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The San Francisco 49ers did something that was extra unordinary last Sunday. They defeated the St. Louis Rams again to complete a sweep this season (from Week One 28-25 and now just recently 24-20) while on the road inside the Edward Jones Dome.
How they did it was a very different story, as the secondary of this team was literally torn to shreds with injuries sustained in the first half to both back-up cornerbacks Derrick Johnson and Bruce Thornton. Veteran starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph have been out for the season since very early on this year. In came one-time practice squad player B.J. Tucker, himself playing with a dislocated finger, and seasoned Shawntae Spencer, who missed last week's contest with a tear in his right quadriceps but entered the stadium as an emergency player to begin with.
I have to tell you folks; I have never seen a secondary so vulnerable and so tender in both inexperience and youthfulness in my entire life as a 49er enthusiast. This secondary, with the likes of the two cornerbacks just mentioned and safeties Keith Lewis and Ben Emanuel, were able to secure a victory despite playing against the aerial onslaught of both Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt.
The St. Louis Rams quarterback Jamie Martin completed 33-of-41 passes for 354 yards and one touchdown, but he was intercepted twice (once by Shawntae Spencer and again by Ben Emanuel.
Cornerback Derrick Johnson suffered a neck stinger that knocked him out of the game earlier on and Bruce Thornton left the field, on a cart no less, after suffering a knee sprain early in the second quarter. When this happened, all anyone could imagine was that this was the beginning of the end for us with the receiving weapons at Jamie Martin's disposal readily available.
In fact the San Francisco 49ers were so ultra thin at defensive back that they were forced to use linebacker Julian Peterson on several occasions as the extra defensive back in the backfield.
"Julian Peterson had to play defensive back on the third downs a lot," said Nolan. "He did an outstanding job. He was out there on the slot receivers, which is the go-to-guy receiver in most offenses, but the team really has four of them. That's what had to happen. We didn't have anymore-defensive backs. If he had gone down, we would have to go back to base defense and would have to make the best of it. That's quite a deal. I'm very pleased with the guys for pulling through because those injuries happened early on."
I have to tell you folks, I came away impressed and with a new found scenery of what our secondary has transformed into under intense and very adverse situations. The youth and inexperience suddenly developed into something veteran-like and performed very well even while all of them were nursing their very own injuries.
In this wounded contingent, Mike Adams, Keith Lewis and B.J. Tucker were able to convincingly last throughout this game despite suffering even more injuries. Adams had just returned from a knee sprain and ankle sprain, and Lewis suffered a quad contusion as well, which in all aspects would've hampered their abilities severely, but not enough to turn the tide.
In fact, the comeback drive that St. Louis quarterback Jamie Martin had orchestrated late in the fourth quarter with 3:57 left in the game (down 24-20), found them staring into 49er territory from our 31-yard line, but when Martin dropped back to deliver a pass to Kevin Curtis it was suddenly intercepted out of the shotgun by then 49er safety Ben Emanuel to seal the game as a 49er victory.
At a time when so many 49er fans were shaking their collective heads and admitting they wouldn't care if we lost or we won because of the draft status situation, all of that melted away with what I witnessed on the field this past Sunday: a team determined to erase the past and begin anew. A team managed and coached to excel under very adverse conditions and that believes in itself even when the bleakest of scenarios rear their ugly heads.
Even San Francisco 49er rookie quarterback Alex Smith played well. He still hasn't thrown an offensive touchdown, but he played the game well and ultimately saved the team from defeat by not making the ordinary errors we have been accustomed to seeing from him. Smith looked more comfortable and he made better decisions with the football then he had in all his previous games by not throwing an interception and limiting his fumbles to just one (which he did recover).
"It was nice to see," Smith said. "We had some high-percentage passes. I was completing balls. We had a high-percentage passing game. It's pretty easy to throw the ball when we we're running the ball like that."
He completed 12-of-16 passes for just 131 yards. He ended the day with a 98.7 passer rating which was in fact three times the average rating (26.6) he had from his previous five starts.
