Immediately, something was wrong.
At last, we'd made it. For the first instant since, well, Super Bowl XXIX, the Niners were known throughout the land as the greatest team in the NFL. It was early, of course; no one wins the title in September. But my word, did it feel good. After nearly two decades of mostly disaster, the Niners had finally reclaimed the throne.
The best. Unofficially, but still the best.
Yet warning signs were up ahead. The Packers and Patriots, the "best" of both weeks one and two, had promptly crashed back down to earth. Plus, after two wins that seemed like Armageddon, we were going on the road for a 10 a.m. start against a clearly inferior Vikings team. No doubt: the warnings were there, and they were screaming trap.
But no. No, dammit. We'd reached this pinnacle, and I wasn't ready to give it up, not after one insignificant week. And if we saw the signs, certainly Jim Harbaugh saw them too. He wouldn't let us lay an egg. Of course he'd inject the required intensity; of course we'd get the required fuel. We weren't the Packers or Patriots. We were for real, and we knew it. And when you're for real, no trap can hold you. You smirk at the trap, and you simply crush it under your heel.
Yet immediately, something was wrong.
After four straight games against the big-play Os of the Saints, Giants, Packers, and Lions, our D was totally unprepared for Christian Ponder's nickels and dimes. On play after play, he nimbly evaded our modest pressure, staying alive just long enough to complete a 5- to 10-yard pass. The result was something akin to a Chinese water torture: the Vikes just dripped their way down the field, driving us completely insane. Nevertheless, it seemed we'd escape; after 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes, we'd forced a fourth-and-goal at the one. But the Vikings went for it, and Ponder evaded one more rush, finding an open man for the score.
It was then that we knew: this wouldn't be easy.
Now trailing for the first time all year, it was up to the O to pick up the D. We'd discussed this very prospect, and right away, here it was. Unfortunately, the O was dealing with issues of its own. After an exchange of punts, Alex Smith fired up his own short-passing game, moving steadily into the red zone. On second-and-eight, Randy Moss got open for an easy score, the kind that might've shaken us up. But Smith saw the pressure coming, and he bailed out half-a-second too soon, putting the pass out of Moss's reach. After an all-too-predictable seven-yard gain on third-and-eight, Harbaugh elected to play it safe and kick a highly deflating field-goal.
Ponder answered with another torturous 80-yard slog, and as it turned out, the Vikings had won.
As disappointing as our showing was, naturally there's no need to panic. Good teams, and even great teams, are gonna lay an egg or two; you can even lose a game 40-to-8 and go on to bigger and better things. But that doesn't mean that there's nothing to learn. And in this case, what there is to learn is pretty disturbing.
Our D's initial surprise—at the Vikings' game-plan in general, and at Ponder's athletic skill in particular—was understandable. What was less understandable was our lack of adjustment. In the third quarter, after our offense briefly awoke and cut the Vikings' lead to four, a defensive stop might've propelled us to victory. Instead, Ponder just went back to work, leading a 90-yard drive that consumed 12 plays, 7 minutes, and most of the Niners' remaining fight.
During the NFC title game, Vic Fangio wisely decided that the best way to suppress the Giants was to beat Eli Manning to a bloody pulp. On Sunday, though, he couldn't summon a way to get there; Ponder threw the ball 35 times yet amazingly was hit only twice. Ponder, of course, had a lot to do with that. Nevertheless, three games in, neither of our defensive Smiths is wreaking anything close to last year's havoc. It's way too soon to worry here, but if time is catching up with Justin—and if Aldon's linebacking duties are distracting him from terrorizing quarterbacks—this D just might, dare I say, regress.
As we've also discussed, that would be fine, as long as the O could make up the difference. But on Sunday, the O's performance was flatly disgusting.
You know my views on this subject. Until it's time to run out the clock—and sometimes even after that—an O should keep the pedal down. I'll admit it, though; when you've got a great D, you can make a strong case: your opponent's best chance is to exploit your mistakes, and if you play it safe, you won't make any.
But all of this presumes you're ahead. If you're behind—which, to be fair, we rarely are—your first priority must be to fix that, and to fix it fast. If you mess around on O, and especially if your D is struggling, it won't be too long before it's too late.
