Kaepernick's game was not exactly perfect outside of the dropped balls. Kaepernick lost a fumble and was sacked four times for 24 yards—of which at least one was entirely on Kaepernick for trying to extend the play behind the offensive line's capability.
That sack is on the quarterback. Kaepernick had all day to throw, should have chucked it away.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 9, 2014
Yet we should focus on the positives. We cannot overlook the improvising Kaepernick showcased when he was able to find a wide-open Crabtree with time running out in the fourth quarter. This 51-yard play helped set up the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter.
Kaepernick figured out a way to help his team win in spite of some bad mistakes. At the end of the day, the win/loss number is all that matters.
Prior to Week 10, the 49ers offense was surrounded by speculation and concern about exactly what was the team's identity.
Was this a run-first team, or have the 49ers shifted their offensive theory to a pass-first approach?
The start of Week 10 revealed that San Francisco's ground game, powered by Frank Gore, is still at the heart of what the 49ers do best.
By the yard numbers, Gore and Carlos Hyde do not necessary boast a huge contribution. Gore totaled just 81 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry during the process. Hyde only notched 36 yards. But these were on four carries, giving Hyde an average of 9.0 yards per attempt.
Oh, and each 49ers back added a touchdown during the contest.
Looks like Frank Gore has taught Carlos Hyde a little bit about patience. That TD run was beautiful.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 9, 2014
San Francisco needed to get back to a ground-and-pound approach on offense. It was good to see the right combinations of Gore and Hyde in order to establish a tough, physical offense.
Considering how well New Orleans ranked against the run prior to the game—No. 9 in fewest yards against (817)—the 49ers' ground game was able to help reestablish some missing prowess.
Let's see if this approach continues in Week 11.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The good from Week 10—Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
The bad from Week 10—Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree.
Okay, this is an overgeneralized statement. But anyone who watched the game could state that wideouts Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree both helped, and also hurt, the 49ers' offensive efforts against New Orleans.
On the positive side of things, both receivers came up with huge offensive catches that set up scoring drives. Boldin finished the day with six receptions for 95 yards. He also hauled in San Francisco's lone receiving touchdown—a 15-yard score late in the first half.
Crabtree also helped force overtime with a 51-yard reception in the fourth quarter—bailing out Colin Kaepernick when the 49ers were trying to tie the game with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
Woooow. Kaepernick keeps play alive, sees Crabtree 51 yards down field. Suddenly the 49ers are in field goal range.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 9, 2014
But while San Francisco's wideouts helped out Kaepernick in key situations, they also let him down in others.
Both Boldin and Crabtree suffered from a horrendous case of the dropsies. Boldin dropped a career-high five attempts, which is unusual from the otherwise sure-handed veteran.
It looked as if that was a flat-out drop by Anquan Boldin. Otherwise, it's an 85-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) November 9, 2014
Stevie Johnson continues to have a nice rapport with Kaepernick. Unlike his other two counterparts, Johnson hauled in all three targets for 43 net yards.
But tight end Vernon Davis struggled to get things going. He had just one catch for only eight yards.
Things could not have been much worse for the 49ers offensive line after Week 9. After giving up eight sacks to the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco's O-line looked to face a blitz-happy Saints team in New Orleans.
Left tackle Joe Staley stated via NFL.com's Jeff Darlington that the 49ers O-line needed to play with more grit and physicality. This was displayed as San Francisco returned to a run-first approach on offense.
49ers spent this week trying to regain identity. Joe Staley said they needed more physicality & grit. You saw it with commit to ground game.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) November 9, 2014
The 49ers O-line is better suited for run blocking than it is for pass protection. This unit still gave up four sacks over the contest although, arguably, at least one-plus of those were on the shoulders of quarterback Colin Kaepernick for not recognizing and reacting to the pressure.
Rookie center Marcus Martin had a solid day in his second-ever NFL start. He allowed two sacks against the Rams a week ago, so it is nice to see him bounce back after such a lackluster performance. Head coach Jim Harbaugh was happy with his efforts per 49ers.com.
Harbaugh: "We did some really good things on offense today... I have to give Marcus Martin a lot of credit." #SFvsNO— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 9, 2014
Martin, and the rest of the O-line, certainly performed better than a week ago. This was to be expected if San Francisco was to return to its run-first identity—an approach that plays into this unit's strength.
We'll see if these guys up front can keep this up as the 49ers travel to take on the New York Giants in Week 11.
The 49ers lost defensive tackle Ian Williams to a leg injury. But they got stellar play out of veteran defensive end Justin Smith.
Smith finished the day with three tackles and three quarterback hits. His pass-rushing abilities put him in the face of Drew Brees seemingly all day long.
Second-year pro Quinton Dial spelled Williams at nose tackle and recorded two tackles and one sack during the process. While Dial did struggle with some run-stopping abilities up the middle, at least he showed some decent pass-rushing prowess.
If there is a negative, alongside Williams' injury, it was that the D-line allowed its first 100-plus yard rusher since Week 1. Mark Ingram was a big part of the Saints offense, gaining 120 yards on 27 carries. The run-stopping abilities of Williams were missed here.
But Ingram's rushing prowess was not enough to secure a Saints victory.
On a related note, second-year pro Tank Carradine was active for only the second game this season. He recorded one tackle over the course of the contest. He was scantly a part of San Francisco's defensive formations.
Tank Carradine in on defense as Saints cross midfield. Nearly sacks Brees— Cam Inman (@CamInman) November 9, 2014
Perhaps the 49ers will continue to flirt with Carradine on pass-rushing situations from this point forward. Hopefully the talented end can contribute in a major way in the second half.
Is it sacrilege to say the 49ers don't need Aldon Smith or Patrick Willis.