His key completions were something to marvel at though, and make you wonder if we will see more in the future. He made a 21-yard pass to tight end Terry Jones that helped set up the first of two touchdown runs by Frank Gore, and a 22-yarder to Jason McAddley that preceded a monstrous 56-yard field goal by 49er kicker extraordinaire Joe Nedney.
I have to come clean with what I have been thinking, as most of you have thought the same. I was becoming increasingly doubtful that we had made the right decision in choosing Alex Smith last year with the first overall pick, based upon his pathetic performances on the field over the past five games in which the ball was seemingly an enemy to him.
Holding on to the ball was a chore for him to complete. Making over the head throws way out of the reach of all of our receivers and never throwing the ball away when it counted most to do so. It had me cursing and swearing up a storm on more than just one occasion.
If in fact this game is the start of his development bearing fruit over all of this time, then I say congratulations Alex. You are well on your way to making the right transition to becoming a smarter quarterback and a productive quarterback.
"The biggest thing in quarterbacking is the decision-making," Smith said. "That's the thing I really look to improve on. Just to really grasp this offense and get the passing game going, to really help this running game out. That's something I really look forward to doing in the off-season."
And speaking of a running game, Boy did we have one! It was absolutely incredible to witness as a young and inexperienced offensive line suddenly gelled together and made a statement this past Sunday by allowing Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks to run for a combined season-high 217 yards rushing. With an offensive line that has been ridiculed and mocked from day one on its inability to execute and sustain blocks, it suddenly materialized this past Sunday.
Pass protection was another different story, though. Alex Smith was sacked five times for a loss of 27 yards. This is way too many for any quarterback to sustain, period. I have to tell you that every offensive lineman on our team must find a way to sustain blocks longer and recognize and fight off a pass rush more effectively. Alex Smith will not last as a quarterback if he is fed to the wolves every single Sunday. He cannot take the beating he has this year into next year, something has to be learned from this and alterations must happen. The re-entry of Jeremy Newberry could be the answer, and more playing time collectively as an offensive unit will measure marked improvement.
The first play of the game was a screamer if I ever saw one, as Maurice Hicks brushed off an attempted arm tackle and outran the St. Louis defense for a 73-yard touchdown run. He finished the day with 109 yards on 10 carries. This is enough, in my eyes, to sign this guy to a long-term contract as soon as possible.
"I give credit to the guys up front, the offensive line, the receivers, the tight ends," Hicks said. "They did a great job of blocking and gave me an easy read. I did what I had to do. I made a move on the safety and I was free. I don't think anyone touched me."
Frank Gore also sealed his case in my eyes, as being the future of this franchise. He is a running back that fights with a great tenacity. He will not quit and he carries tacklers with him on almost every carry he has with the ball. I have a new respect for this incredible athlete that has beaten so many odds to make it here in the NFL.
Is there really a need to look at Reggie Bush, as all the talk has been directed in regards to the 49ers on draft weekend? I would say not at this moment. With Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks sharing the workload, I believe it could be the start of something special as was the combined sharing of Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow not that long ago.
Kevan Barlow has struggled to make a name for himself, despite a long-term contract. He has struggled to even stay healthy and has raised new questions in my mind as to his ability to stay healthy and produce a rushing attack that has been non-existent for way too long as it is.
Frank Gore had 68 yards on 10 carries, including touchdown runs of 10 and 30 yards on the same play-call in which pulling guard Justin Smiley led the interference through the line of scrimmage.
"It's a 96-power," Gore said of the play. "I kind of held on to the back of his jersey and I hit it on through."
"Our offensive line is coming together," Gore added. "They're young but they fought their behinds off today."
This concludes my theory on winning football games. In order for us to be successful it will be the offensive line that gets us there. This young unit has to come together collectively in order for any kind of success to happen. It will determine the future of this team hands down.
Every player has to buy into the concept that protecting Alex Smith is pivotal to sustaining drives and being able to pull and block effectively, and open running lanes will be crucial to winning the time of possession battle.
The road is still full of potholes, as this team needs weapons and playmakers for Alex Smith to be successful. We must surround him with that type of personnel in this year's draft and through free agency. Giving him these chances will allow him the wish he has to become a star.