In this game, aside from that isolated third-quarter burst, we never played like we were behind. Oh, sure, we were pass-first, but we didn't have any rhythm shallow or any aggression in going deep. We settled for field goals on fourth-and-one and fourth-and-two, most notably after a dreadful series that started out at the Vikes' 14. Play after play was scuttled by pressure; unlike Ponder, who used his feet and made us pay, Alex Smith seemed to mostly give up. We sleepwalked through much of the fourth quarter, without any evident sense of urgency. And when the urgency finally hit, with only a few minutes left in the game, Smith completely came apart.
A passive, stagnant O, to go with a passive, stagnant D. A virtually total, team-wide malaise. If it weren't for Harbaugh's ubiquitous sweatshirt, you'd have sworn the year was 2009.
And that's the most disturbing thing. It's not that we lost; it's not even that we lost to an inferior opponent. It's that we lost looking like that again, a team we thought was gone for good. A team we thought Harbaugh would never allow.
Unprepared. Unadjusted. Uninspired.
And now, no longer undefeated.
We Left Our Hearts in San Francisco
By Jeff Kaplan
By: Darrell GDate: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 04:41:51Comment: Better to have the wake-up call now. While it's early, against a non-division opponent. Freddie-P-Soft made his appearance and I have faith Harbaugh and co. will remove him from the locker room. On a different note, I saw several moments that could have changed that game. The two high passes to Moss early, the 15-yard penalty on Goldson that basically gift-wrapped a TD for Minnesota. The dropped pick-6 by Whitner. A stark reminder of what happens when they don't execute and capitalize on the moments, something they excelled at last year. Again, better to have the wake-up call come early.
By: 49ERF0EVRDate: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 02:51:52Comment: EVEN THO YA CAN'T MAKE EXCUSES, WE WERE BEAT A LITTLE BY THE DREADFUL REFS, BUT MORE SO, THE 9ERS LOST THAT FIRE OF EXPLOSION AND FLASH OF FOCUS. WITHOUT THE OVERRIDING DESIRE TO WIN, YA DON'T. FLAT AND VANILLA COMES TO MIND, HOW COULD HARBAUGH MISS THAT REQUISITE FOR VICTORY, HE SHOULD OF CALLED TIME OUT AT THE FIRST SIGN OF COMPLACENCY, AS EVIDENCED BY THE POOR PLAYING, HE WAS LACKING OF THAT "FIRE" HIMSELF. WE CAN ONLY HOPE THAT HE SEES THAT WHICH WAS MISSING, AND WHEN THEY PLAY THE JETS, THE REAL 49ERS "WILL STAND UP". GO 9ERS, CLIP THEIR WINGS.
By: JeremyDate: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 19:42:51Comment: You know who we needed back for this game? Mike Singletary. There was a good old-fashioned nutcracker who knew how to motivate. He never would have let us come out this flat and uninspired. What better way to motivate men to heights of greatness than to show them two big jiggling butt cheeks and a hairy ass crack?
By: MauiDDate: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 12:37:14Comment: Football teams are fueled by emotion and reinforced by momentum. The Niners had neither on Sunday. Starting the season with 2 huge games, against the pre-season #1 GB and then the grudge match with the Lions, both emotionally charged games, we got off to good starts and held the momentum until the end. When I looked at the schedule I thought the Minny game was in the bag, for sure a W. Looks like FP Soft got into the Niners' psyche, emotions were flat and so was their play. Give it to the Vikes, they were up for us and just outplayed us. Gotta bring it every Sunday so hopefully this is a good learning moment for the coaches and players.
By: AJ DembroskiDate: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 at 11:19:46Comment: I'm REALLY worried about the lack of production from the Smith brothers. Probably more than anything. Though the tendency of the coaching staff to put everything on Alex's shoulders whenever they're down is a bit disconcerting as well.
