The San Francisco 49ers were able to keep up with the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and almost pulled out the upset victory but in the end Peyton Manning and his team prevailed 18-14. While the defense executed its game plan for Manning and his high powered offense almost to perfection, Alex Smith and his offense could not put any points on the scoreboard in the second-half as the Colts won with a halfback option pass by running back Joseph Addai to wide receiver Reggie Wayne six seconds into the fourth quarter. With plenty of time left in the fourth quarter to score a touchdown neither Frank Gore, who scored the game’s first touchdown on a 64-yard run, nor Vernon Davis, who caught his league leading seventh touchdown in the second quarter, could push the 49ers across the goal-line for the game winning touchdown. In three of the 49ers four losses this year they have been beat with one play making the difference. Against the Vikings there was the Brett Favre lucky throw, against the Texans it was Owen Daniels lone TD catch that was a blown coverage assignment by the secondary and yesterday against the Colts it was a play that Manning has not called in eight years to beat the 49ers. The 49ers on the road have lost by 3, 3 and 4 points. Added up that is only 10 points. This says two things about the 49ers. The offense and defense has the talent and is good enough to keep up on the road with playoff teams but they cannot finish games in the final quarter when it matters most and when the team needs to pull out the win. This shows that while the 49ers are good they still have a long way to go in becoming a dominate playoff caliber team. Niner players and Mike Singletary are almost there but yesterday showed that they have more learning and experience still to gain.
Game Gold Nuggets
(Gold nugget awards are based on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the best, 1 being the worst)
The offense earned two gold nuggets in the first-half and one in the second-half. While I don’t believe in moral victories because they don’t matter in the win column, Alex Smith and the 49ers offense had a moral victory yesterday. Gore got it started with his 64-yard touchdown run and the pace continued in the second quarter with Davis’ eight yard TD pass. Most importantly in his first NFL start in almost two years Smith looked calm and composed and did not show any panic or that he was lost out on the field. Smith finished completing 19 of 32 passes for 198 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The lone mistake by Smith was more of wide receiver Michael Crabtree’s (MCT) fault as he tipped the pass into the air trying to make the catch that was picked off by strong safety Bob Sanders. MCT himself lead all 49er receivers with six catches for 81 yards. MCT almost had his first career touchdown in the second quarter as he caught a 27-yard pass and was about to break free when Antoine Bethea barely tackled him. MCT did make his first mistake when after catching a 2-yard pass he fumbled the football. Singletary throw out the red challenge flag but it was clear MCT lost the football and it was recovered by the Colts. The problem was that MCT did not secure the football after turning to run up field. Classic rookie mistake that Crabtree needs to fix.
While Smith was able to successfully lead the offense to two scores and keep his team in the game it was the lack of converting third-downs that again killed the 49ers. Smith and the offense converted only two of ten third downs, had six three-and-outs and eights drives ended in punts. Left tackle Joe Staley injured his right knee on the first play of the game and was out for the rest of the contest. After seeing Staley go out and hearing he was lost for the game I thought that was the end of the 49ers because the offensive line has played so bad and Staley was the lone lineman playing at a Pro Bowl level. Staley’s assignment was blocking defensive end Dwight Freeney. Barry Sims came in for Staley and even though he gave up one sack he did a great job in containing Freeney. The rest of the O-line played well in the first-half not allowing a sack but in the second-half they gave up four sacks which all came in the fourth quarter. The most crucial sack came after the Colts took the lead 18-14. Smith drove the Niners to the Colts 30 yard line but on 3rd&7 Smith was called for a delay of game. On the next play with 12 yards to go for the first down Smith was sacked for an eight-yard loss which put the 49ers out of field goal range. The game would have been much different if not for the sack as the 49ers could have kicked a field-goal and only need three points to beat the Colts instead of a touchdown. The 49ers offense is still in development especially with new starters Smith and Crabtree. If the 49ers want to make the playoffs like so many of their players and coaches are saying they can do the offense needs to more consistent throughout the whole game as oppose to only playing well for one-half.
