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So are we good? Or not?
It’s funny how anticlimactic the Saints win feels. After all, this is the 49ers’ first win over a winning team since 1999 – and that win was over a Tennessee Titans team struggling to find itself early in the season. Without Steve McNair.
Our joy seems toned down, but it doesn’t seem like it should be. Jeff Garcia again proved that 2000 was no fluke, and it now seems certain that he is the worthy heir to Montana and Young. Garrison Hearst’s return from his terrible ankle injury is now complete, thanks to a relentless 145-yard effort, including 97 in the fourth quarter. Kevan Barlow made a huge play on his touchdown catch that showcased the athleticism we can expect from him in the future. Terrell Owens was finally utilized the way the 49ers passing attack should be: to build a lead and momentum. His two touchdowns spearheaded a 21-11 lead that allowed the 49ers to turn to the running game with more confidence in the second half.
But yet there is still some feeling of inadequacy.
Perhaps the reason is that it never seemed that we were going to win it until it was over. The general consensus among 49er fans was summed up by a gentleman sitting next to me at the Buffalo Wild Wings bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. A 49ers fan himself, he stared at the TV for a few moments before looking at me and saying, “Did we just win that game? I can’t believe we won.”
The bitter comments from Saints’ wideout Joe Horn after the game were almost understandable. The Saints' tough defense was shredded by Hearst and Garcia. They’ve lost two tough games they feel they should have won, reducing them to a 4-4 record. They are two games behind San Francisco. They also know that there is a good chance that there will not be a meaningful rematch. Due to the September 11 tragedy, their original meeting was postponed until the last game of the season. There is a good chance that both teams’ fates will be sealed by then. Even Jim Haslett, one of the great coaches in the game right now, seemed dazed.
“The most disappointing thing was that we couldn't get off the field on the last drive,” Haslett said after the game. “I thought the offense would have had at least one more shot.”
Haslett’s frustration – and our muted celebrations – can both be blamed on the same culprit: the 49ers very beatable defense. The Saints struggling offense carved the 49ers up for 488 yards of offense. Aaron Brooks, with a 51 percent completion percentage coming into the game, threw for 347 yards.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the 49ers need to address their pass rush in the off-season, either through free agency (remember that?) or the draft. Brooks had little or no pressure on him the whole day. As erratic as he can be, Brooks will make the throws he needs to if given all day to set himself and throw. The 49ers’ only sack came when Brooks ran right into Andre Carter’s path – Saints All-Pro tackle Willy Roaf had steered Carter 10 yards behind the pocket on the play, but that happened to be exactly where Brooks was.
The difference a good pass rush can make on a passer like Brooks was perfectly illustrated by the New York Jets the week before. That game, Brooks completed only 12 of 28 passes for 164 yards, with two interceptions and a fumble. With Brooks not converting with the passing game, New York focused on Ricky Williams and held him to 58 yards.
How could this be? Didn’t we clobber these same Jets with 233 yards rushing earlier this year? Didn’t Garcia complete 16 of his 20 passes when we did throw? Are the Jets defensive backs better than ours? I don’t think so. Are the Jets linebackers that much better than ours? Maybe, but not by much. The difference is that the Jets defense was very physical with Brooks and, most importantly, the Jets’ front four applied constant pressure on him, tallying six sacks. The Jets have a true pass-rushing end in John Abraham, and he hounded Brooks all day and dropped him three times for sacks.
When a defense hits, harasses, and sacks a quarterback like Brooks often enough, he puts up the kind of numbers we saw vs. New York. When a defense applies no pressure and gives a quarterback like Brooks all day to throw, we see the kind of numbers we saw vs. San Francisco on Sunday.
If the 49ers are to make noise in the playoffs this year, the offense will have to carry them. With their explosive ability and balance (255 rushes, 264 passes) they will be hard to stop.
Unfortunately, the same could be said for opposing quarterbacks.