It was the loudest I've ever heard Candlestick Park become all season long when the division leading Arizona Cardinals came to perch here last Monday night in front of a nation wondering whether this would be the swan song for the 2009 San Francisco 49ers and the ultimate clinching of the coveted NFC Western Division. Having been beaten by the savvy Seattle Seahawks earlier the 49ers looked to be a team hanging their cleats up and breaking out the golf clubs for the post-season.
What happened right in front of the hometown fans in San Francisco was a team that had just experienced an old fashioned church revival in which every player had bought into the concept of never say never and hold on to the faith that got them thus far. Mike Singletary and his entire coaching staff should be commended for devising and executing a sound game plan that stymied the potent Arizona Cardinal offense under Super Bowl and All-Pro veteran quarterback Kurt Warner to 245 total net yards of offense and forced seven total turnovers, five of which were fumbles and two interceptions. In the end Arizona was denied the clinching of the division and the simple hope of a remote possibility remains that the San Francisco 49ers with some help could have an outside chance of sneaking into the playoff picture.
It was as if a light switch had suddenly been flicked on inside each individual player's head that compelled them to play at an elite playoff level where everyone knew that all the marbles were on the line and it was do or die in every imaginable scenario outlined. Mike Singletary had preached for weeks now that the 49ers were the controllers of their own destiny. His words finally fell on ears that actually listened for a change and the result was a defining victory of 24-9 for the 49ers.
As far as the 49er offense it is a definite work in progress under quarterback Alex Smith. He did just enough to manage the game into the winning column as he completed 19-of-35 passes for 144 total yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was sacked once and ended with a quarterback rating of 59.7. Obviously he had a lot of incomplete passes some under-thrown and over-thrown and some barely making it to the receiver who was even in the vicinity. It still remains to be seen rather Alex can from time to time carry this team on his shoulders, at this particular time and moment I would still say not now.
It was the playmakers around him that stood out and made a difference with rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree catching 5-of-10 passes for 67 total yards and a touchdown and under-utilized Frank Gore who carried the ball 25 times for 167 total yards averaging 6.7-yards per carry and a touchdown to boot. Balance was struck with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye calling for more snaps under center with Alex Smith and getting Frank more involved to secure overwhelming time of possession in keeping our offense out on to the field for extended amounts of time and a third down efficiency rating of 50%. We were able to roll up 327 total yards of offense and hold our penalties to a minimum all at the same time.
The seven turnovers by care of our playoff-caliber defense were beyond extraordinary and explodes off the charts as the best game they've ever played on the season thus far, especially against our own division nemesis in the Arizona Cardinals. From three and outs to one fumble after another and baiting Kurt Warner into throwing the ball into disguised coverage, the 49er defense from the front seven to the back four were as sound and sharp as they've ever been all season long.
The entire Arizona Cardinal running game was held to 85 total yards and the receiving specialists from Anquan Boldin to Larry Fitzgerald were held to 178 total yards passing and a soccer game total of nine points on the score board because of a blocked extra point attempt by 49er defensive lineman Ray McDonald. Kurt Warner was pressured and sacked four times for a loss of 18 total yards and caused him to fumble twice with a loss of one and two interceptions. Both Tarrel Brown and headhunting Dashon Goldson were responsible for the picks.
Registering three successive sacks against Kurt Warner were 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks and one by Patrick Willis. It was as if it was raining candy apple red and crimson white as that is all you saw in jerseys flying over and into the face of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. The defense created immediate opportunities for the offense to take advantage of, most of which it did and a few drives that died at the hands of Alex's inability to connect with his receivers.
I'm still reluctant to say that Alex Smith is the sure fine answer for us at quarterback in the mere future, however he has three more games to audition for that right and at the very least compete for it all over again within the framework of the 2010 training camp. Jimmy Raye and Alex Smith are finding a real chemistry and synchronicity with one another now and the results are paying some dividends out on the field. He must continue to learn with game to game experience and know what he is seeing and diagnose what he must do rather more quickly as he holds on to the ball and recognizes that game clock in his head.
Frank Gore's reintroduction into the offense with Moran Norris leading the charge behind a renewed offensive line can take us far if we can find continuity on the offensive line that has been missing in action for far too long. The right side of the line continues to be a work in progress. I'm in love with the idea and concept that we can work with this balanced attack as we move forward on to the remaining three games left on the season. However a lot hinges on the fact that our defense must show this kind of relentlessness not just once in awhile but consistently and unselfishly. Alex Smith has to find a rhythm and progression where he knows via timing where his receivers will ultimately be as he throws the ball with more confidence. A lot is riding on the fact we must win these three games in succession to see any light at the beginning of January.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.