Of course it is. That statement is ridiculous.
But it sure is nice to have rookies Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland.
Borland is emerging as a tackling machine. A week after his 22-tackle performance against St. Louis, Borland notched another team-leading 17 tackles against the Saints. Clearly, he is always around the ball.
Lynch is a pass-rushing beast. While not notching a sack or a quarterback hit, Lynch continued to make his presence known on the field. He finished the contest with six tackles and one defended pass.
Oh, and his pressure helped Ahmad Brooks force the fumble that was recovered by Borland in overtime.
San Francisco does not win without the stellar play of this linebacker corps.
Aaron Lynch pressures Drew Brees...Chris Borland destroys pass catcher. Rookies stepping up for 49ers.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 9, 2014
Michael Wilhoite also had a nice, blue-collar effort as he continues to fill in for Bowman. Wilhoite posted six tackles, one pass defended and a quarterback hit during the effort.
It's hard to imagine just how effective the 49ers defense has been this season, especially now without the efforts of Bowman, Smith and Willis. But in the truest of senses, the next men up are filling the void amicably and admirably.
One could not have asked for much more than what is being viewed out of this particular unit.
There were plenty of up-and-down moments within San Francisco's secondary on Sunday.
On one hand, the 49ers' defensive backfield produced two of the three Saints' turnovers—interceptions by Antoine Bethea and Chris Culliver.
Bethea continues to enjoy a Pro Bowl-caliber season. He finished the day with the pick, eight tackles and one pass defended.
#49ers thus-far MVP, Antoine Bethea, intercepts Brees; 49ers take over at Saints' 19.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 9, 2014
Cornerback Perrish Cox notched six tackles, but also was primarily responsible for the 40-yard reception given up to rookie wideout Brandin Cooks. Cox overran the pass, allowing Cooks to haul in the catch, setting up a Saints score in the process.
But Cox's efforts will perhaps best be remembered for drawing a penalty that negated a would-be Hail Mary pass, intended for tight end Jimmy Graham, at the end of regulation. Did Cox flop? We'll let you be the judge, but it would be hard not to call anything but offensive pass interference when looking at the film in real time.
There were some mistakes out of the secondary. There were also some good plays. All in all, San Francisco's defensive backfield put forth a solid effort against a dangerous New Orleans offense. It's hard to ask for much more.
Phil Dawson proved to be the difference on a game-winning field goal in overtime.
The 35-yard try certainly looked iffy, as the ball sailed from left to right, but it went through. It's all that matters.
Dawson connected on both attempts during the game—the overtime game winner as well as the the game-tying try late in the fourth quarter.
Even Tim Wakefield thinks that Phil Dawson FG was ridiculous.— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) November 9, 2014
Punter Andy Lee wasn't quite as effective. Lee did notch a long of 57 yards, but his average of 44.7 yards on seven attempts is not quite in line with what most expect out of the perennial Pro Bowler.
Andy Lee hurt his right ankle in the Eagles game. He’s punting like it’s still bothering him.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) November 9, 2014
The 49ers lost return-man Bruce Ellington to an injury, to which they replaced him with a combination of Carlos Hyde and Perrish Cox.
Both were able to fair respectively well in their return games, although we should suspect that the 49ers return to Ellington when he is healthy.
If the win/loss record is all that matters, San Francisco's coaching staff has to receive a more-than-positive grade, right?
Well, in terms of getting this team back into its winning ways, San Francisco's coaches certainly did enough to warrant consideration for an above-average grade.
On the positive side of things, the 49ers were able to outcoach, and outplay, a Saints team that had yet to lose a game at home this season. That is no easy task.
Additionally, the 49ers returned to a run-first offensive approach. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde were featured parts of San Francisco's offense early and often. This is exactly where the 49ers' strengths reside, so credit the 49ers' coaches for recognizing and adjusting to this.
But we cannot be entirely supportive of what the coaching staff did in Week 10.
Continuing to plague the 49ers offense is their ability to put up touchdowns in the second half—specifically, the fourth quarter. While the game-tying field goal in the waning seconds of regulation was a game-saver, the lack of fourth-quarter touchdown production continues to be a concern.
#49ers starting O has not scored an offensive touchdown in the 4th quarter. They could sure use one here. (Gabbert has the lone TD)— Christian Gin (@Christian_Gin) November 9, 2014
San Francisco's first-team unit has still yet to score a fourth-quarter offensive touchdown this season.
There might be a lack of offensive adjustment in the second half. But we should at least credit offensive coordinator Greg Roman for giving his offense an ability to return to its strengths. At least that question mark is answered...to an extent.
Defensively, we cannot fault Vic Fangio for employing an effective defense in spite of a flurry of injuries and the Aldon Smith suspension.
Special Teams: B
Cumulative Grade: B
Was San Francisco's Week 10 win perfect?
No. It was far from the sort. But was it much needed? Absolutely. This victory stood at a critical turning point to the 49ers' 2014 season.
A 5-4 start to the season provides a much better opportunity to make it to the postseason compared to a 4-5 record—a factoid not lost by anyone watching FOX Sports' broadcast of the game on Sunday.
49ers & Saints both at 4-4. Under current playoff format (since 1990), 4-5 teams make playoffs 13% of time (51% for 5-4 teams) – ELIAS— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 9, 2014
Yes, there were some mistakes. Yes, San Francisco suffered some lapses on offense and defense.
But the 49ers ended up with the stat that mattered—more points when both head coaches shook hands in the middle of the field.
San Francisco will travel to New York to take on the Giants in Week 11. Hopefully this Week 10 victory provides the 49ers with some momentum, and a formula, to seek out yet another victory.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, insight and analysis.
Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.