On the first opening Sunday of Mike Singletary's tenure as Head Coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he was faced with a daunting task: beat the defending NFC Champs in their own backyard.
With all of the questions that have followed the team out of the preseason, from offensive continuity to the ability to bring pressure on opposing passers, many local and national media pundits saw this game going badly for the 49ers, their new head coach, and their well traveled yet underused starting quarterback. Who could disagree? The first team offense had done little to inspire confidence in the preseason, and the defense looked less than stellar in the preseason finale in San Diego. Kinda funny how things turned out, isn't it?
After 60 minutes of sometimes exciting, sometimes gut-wrenching football, the 49ers managed to contain the Arizona's always dangerous receiving tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, to perpetually harry Kurt Warner, and to hang on to a tenuous lead in the 4th quarter...accomplishments the team was unable to manage a mere 12 months ago. Though the offense delivered when it had to, it is apparent that new Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye has his work cut out for him. The team committed to the run early, and never abandoned it...no matter how ineffective it was. Though the Niners won the game, both the good and the bad were on display in the desert last Sunday afternoon.
That stated, let's get into what we learned from Sunday's contest:
A pass rush? In San Francisco?
That's right, everyone...you saw the 49ers getting after the quarterback on Sunday...and doing a heck of a job at it. While everyone on the line contributed (Kentwan Balmer, Isaac Sopoaga and Aubrayo Frankin did a great job eating up blocks), the players that seemed to jump off the screen were Parys Haralson, Justin Smith, and Manny Lawson.
Haralson played like a man possessed for the bulk of the first half, and as a result, Levi Brown could scarcely get a hand on him. On the day, Haralson recorded his first sack of the season, three tackles, and at least 4 pressures. The 49ers expected big things from #98 this year (as was evidenced by the team's decision to skip drafting a pass rusher in this year's draft), and if week 1 is any indication of what he will be doing for the rest of the season, he could be the best edge rusher the 49ers have had in over a decade.
Justin Smith spent most of his afternoon in the Arizona backfield, and made what I consider to be the play of the game when he sacked Kurt Warner and forced a fumble to kill the Cardinals' final drive. The stats he amassed last season point to him being one of the most dominant 3-4 linemen in the league. With a simpler scheme and the ability to focus on one position (he played at every position in the front 7 in Mike Nolan's nausea inducing "flex" scheme), he could be one of the most productive linemen in the league. Without a doubt, his ability to draw double teams creates huge mismatches up front, and should create opportunities for the OLBs in the 49ers' 1-gap, 3-4 base defense to generate steady pressure on opposing passers. Look for upcoming opponents to roll protection his way over the next few weeks.
Manny Lawson took a few very big steps Sunday afternoon. Though he was occasionally swallowed up by his man, Manny was pretty productive off the edge, providing consistent pressure and forcing Kurt Warner into throwing his second interception of the game, a high wobbler that was snagged by Nate Clements. While "Manlaw" has a way to go before he realizes his potential, it is far easier to envision him as a threat off the edge today than it was before Sunday's contest.
Nate Clements is just fine...and so is the rest of the secondary
As he usually does when matched up against Larry Fitzgerald, Nate Clements brought his "A" game to Arizona on Sunday, as did the rest of the secondary. Both Clements and newly appointed starting CB Shawntae Spencer did an excellent job of getting their hands on receivers, disrupting routes at the line of scrimmage, and the results were impressive: Arizona's potent duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were nearly invisible in the first half, and finished the game with a combined 8 catches for 90 yards and 1 TD.
Safety play was improved, too. The reason why the 49ers' corners were able to play so aggressively had a lot to do with the play of the safeties. For the most part, the safeties played the deep ball in a soft zone, leaving underneath coverage responsibility to the linebackers. This forced Kurt Warner into throwing to his check-down reads more often than usual, and kept the Arizona air attack effectively contained.
Frank Gore is tough...and his run blockers need practice
No one who knows 49er football would ever dare to question Frank Gore's toughness...but after Sunday afternoon, everyone who knows 49er football has been questioning the toughness of his blockers. After about a quarter, it became obvious that David Baas and Adam Snyder were less than ready for what the Cardinals were doing versus the run.
Both Snyder and Baas were consistently beaten off the ball Sunday afternoon, and the results were painfully evident: the Niners gained an anemic 21 yards in 25 carries. Both missed huge chunks of time in training camp...and both will need to elevate their respective play in coming weeks if Coach Singletary's "run baby, run" offense is going to have any kind of real success. While Shaun Hill deserves some credit for stepping up to lead the team on the game winning 15 play, 80 yard 4th quarter drive, it is imperative for the offense to move the chains more frequently. The team has already announced that newly acquired free agent Tackle Tony Pashos will get some reps with the first team this week. After Sunday's performance, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tony Wragge steal some playing time from Baas.
Looking ahead...or looming ahead?
The 49ers made a bold statement by beating the defending NFC Champions at home on opening day. Their plan was evident, and the team managed to play relatively mistake free football...but make no mistake: the difference last Sunday was defense. The team's commitment to a 1-gap scheme last season resulted in a late season surge that vaulted the team from a defensive ranking in the low 20's to 13th overall. While I have thought for some time that the 49ers defense was going to be great this season (see my article entitled "Getting Defensive", posted in July Getting Defensive ), the running game has been less effective than even the most casual observer could expect. Was last Sunday's offensive output just a minor hiccup? Will the team ask Shaun Hill to do more in coming weeks? Only time will tell. Whatever offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has up his sleeve, he'd better implement it quickly: the Niners face a tough Seattle team at home next week, and then go on the road to take on the Minnesota Vikings and their vaunted "Williams Wall" in week 3. Both games will be tough...but both will be fun to watch and both should be winnable with a solid rushing attack.