For weeks now, a great many of the beleaguered 49er faithful have been complaining. 2-1 start or not, the team just didn't look good. This wasn't the "real west coast offense" that most had envisioned when Coach Harbaugh came aboard in the off-season. Baalke's "bargains" weren't getting it done, and this team was just treading water.
The questions were many, and the questioners far from kind. What is with all of the power runs? What in the hell is zone blocking, and why bother doing it if our line sucks at it? When will Alex Smith just admit that he sucks and throw in the towel? Is Coach Harbaugh the second coming of Mike Singletary? In short, many were wondering, "What the hell is Harbaugh doing?"
In the second half of Sunday morning's game, they got their answer: Harbaugh is executing his plan. And if the early returns are any indication, the plan is working.
The aforementioned noted, let's take a look at what happened on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Mr. Smith goes to Philadelphia
Alex Smith played the game of his life…or the half of his life, to be exact. This wasn't a meaningless game at the end of the season…this was a dogfight in one of the league's most hostile venues. Make no mistake: this is a game that Alex was expected to lose. On the day, Alex was 21of 33 (63.6%) for 291 yards and 2 TDs, finishing with a 112.1 QB rating. Down 20 points in the second half, Smith was asked to win the game…and he delivered, big time. He was careful with the ball (exclusive of his near disastrous fumble), he showed great chemistry with his receiving corps, extended plays with his feet, connected with 8 different receivers and made throws that he hasn't made in his entire career. For the entire second half, he was brilliant. Harbaugh's influence on Smith is evident…but one game does not a winning season make. For the 49ers to break their eight season streak of futility, we'll need to see more of the same from #11.
"We Don't Suck"
In the week leading up to Sunday's game, starting left tackle Joe Staley boldly proclaimed that he and his fellow linemen "don't suck". The quote drew laughter and derision from media outlets (ESPN, NBC, CBS, Yahoo Sports, etc.) across the country, especially considering the fact that the 49ers' offensive line has looked downright horrid at times this season. To be sure, the line's switch from predominantly man blocking last season to a more complex zone protection scheme has been anything but smooth. As it turns out, time actually IS
the salve that cures all ills (or perhaps time spent in Youngstown cures all ills). Either way, by the end of the 4th quarter, the 49ers' offensive line had paved the way for the 49ers best day on the ground to date. They protected Alex Smith well enough for him to lead the team to its biggest comeback victory since 1996. As the season progresses, the line's performance should continue to improve. So…while the line wasn't exactly dominant, it looks like Joe has a point. For at least second half of Sunday's contest, they didn't suck.
Much ado was made of the Eagles' signing of free agent Nnamdi Asomugha in the off season. Coupled with Asante Samuel, he is part of what could be the most talented pair of corner backs in the league. Popular opinion was that the 49ers would be unable to move the ball through the air against Philly's talented tandem. It appears that the 49ers didn't get the memo. Joshua Morgan looked like a man possessed on his TD reception. Michael Crabtree had one of his best games as a 49er. His highlight came in the 3rd quarter: facing single coverage, Michael Crabtree ran a perfect route, getting Nnamdi Asomugha to bite on a double move, setting up a TD reception by Vernon Davis. Given that there was a stretch of 9 straight passes in the 3rd quarter in which the ball did not hit the ground, it is safe to say that this unit is beginning to find its feet.
Frank the Tank
Over the season's first three games, it was evident that Frank Gore was playing through an injury of some sort. Though he didn't start Sunday's game…he sure as hell finished it. His 13 yard scamper through the heart of the Eagle defense with just less than 3 minutes to play gave the 49ers the lead…and his first down scamper with just over a minute left iced the game. As breakout games go (127 yards, 1TD), this one couldn't have come at a better time. Though he will likely split carries with explosive rookie Kendall Hunter going forward, he is still vital to the offense. The term "warrior" gets thrown around a lot in pro football(as noted by Coach Harbaugh in his post game presser)…but make no mistake…Frank earned it. Big time.