If you told me before the game that Peyton Manning would have 347 passing yards with no touchdowns and that the Colts would only score 18 points I would have laughed in your face. With the play of the 49ers defense that last two games I thought Manning was going to have huge game. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky drew up a great game plan and the 49ers D translated that onto the field in confusing Manning and sacking him three times which was the total number of sacks he had entering Sunday’s contest. Manning did get his passing yards but he is Peyton Manning so that is expected. Holding him to zero touchdown passes was a huge sign that the 49ers pass coverage is getting better. The Colts had to punt seven times but were able to drive down the field four times to get within kicking range for Matt Stover who kicked field goals of 38,33,31 and 40 yards. Those four field goals could have been touchdown passes but even still the fact that the 49ers D allowed the Colts offense to get within range showed that 49ers can contain drives but cannot finish off an offense and force them to punt when they cross the 50 yard line. Getting beat on the game winning touchdown thrown by running back Addai was also not a good sign.
Once against the lone bright spot on special teams was punter Andy Lee who averaged 50 yards on his eight punts with four of them kicked inside the 20 yard line. The 49ers need a return specialist badly. Michael Robinson did a decent job returning kick-offs averaging 19.8 yards and almost broke away for a touchdown in the second quarter after the Colts kicked their second field goal. Nate Clements was on punt return duty yesterday and only averaged 7.8 yards on four returns before he left the game with an injury. Replacement Brandon Jones did not do any better returning two punts for an average of three yards. The bonehead play by Jones that got the 49ers in trouble was in the fourth quarter when he decided to field a punt at the three yard line instead of letting it bounce into the end zone. Needing a touchdown to take the lead it would have been better for the Niners to start the drive at the 20 yard line than at the six yard line.
Mike Singletary’s instinct to play Alex Smith in the second-half of last week’s game and to name him the starter this week and most likely the rest of the season was a good move. With Smith under center the 49ers can open their playbook to become a more vertical passing team than with Shaun Hill in the game. However it seems that offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye still held onto his conservative play calling cards yesterday. None was more conservative than in the second quarter when Raye called a run up the middle to Gore on 2nd&20. Gore did score in the first quarter on a similar play but the 49ers only had four yards to go for the first down on the rushing score. On 2nd&20 and with the 49ers lack of ability to convert third downs did Raye think that the Colts D would give up another big gain? Why put Smith and the offense in a 3rd&long situation when you know they have had trouble converting all season?
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky impressed me with his game plan and how he got the D to execute it to almost perfection. Manusky called their normal 3-4 base defense but also went with Nickel (5 defensive backs) and Dime (6 defensive backs) packages on a lot of plays. This confused Manning and the defense never allowed him to get fully comfortable and put up the kind of points he has done against teams this year. I noticed early in the game that 49ers D-line was not getting down in the three-point stance which lead to confusion for Manning as he did not know who was rushing. The 49ers did this against the Falcons and they were burned for it on every play. I thought this was going to be the case again but Manusky tweaked the game plan to have the outside linebackers stand with the D-linemen to cause further confusion for Manning. In the end the 49ers did loose on a trick play pass and have to watch out going forward as other teams will look to exploit the lack of concentration the 49ers defense showed.
@home vs. Tennessee Titans (1-6)
The Titans got their first win of the season on Sunday and that was in part due to a quarterback change of their own as Vince Young, like Alex Smith, made his first start in a long while and looks to have regained the starting job with his play. The 49ers are coming off three straight losses that would demoralize any team but they have played well enough in those losses to still have their heads held high. Before Sunday the Titans have looked horrible in all of their games this year and they will be looking to start a winning streak against the 49ers. The 49ers D have shown they can contain high powered passing offenses and should continue that against the NFL’s 26th passing offense. Even though Titans running back Chris Johnson had a team record 228 rushing yards on Sunday the 49ers D has done a good job against the NFL’s top rushers holding Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Michael Turner, Steve Slaton and Joseph Addai to under 100 yards rushing. The 49ers offense will build on the momentum that they started against the Texans and Colts and should be able to gain yards and put up plenty of points for the win as the Titans have the second worst defense in the NFL.
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