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Fifty-nine minutes and fifty eight seconds of really solid football was washed away with one throw last Sunday...and across the Bay Area, a collective groan rose from the 49er faithful as officials came back from the mandatory booth review and signaled "touchdown". Brett Favre, Niner-nemesis supreme, had done it again. Ugh. If you've been a Niner fan long enough, you've lived to feel the sting of a loss to a team lead by the indecisive wonder.
Now that the sting has subsided, it is time to ask: What can be taken from Sunday's loss? Do we know anything about this team that we didn't know before kickoff? As I see it, there are five things that really jumped off of the screen Sunday afternoon:
1) Shaun Hill can get it done in the clutch: Pundits will say he has a weak arm. Draft day "experts" will say that there's a reason he went undrafted. Some will say that he has no pocket awareness. Still others will say that he is a career backup. And I will say that they are either blind, or retarded. On Sunday, Hill was 5 of 8 on third down for the game, 8 of 9 in the fourth quarter, and twice stung the Minnesota defense for touchdown passes to Vernon Davis. Sure, it has only been three games...but all Hill has done over the course of those games is put his team in a position to win. Hill may not be the prototypical NFL quarterback, but the guy finds ways to get it done when he has to...and regardless of where he was drafted or how far he can throw the ball, that's what counts.
2) The 49er defensive line is good...really good: On Sunday, the Vikings were held to under 100 yards rushing...and Adrian "all day" Peterson was contained...all day. Peterson finished the game with a quiet 85 yards on the ground, and was never a threat to score. Who stuffed him? Primary thanks must to go to the man in the middle, Mr. Aubrayo Franklin. While he may not have been in on every tackle, his speed off of the snap effectively stole from the Vikings any chance of gaining ground up the gut, and allowed Patrick Willis, Manny Lawson, Takeo Spikes and Parys Haralson to close with whoever was running the ball. While the defense only recorded 2 sacks, they were in the backfield all day, and repeatedly hit and hurried the Vikings geriatric QB, Brett Favre. Ray McDonald made highlight reels nationwide with his block of a 2nd quarter FG attempt, and Justin Smith's persistently effective rushing forced the Vikings to slide protection his way whenever he was on the field. Pressure is what it's all about on the D-line, and the group the 49ers have put together is capable of generating it.
3) Surprise! Vernon Davis is a difference maker: For years, 49er fans have talked about it, and last Sunday they finally saw it...Vernon Davis stepped up when the chips were down and really stuck it to the Vikings' secondary. The company line on Vernon has been "million dollar body, ten cent head"...but that all changed on Sunday. Vernon showed up in the clutch, running crisp routes, making touch catches, flattening opposing defenders, and finding the end zone twice. More surprising than his production, however, was his business like approach to the game. If Vernon has finally grown into the man that Coach Singletary wants him to be, look for him to become a real weapon for the 49ers as the season progresses.
4) The 49ers can pass block. No, seriously: Though it wasn't apparent on the 49ers' first play from scrimmage on Sunday afternoon (Jared Allen recorded a sack and forced a fumble), the 49ers offensive line has come a very long way as it pertains to pass protection. Last Sunday, the 49ers played their second road game of the season, and gave up only one sack to a VERY dangerous Minnesota pass rush. Pro Bowlers Williams, Williams and Allen were limited to one sack on the day. When one considers that starters Joe Staley and David Baas were unavailable for large stretches of the second quarter, that says a lot about how far this unit has come from its season opening performance in Arizona. Provided that this unit can stay healthy, and newly signed veteran Tackle Tony Pashos continues to improve, the offensive line could be much less of a weakness than many anticipated coming into the 2009 season.
5) If a team can't convert on 3rd down, that team will not win: Regardless of how well a team performs on 1st, 2nd and 4th downs, if that team cannot convert on 3rd down, it will lose games. Going 0-11 on third down conversions Sunday had a lot to do with the 49ers coming home with a loss. If the 49ers plan on being in a position to win the tough road games left on their schedule (vs. the Colts, Packers, and Eagles), they MUST convert 3rd downs. Many will scream that this means throwing on 3rd down...and the many would be right. Right or wrong, however, the 49ers must find a way to execute effectively on 3rd down, whether they are running or throwing the ball. The fact of the matter is that this 49er team has been built to play "Gimme your lunch money" football...and there will be instances where they will need to pound the rock on 3rd down. Over the course of the next few weeks, look for the 49ers to make better use of its opportunities on 3rd down, by using misdirection and play action to freeze opposing defenders.
This Sunday, the Niners will face the 0-3 St Louis Rams...a perfect opportunity to get back on track. However, since the 49ers will be without the services of Frank Gore, the 49ers will lean heavily on rookie runner Glenn Coffee and their defense. Even though the Niners should be able to roll right over the Rams, no NFL game is a sure thing. As I see it, the key matchups in this Sunday's game are as follows:
1) Glenn Coffee vs. the Rams' run defense: The Rams' run D has given up an average of 148 yards per game thus far...so the 49ers have a golden opportunity to get rookie runner Coffee's confidence up after last Sunday's rough and tumble matchup with the Vikings. It doesn't matter whether your opponent is undefeated or winless...if you can't control the clock, odds are that you will lose they game...unless you are an alien from planet Krypton, or Peyton Manning. Look for the Niners to take advantage of a relatively weak St. Louis run defense early and often in an attempt to get them tired heading into the 4th quarter of Sunday's game. Any way one looks at it, this will be a great chance for Coffee to show the 49ers that they made the right choice by selecting him in the 3rd round of April's draft.
2) Vernon Davis vs. the Rams' secondary: Nothing says "playmaker" like two lights out performances in consecutive games. The Rams are especially vulnerable to a guy like Davis...provided that he plays the way he did last week. This game will go a long way toward showing whether or not Vernon has developed in to an offensive difference maker as well as an "all-universe" run blocker. Don't be surprised of Vernon is targeted frequently during Sunday's contest.
3) Steven Jackson vs. the 49ers front 7: The Niners' front 7 made a huge statement last Sunday by putting the beat down on Adrian Peterson. They will have to be just as stingy with the Rams' punishing runner, Steven Jackson. Jackson is, without a doubt, the best player on the St. Louis roster...and with QB Marc Bulger likely out for the game, look for the Rams to feed him the rock early and often. If the Niners can shut down the run, the Rams' attack will be put in the hands of Kyle Boller...which is exactly the kind of matchup the defense should be looking for.
4) 49ers pass rush vs. the Rams' O-line: If this game ends up going as it should, with the Rams playing from behind, the 49er pass rush will have to put pressure on Kyle Boller (or, in the event of a miracle, Marc Bulger) to put the game away. Look for the Niners to continue its dominating play up front, with multiple hits, pressures and sacks against a shaky Rams offensive line.
If the 49ers can manage to build an early lead, this game should be over early. Even though they should win this game, it would be nice to see the 49ers show a little more killer instinct late in the game. Look for the Niners to focus on increasing their success on 3rd down, and to play 60 minutes of lights out, smash mouth football. The first step in becoming a legitimate power in the NFL is beating the teams you should.and make no mistake...this is a game the the 49ers should win. A big win this week would be a huge confidence builder going into next week's contest against a very good Atlanta Falcons team. For this game to represent a step forward, the Niners will need to dominate it from start to finish, leaving no doubt as to the outcome. My thoughts on the final score: the 49ers win in a walk over a determined but fundamentally flawed opponent, 24-10.