Looking at today's box score, one might take issue with the 49er defense. The secondary had its hands full trying to keep up with the Eagles lightning fast wide outs and the front seven struggled to contain Vick early. All told, the 49ers gave up over 500 yards of total offense. Ugh. But now for the good news: for all that yardage, the 49ers held the Eagles to 2 TDs in 7 trips to the Red Zone (28%) and forced 3 crucial turnovers. Add to that the fact that the 49ers held LeSean McCoy (the leading rusher in the NFC through Week 3) to 18 yards on the ground and what you get is a defense that extended the streak in which they have not allowed an opposing rusher to eclipse the 100 yard mark to 26 games. At the end of the day, the defense did a little better than the numbers indicate.
The Bottom Line
Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have repeatedly proclaimed, "we have a plan". On Sunday, we got a glimpse of that plan in action. Baalke's "bargains" showed up when it mattered. In the second half, Jim Harbaugh outfoxed Andy Reid, the NFL's longest tenured head coach. Alex Smith took a giant step forward, leading his team back from a 20 point deficit on the road. The offensive line finally showed us what a solidly executed zone blocking scheme can accomplish. The defense bent early, but snapped back late to put this team in a position to win a pivotal game.
So, what does all of this mean? Will the 49ers finally be taken seriously by the rest of the league? Have they magically become the team fans have been pining for over the last 8 agonizing seasons? No. Not yet anyway. Sunday's game did not proclaim that the 49ers have arrived…just that they're on their way, according to plan.
Date: October 6, 2011 at 10:04 PM
Comment: ok screw it, im not much of a sleeper anyway. you response was very well put, accurate, and yes very optimistic.... nothing wrong with that. for the record i was JACKED sunday im seriously ready for a HOME playoff game. Thank you for your time... must get to bed, be back soon. Take care
Date: October 6, 2011 at 9:59 PM
Comment: AJ, i didnt even have time to read your responses, although im excited. However i live in NY and its 1 am and i have to get up at 6 to go to work (told you Im a fan!!) but seriously i wanted to take one minute out to give you best wishes on your family. My father is alive and not part of my life. so me and my mom are very close and if something happened to her i cldnt care less about the 9ers. you shared something personal with us so i wanted to share something personal back. Best wishes and i hope a 9ers win this weekend can provide you with just a sliver of joy during this time!! in the end we are all 9ers fans. best wishes.... im sure ill pick up an arguement with you tomorrow!! take care.
By: Lucky Phil
Date: October 6, 2011 at 4:57 PM
Comment: AJ, nice article. I don't know why you and Jeff Kaplan get the hate mail you get on Jeff's comment board, but its undeserved. Keep up the good work. I know you guys put in the time and research to write these artciles every week.
Date: October 6, 2011 at 7:58 AM
Comment: the fact is we have to pick 5 guys and STICK with them. Chemistry builds an O line, put synder in there and let it gel. the run game, phillys run D is barley NFL worthy, we will not run effecticly unless we pass the ball early and often, finally this excution of the plan. this is where i think ppl get crazy. What plan? to get down big on the road THEN unleash the offense? Come on man. Thats nonsense. what happen is coach tried to excute the real plan in the first half and it put us down 20-3, then we were forced to air it out. there is ZERO other way to view it. I think we both agree Harbaugh has a great offense but he isnt using it. not till his hand was forced. My main point was this, Im a huge 9er fan! i wont take my girl on a trip that involves me missing a sunday, you know what i mean man, but anytime you talk about reality, ppl call ya a hater. I feel you also love the 9ers but are avioding some key issues this team still has. Its not all good in SF
Date: October 6, 2011 at 7:51 AM
Comment: Fair enough AJ, i wld begin by saying if you ever read any of my other comments i have always said i resepct your writing because it contains substance and i appreciate that. I have commented before, you didnt answer and thats fine, im fully aware that your job is not to humor me, but i feel all the stuff where i say "hey i disagree but love talking 9er football" gets overlooked by one comment in a heated moment. so, in response to your article this is where i disagree, this is simply MY opinion. I cant buy into this, not yet. we have been all these places before. This might have been the game of Smiths life, but it is of course in Smith fashion. one great HALF! we saw the same song and dance vs Hou. we have seen other flashes, its just doesnt last. cld it this time? I hope so, but we wont know unless we air the ball out. smith is a QB who needs to play with rhythm. we HAVE seen this before, what we havent seen him do before is put back to back great halves together. The zone blocking thing, i get it man, Ive played football i know what zone blocking is. but its undeniable that there have been guys that have been overrated, or have just plan sucked for a while now...
