With a 19-11 victory over the Redskins on Sunday the 49ers won for the seventh time in eight games this season and extend a five game lead in the NFC West. The offense did just enough in support of another dominate performance by the defense for the 49ers to hold on for the win. While the win did come against an injured and struggling Redskins team, the 49ers made a loud statement with their fourth road win this season on the East Coast. The 49ers also cemented their status as a team that plays merciless and gritty on offense, defense and special teams. With the win the 49ers have a 7-1 record nine weeks into the regular season. With the rest of the NFC West only having five wins combined it is safe to say the 49ers are on their way to winning the division. Even with games coming up against the Giants, Ravens and Steelers, a first-round bye in the playoffs may not be out of the question for the 49ers. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and take one week at a time. Time to hand out Game Gold Nuggets (GGN):
= VERY GOOD
19 points scored with only one touchdown on offense does not exactly scream denominate offense. Neither does the offense going three-for-12 on third-down conversions and only scoring nine points, three field goals, on the three chances the 49ers had inside the Redskins 30-yardline. The lone touchdown by the offense was a 30-yard pass to rookie fullback Bruce Miller. On the play in the second quarter Miller came out of the backfield and ran down the sideline beating Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh who thought Miller was running an underneath pattern. The TD gave the 49ers a 13-0 lead. While the play was a good call, no one thought a fullback would run a pass pattern 20-yards down the field, it also highlighted the offenses shortcomings this season. The touchdown is the only one Alex Smith and the offense has scored in the last six quarters. Smith had a respectable game with a 109.7 passing rating, completing 17-of-24 passes for 200 yards with no turnovers.
One play that stood out to me after the game was at the end of the 49ers’ first possession. Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan laid a brutal hit on Smith who was trying to make a play down field and did not see him coming. As Smith was hit he was holding the football with one hand, when he knew he was going down the quarterback tucked the football not to fumble. The Alex Smith under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary would have fumbled the football because he would not think first of protecting the football, but protecting himself. The Alex Smith under Jim Harbaugh was thinking ball protection as a 267-poind linebacker drilled him to the ground. For the fifth straight game Smith did not turn the football over and he has only thrown two interceptions this season which is the fewest among full-time QB starters in the NFL.
As the passing game continues to play mediocre, although efficient, the running game lead by Frank Gore was on full display once again. Gore had 19 rushes for 107 yards making him the first running back in 49ers history to have five straight games with over 100-yards rushing. The feat is something 49er legends Joe Perry, Roger Craig, Garrison Hearst and Ricky Watters could not accomplish. The lack of a strong passing game and the effects of not scoring more touchdowns during the game because of it, is diminished with Gore as the featured running back. This season defenses know they must stop Gore to beat the 49ers but they also have to respect the passing game, as mediocre as its been, because Smith is playing better and has multiple receiving threats unlike previous seasons.
A lot of credit for Gore’s five-straight games with over 100-yards rushing and Smith throwing to eight different receivers against the Redskins is the offensive line. The O-line allowed only two sacks on Sunday. With great pass protection and open running lanes the offense was able to win the time possession, 32 minutes to the Redskins 19 minutes.
The 49ers dominate defense once again lead the way to victory with three turnovers, two fumbles and one interception. In the first 58 minutes of the game the defense held the hapless Redskins offense to only three points. The 49ers allowed the Redskins offense passed the 50-yardline only once in the first half. The defense did not let up in the second half as the 49ers led 16-3 heading into the final quarter. Linebacker Patrick Willis led the defense with 13 tackles and two forced fumbles. The 49ers defense has forced 12 fumbles this season.
The defense won the turnover margin against the Redskins with three turnovers to the Redskins one turnover. The other turnover in the game was an interception by safety Dashon Goldson that ended the Redskins third drive of the game. The INT was Goldson’s second of the season and he also had five tackles in the game. Only once this season the 49ers defense did not win the turnover margin, the win against the Lions in week six.
The 49ers defense is getting a lot of credit for the team’s success this season and rightfully so. After nine weeks the defense is ranked 9th in the NFL in average yards given up per game (325.9 yards), ranked number one against the run, points per game (14.8) and total number points scored on (118). It is because of the 49ers dominate defense that games against the Giants, Ravens and Steelers are winnable despite the lack of offense the last two games.
Of all the free agent acquisitions by the 49ers this off-season, kicker David Akers was the best signing in my mind. I will even go out on a limb and say he is best of all the off-season acquisitions, including the draft picks. Akers kicked four field goals at distances of 52, 34, 44, and 20 yards in the win over the Redskins. Akers is 19 of 21 on field goals with 55-yards the longest of the season. Akers has made a 50-yard field goal or longer in four of the eight games this season and he was instrumental in the wins over the Bengals, Eagles, Lions, Browns and Redskins. Needless to say Akers is a big reason why the 49ers are winning the special teams matchups against teams this season.
Punter Andy Lee landed two of his five punts inside the 20 with the longest traveling 61-yards.
The common wisdom in the NFL to lead your team to victory is winning two of three aspects of the game which are offense, defense and special teams. Harbaugh and his coaches prepare the team well enough to win all three aspects but it is usually the defense and special teams where the team wins. This allows the offense to do just enough to win and not have to always throw down field as they are given great field position by the special teams and the defense holds the opposing team to less than 15 points per game. As well as Harbaugh prepares his team there are still plenty of areas the 49ers can improve. One of the areas is penalties. They are not the Raiders but they did commit nine penalties costing them 55-yards against the Redskins.
On offense if coordinator Greg Roman can figure how to solve the third-down conversions issues the team will only get better. Right now Roman is keeping defenses on their toes with all the different formations and shifts which work to the 49ers advantage. The TD pass to Bruce Miller was brilliant because who no one on the Redskins defense thought the fullback would race down the sidelines for a pass. Roman was crafty with a counter-toss play to Gore in the second quarter and an end-round type play to tight end Delanie Walker in the third quarter. Even though Walker’s run ended in a three yard loss the defense was forced to cover the play for the rest of the game so not to get burned the next time around.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had to be licking his chops for a second straight game going up against a struggling offense with issues at quarterback. Fangio’s defense was able to force three turnovers, had two sacks and has only allowed two touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter, the last two games. The defense gave up a total of 303 yards that included 52 rushing yards and 251 passing yards.
NEXT UP: Giants @ home
The 49ers biggest test of the season so far comes at home against the New York Giants. The Giants (6-2) sit atop of the NFC East with a two-game lead and come to San Francisco after beating the New England Patriots in Foxboro. The Giants will come to the ‘Stick with a three game winning streak and having won four of their last five games. The 49ers have a good chance of victory over the Giants if the offense can manage to score at least two touchdowns. A win over the Giants will make believers out of the remaining 49ers naysayers.