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Head Coach Mike Nolan has a mantra for his team: Run, run, run. Then, run some more. He has made no secret of the fact that he believes the key to success is a strong running game. Nolan's emphasis showed on the stat sheet as the 49ers put together the 4th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. Going against the 29th ranked rushing defense in New Orleans, it looked to be a simple game plan. Run, run, run. Then, run some more.
Instead, the 49ers decided they would pass, run, pass. Then punt.
Maybe the Monday conversation went like this between offensive coordinator Norv Turner and Nolan:
"You know, we could probably run for a ton against the Saints."
"Yeah, but they know we are going to try to run on them."
"Well, we know that they know that we are going to run on them. So what if we try to get our anemic passing game going against them? I mean, they are the 6th ranked passing defense in the NFL"
"But if they know that we know that they are the #6 defense in the NFL, then they know that we will run on them. Knowing that they know what we know, we should probably try to run against them. But if they know that we know what they know then we know we can pass against them."
"Let's do it."
Whatever the reason, the 49ers came out slinging against the Saints. Five of their first six drives, all three-and-outs, the 49ers passed twice and ran once. The 49ers had the ball 9 times during the game while they were still in it - down by 10 points or less. Of those 9 drives they threw more than they ran the ball on 8 of them. That's a surprising statistic, given the strengths of each team.
The one drive where they ran the ball more than they passed the 49ers gained 64 yards, ate up nearly 6 minutes of the game clock, and scored three points.
In all fairness I do have to point out that one of the pass-heavy drives resulted in a 48-yard touchdown. But this seemed to be the exception, not the rule.
From the looks of it, maybe the coaches were right - maybe the Saints were ripe for a death via air attack. There were at least two instances where Antonio Bryant was able to get behind defenders. And another couple of times where Battle was open. Second year quarterback Alex Smith just was not able to make the throws in order to capitalize.
Now don't start bouncing around like a kid on pixie sticks saying "I knew Smith was terrible!" This loss should not fall on Smith's shoulders. Smith is better than last year, that much is obvious. He is not at the point in his career where he can carry a team on his shoulders. He might be in the future, but right now he's a younger, faster, Trent Dilfer circa 2000 (with more hair).
Turner and Nolan, the architects of the game plan, need to rely on Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. Smith should eventually evolve into the passer fans want him to be. The simple fact is that while he is better than last season, he is not a premier passer in the NFL. Until Smith can take over a game by himself, the 49ers need to lean on the players that have proven they can carry the team. And they need to develop game plans accordingly.
-Should players wear turf shoes or regular cleats on the field turf? It looked like Bryant and Gore had trouble getting traction on the turf in New Orleans. One of Bryant's slip ups led directly to the interception that changed the game for the 49ers. If Bryant stays up he makes the catch and the 49ers get another first down in Saint's territory only down by four.
-After looking at the replays, the referees made a good call on the Mike McKenzie almost-fumble. Alex Smith touched him and it was an easy call from one of the angles they showed on TV.
-Alex Smith does not trust Vernon Davis. On one play it looked like Davis was the first read on the play. Smith looked his way and thought about throwing the ball, pulled down, and ended up throwing the ball away. I bet if it were Johnson Smith throws the ball.
-On Smith's second interception, the announcers made a point to show that Arnaz Battle was wide open on the other side of the field. Sure, Battle was man-to-man, but Fox started the replay after the ball was in the air. The defender than covered Battle moved over to try and make a play on Bryant. Battle was definitely not as open as the announcers thought he was.
-One bright spot: Punter Andy Lee. He averaged over 50 yards per punt (50.3). Some kicks he angled perfectly and did not allow Bush to return the kick. It was an inspired performance by a player who often flies under the radar.