Date: October 4, 2011 at 8:29 PM
Comment: The insertion of Snyder, a smart, agile player, at LG to replace Rachal sent a message. The best performing players will start. The pressure is on Anthony Davis to improve. I would not be suprised if Alex Boone starts to get some offensive reps the next game or two and, if he performs, even replace Davis. This coaching staff will not cave to anyone and play players just because of their draft position.
Date: October 4, 2011 at 5:37 AM
Comment: ZONE BLOCKING!!!ZONE BLOCKING!!!!
AJ....you are on to something huge.
The reason the 49ers offensive line has looked so terrible is because the O-linemen have been learning how to zone block.
Zone blocking is the backbone of the West Coast Offense. Who's using it now?? Colts, Texans, Raiders,
Seahawks, Packers and the Broncos under Shanahan.
Remember how the Texans killed us 3 weeks ago? Zone Blocking.
Oh...and what other team was enormously successful with zone blocking?? How about a certain team coached by Bill Walsh??:):). When we lost Bobb McKittrick, that was the end of our offensive lines. He was the Zone blocking guru.
It obviously takes a long time to develop a zone blocking line because it requires split second timing, coordination and YEARS of practice with the same players.
Read the ZONE BLOCKING article in Wikipedia(which I cribbed from).
I apologize for sounding like a Know it All but what do you think?
Date: October 3, 2011 at 5:29 PM
Comment: Actually well written, to the point, with a positive twist to it. Thank you
Date: October 3, 2011 at 4:23 PM
Comment: "Popular opinion was that the 49ers would be unable to move the ball through the air against Philly's talented tandem. It appears that the 49ers didn't get the memo." HA! I LOVE IT :D All I hear from the media is how the eagles lost to the niners and not how the niners beat the eagles.... No one takes us seriously... at least not YET ANYWAY :D GO NINERS! GREAT ARTICLE!
Date: October 3, 2011 at 12:51 PM
Comment: great work as always AJ
Date: October 3, 2011 at 11:54 AM
Comment: man yall weak and my home team will bust yall chicago bears all day and the dixmoor,phonix vikings will bust yall and i play full back and i will run any one of yall over
Date: October 3, 2011 at 8:47 AM
Comment: Hey long time reader of the site, just wanted to point out something to be mindful of, make sure you attribute your quotes.
In your article you write, "The term “warrior” gets thrown around a lot in pro football…but make no mistake…Frank earned it. Big time. "
I believe this is very similar to a quote that Harbaugh gave in describing Gore's performance on sunday against the Eagles.
Date: October 3, 2011 at 6:35 AM
Comment: If you look at Alex's numbers over his past 10 games he is among the top 10 QBs in the league. This is his most impressive performance by far, but it is not an aberration. To the chagrin of many haters, I think it is indisputable that he has finally become a legitimate starting caliber NFL QB with potential to be even better.
Date: October 3, 2011 at 6:18 AM
Comment: Go back in time for a minute. This was the game that the 49ers had in 1980 when they went to Three Rivers Stadium
and beat the Steelers. This game was a miracle and Harbaugh is the real deal.