By: ShaneDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 20:44:27Comment: well put Jeff! I certainly dont think its time to panic, as they say "any given sunday." There is a reason only one team has gone a whole season without getting beat, its no easy task. but as you said its how we lost. To your point, no urgency. There was a 3rd and long, down 2 scores in the 4th QTR and we ran the ball. WTF. Alex was missing easy passes, the offense was choppy, the D slow. Minn was the aggressors. This game displayed things about Smith that as we spoke of before are exactly why he isnt elite or frankly in that second group of 4-8/9.... we already knew this. what i want to see is how do we react? If we come out and beat up on the jets (i will be there!!!) this will just be a wake-up call every team needs and it will be business as usual. remember boys, even at say 12-4 youre going to lose 4 times. and effort like that is how we will lose games, otherwise we will win.
By: mikesfDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 20:30:03Comment: I am in total agreement with you. My main concern with the 49ers is that they continue to have problems with the red zone. Last year, Akers set the record for field goals. Too many times the 49ers have settled for this and not gone for the touchdowns. They are doing it again this year. The Vikings went for a touchdown on fourth down and prevailed. We were in the red zone and settled for field goals (one was blocked). Our coaches are gutless! Imagine how much of a lead the 49ers would have if they could solve the red zone and third down rate. In failing to solve these issues we have made the opponents stay in the game longer than they should be. In addition, this year, the defense has been playing soft and letting the other teams gain on them. These problems need to be solved or they are not going to get to the Super Bowl. Having said this, I did not expect the 49ers to go undefeated. I did expect them to lose a few games but not to the Vikings. Everyone was unprepared for this game and the coaches did not adjust for the second half. When are we going to see those long passes instead of those short unproductive passes?
By: DanDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 20:18:32Comment: You cannot just blame this one on Alex Smith not being able to put the entire team on his shoulders and win the game. The whole team laid an ostrich egg!! As you said, this team is a bruiser built to play with a lead and beat other teams down. They need to rotate the D-line and keep the Smiths fresh for 3rd down. They have capable run-stoppers in McDonald, Jean-Francois, and others. Third down is Aldon's down! The true test will be this week to see how they respond! If they lay another egg I'd hate to see the media storm next Monday. Who knows with these referees? It could handicap every team at least one game this year. The Niners have not had their dose yet.
By: Big MikeDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 18:36:44Comment: Agree 100%, Terry B. Alex sucks, and there are no excuses for this shoddy performance.
By: Terry B.Date: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 18:32:26Comment: Well said, Jeff. I usually think it's pretty girlish to start talking about "trap games" after a loss. It's a failure to admit that you got beat, and it's disrespectful to the team you couldn't handle. Let's face it: the Vikings beat us up and they took our lunch money, to use the expression that AJ cribbed from PFT. But I see that you aren't using it as an excuse, you are saying that, if Harbaugh thought this was a trap game, then it was his job to prepare his team and ensure that the trap didn't happen. And here we go again with Alex. When will people learn?
By: 49erRbckDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 17:31:46Comment: The 9ers knew that the Vikes would concentrate heavily on stopping the run so they went pass-oriented. The game plan was good if the connections had been made to Moss several times. Also there is no fear of the ball going downfield more than 20 yards. Safeties and linebackers stay within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage with everything on the outside and down the field 1 on 1. No fear of an explosive passing game at all.
By: SteveDate: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 at 16:53:53Comment: Jeff, Once again, you and I are on the same page. I gotta start beating you to the punch with some of these articles! The key is in your conclusion--it wasn't that we lost, it was that we lost looking like the 49ers team from (insert any year from 2004-2010). That's what alarmed me. They've never had a loss like this under Harbaugh. The only time I've seen them play like that under Harbaugh was during this year's preseason game against Denver, which had me nervous until it was admitted that they didn't gameplan for that contest whatsoever. The pass rush has been quieter, but I'd say the improved play in the secondary almost neutralizes this (keyword: almost). That said, at the end of the day it was just a bad loss, during an early start, in a tough place to play, against an underrated team. The Niners never forced the Vikings to play their kind of football. It was a game where if one or two things changed, they'd have pulled it out--Whitner's dropped INT, Williams falling just short of the endzone on the return, Gore's fumble etc. That was the old Niners M.O. This should fuel their trip to MetLife against the Jets (or at least hopefully it will, considering I'll be in attendance).