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Okay, so maybe the preseason does mean nothing.
In the preseason, we saw a team with a ferocious running game but a soft, passive defense. True to Mike Singletary's vision, we saw a team that was "running at will." But quite contrary to that vision, we also saw defenders who were loose in coverage and slow on the rush.
Sure, the preseason didn't count. But c'mon, we weren't off base to believe those trends would continue. So naturally enough, in the first game that counted, the 49ers turned both of those trends upside-down.
Let's get one thing straight right now. The 49ers won. It might not have been pretty, but Singletary's postgame comments were exactly right. When you've lost as many games as we've lost recently, you don't complain about ugly wins. You take 'em however you can get 'em.
But now that we're looking ahead, it's natural to wonder.
What kind of team is this?!
Let's start with that defense, and let's give Greg Manusky some credit. His explanation for the preseason sleepwalk—that the guys were just playing vanilla—seemed like just a lame coaching excuse. But sure enough, when the alarm-clock rang, these guys got up and got after it. Three sacks, out of a base set. Eight hurries, half by Parys Haralson, who looks ready to break out for good. Two picks, one by Patrick Willis—who's ever more obviously the best in the business—and another by Nate Clements, who stuck to Larry Fitzgerald like glue. The Cardinals converted only 4 of 14 third downs, and Kurt Warner was rattled into a rating of 67.2. And most impressively, led by the indefatigable Justin Smith, the defense stood strong in the second half, despite watching the offense go three-and-out on five of its six possessions. (More on that later.)
My goodness. I mean seriously, wow. This defense, which had looked so flimsy, now looks very, very real.
Now about that running game....
Say what you want about Singletary, but the guy has plenty of confidence. When Jimmy Raye announced to the world (and, not insignificantly, to the Cardinals) that we'd be aiming to run it at 60 percent, he was delivering a message for his boss. Singletary wasn't being deceptive, setting up a bait-and-switch. He was just telling the truth. He really was so confident—arrogant? naive?—that he saw nothing wrong with showing off his plans. This is how tough we are, he was saying. We know we're gonna run, and now you know it too. Let's see if you can stop us.
Okay, the Cardinals said. We'll bite. They loaded up the box, and they blitzed straight into the running lanes. And stop us they certainly did. Frank Gore, Raye's precious "bell cow," had 22 carries for 30 yards. Overall, we had 25 carries for 21 yards, an average of 0.8. Worse, we had an astonishing 10 rushes that gained nothing or went the wrong way. Needless to say, the offensive line, at guard in particular, was completely overrun. And Singletary, you'd imagine, learned a little lesson in humility.
Sure, the line-play was simply deficient. Singletary was perfectly willing to acknowledge that much. What he didn't acknowledge was the blame of his own. If the Patriots' dynasty taught us anything, it's that the game's a lot easier when you know your opponents' plans. Not only did Singletary tip his hand, but Raye continued to play it, again and again, until it was nearly too late.
The good news was, when we needed to pass, we did, and did well. The winning drive won't make anyone forget Super Bowl XXIII, but it was a beauty, a Walshian oasis in a Hostlerian desert.
Fifteen plays. Thirteen passes. Nine completions. Four third-down conversions. Eighty yards. Seven minutes and 26 seconds. And finally, the winning touchdown.
Lost in all the teeth-gnashing about the running game is the fact that somehow Shaun Hill did it again. You just can't help but shake your head. He makes you wince, he makes you cringe, he makes you swear and throw things. And then, at the end, with no help from the run and even less from the line (paging Mr. Pashos, Mr. Tony Pashos), he walks off the field with a rating near 90 and a record of eight-and-three.
You wonder how long he can keep this up. And given that mystery, you don't blame Singletary for making him play second-fiddle. But Singletary must learn from this game. If he gets Hill involved more, and gets Hill involved earlier, Gore will have more room to run. The offense might not be as "tough," but it'll certainly be better.
And a better offense, of course, will help a better defense. Under any circumstances, this D was impressive. Under these circumstances—with an offense that ran itself into three-and-outs on 8 of 13 drives—the D was simply miraculous. Singletary can't demand that miracle every week. It's not realistic, and it's not fair.
We know what'll happen, 'cause we've been here before. Game one, 2007. Our offense produced a paltry 194 yards (only 9 fewer than we put up on Sunday), yet on the strength of the defense, somehow we pulled out a win. The opponent? The Cardinals. The score? 20 to 17.
Our hopes were raised, and were raised even more with a win the next week. And of course, we went on to lose 8 in a row and 10 of 11, largely because our offense was conservative, predictable, and the worst in the league by a hundred miles.
After game one this year, we find our hopes raised once again. Out of the blue, the defense looks ready. But whether this year's just a replay of 2007, or is truly the start of a glorious age, will depend on the offense. And the offense will depend on whether Singletary and Raye are willing to adjust the image they're working so hard to maintain. It'll depend on whether they learn, you don't win because you run.
You run because you win.