The reign of the San Francisco 49ers as the best team in the NFL ended after one week, with a 24-13 road loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Now, after an 11-point loss and the Cardinals winning again moving to 3-0 on the season, the 49ers are not even the best team in their division. On offense, defense, special teams and coaching the 49ers were overmatched and played flat throughout the 11-point loss to the Vikings. The 49ers gave up an opening drive touchdown and did not have the lead at any point in the game.
The loss was a big letdown after the first two wins of the season over the Packers and Lions, both playoff teams in 2011. The 49ers, winners of 15 of their past 18 regular-season games, should have beaten a team that had a 5-17 record since 2010 entering the game.
There is no reason to panic, but this should serve as a wakeup call to the defense that it needs to play energetic and physical in all four quarters of a game. The offense has shown it has improved over last season, but if the defense fails to show up like they did against the Vikings, the offense comes to a halt. Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nugget awards.
= VERY GOOD
The most glaring stat from the offense was three-turnovers committed which is the most since Harbaugh took over as head coach. Alex Smith threw his first interception in 250 regular-season passing attempts in the fourth quarter and also lost a fumble towards the end of the game. Including the interception, the Niners last five possessions on offense showed no life with a fumble, punt, punt, interception and another fumble to end the day. While Smith did complete 67% of his passes for 204 yards, he twice overthrew Randy Moss who was wide-open in the first half. The second pass Smith overthrew to Moss should have been an 18-yard touchdown in the second the quarter to tie the game. Instead the 49ers had to settle for a field goal and a 7-3 score. At the end of the game the offense only managed three plays of more than 13 yards.
The red zone offense looked similar to last season when they failed time after time to score touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. On three drives the offense made it inside the Vikings 12-yard line, they resulted in one touchdown and two field goals. Smith could not regain momentum for the 49ers at the start of the second half after Kyle Williams returned a punt for 94 yards. After starting at the Vikings 14-yard line in the second half, the offense had to settle for a field goal after only gaining eight yards. This was a huge missed opportunity for Smith and the offense to pull the 49ers within one touchdown of tying the game.
Frank Gore finished the game averaging 5.3 yard per carry, but he only gained 63 rushing yards. Gore only rushed 12 times in the game and on the 49ers’ first 18 plays called, they rushed the football four times. By halftime, the 49ers attempted 21 passes and eight runs. For an offense that is built on a smash mouth and power running game, the offense looked uncharacteristically like a pass-first offense.
Despite the poor play the offense managed to score their first, and only, touchdown of the game in the middle of the third quarter, pulling within 17-13. Smith engineered an impressive nine-play, 86-yard drive touchdown drive, completing all six passing attempts for 68 yards. Smith floated a perfect pass to Vernon Davis (5 Rec, 53 Yds, 1 TD) in the back of the end zone. Just as the offense looked like it was finding its rhythm, their next five possessions resulted in two punts, two fumbles and an interception.
This week Niner fans thought they would see a big game by Randy Moss who returned to Minnesota for the first-time as an opponent of the Vikings. He ended up only catching three passes for 27 yards and no touchdowns. Moss should have caught his first pass thrown his way but the football hit off his hands. He was overthrown by Smith on a potential touchdown that sailed well over his head in the second quarter. It seems like the 49ers coaching staff cannot figure out how and where to best use Moss in the offense.
The 49ers offense committed as many turnovers, three, as they had in the previous nine regular-season games.
For the first time in a long while, the 49ers defense looked stunned, overmatched and could not find answers to stop Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Percy Harvin. The defense didn’t look at all like their fearsome performances from the past that have come to define the D since last season. The Niners D gave up three touchdown drives of 67 yards or longer. All three drives lasted 11 plays or more and took at least six minutes and 44 seconds or more off the clock.
On the first possession of the game, Ponder led the Vikings offense on a 16-play, 82-yard touchdown drive that lasted seven minutes and 40 seconds. Ponder, who finished with a 94.7 QB rating, threw a 1-yard pass as he was being pressured to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the back of the end zone. Ponder was poised throughout the game finishing with 198 passing yards and two touchdowns, but he set the tone in the first half that the Vikings offense were for real by converting 5 of 7 third downs and did not commit a penalty or turnover by the end of the second quarter.
The 49ers defense now understands how hard it is for other defenses to defend a big tight end that has the speed and hands of a receiver like Vernon Davis. The linebackers and safeties had no answers for Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph who had five receptions for 36 yards. What hurt the defense the most was his two touchdown catches. His second TD catch was the final nail in the coffin for the 49ers, which put the Vikings up 24-13 in the fourth quarter.
The secondary did allow Percy Harvin to catch nine passes for 89 yards but they were able to keep him out of the end zone by limiting his yards after a catch. Problem was, once the Vikings offense got close enough, they went to their big tight end for the score.
The Vikings wanted to run the football and did not give up unlike the Packers and Lions when they were only gaining a few yards at a time. Peterson finished with 86 yards on 25 carries for an average of 3.4 yards per rush. Peterson is one of the best running backs in the NFL, but what was remarkable in the game was the way he dashed and cut into open running lanes after tearing his ACL and MCL nine months ago.
Even though the defense was outmatched all game by the Vikings, they had an opportunity to turn the game around in the fourth quarter. Andy Lee landed a punt at the Viking own 2-yard line with a little more than nine minutes left in the game. Instead of the 49ers’ front seven showing their dominance and that the first three quarters were a fluke, they allowed Peterson to rush for 20 yards on the second play. Three plays later, the 49ers had another chance to turn momentum in their favor; however, safety Donte Whitner dropped what should have been an interception. Whitner would have had a guaranteed pick six had he not dropped the INT.
One positive note on defense was linebacker NaVorro Bowman who had a career-high 18 tackles.
The numbers are striking for a 49ers defense that was, and still is, considered the best in the NFL. Here are three stats that ultimately doomed the 49ers defense:
25: The Vikings finished with 25 first downs, the most the 49ers have allowed in three seasons in a regular-season game.
146: Last season the 49ers rush defense only allowed an average of 77.2 yards per game. Against the Vikings on Sunday the D gave up 146 rushing yards, the most they have allowed since Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio took over for the 49ers. In the first two games this season the defense gave up a combined 127 rushing yards.
0: There was zero pressure on Vikings QB Christian Ponder as he was hit only twice in the game. That led to zero sacks for the defense and was a big reason why they had zero turnovers.
There were two mistakes made by the special teams in what was otherwise a solid outing by the unit. Kicker David Akers had a 43-yard field goal blocked in the second quarter. Instead of the 49ers cutting the Vikings lead to 14-6, the Vikings kicked a field goal as the first-half came to a close, putting them up 17-3. The other mistake was facemask penalty on a punt return in the fourth quarter that made the 49ers offense start a drive at the 17-yard line.
For as much grief Kyle Williams receives when he returns kickoffs and punts, he had his best game of this career on Sunday. He started the second half with a 94-yard kickoff return and in the fourth quarter had a 50-yard return.
Punter Andy Lee had a 48.7-yard net average and dropped a 53-yard punt on the Vikings 2-yard line in the fourth quarter.
The kickoff coverage team held dangerous returner Percy Harvin to an average of 24.7 yards.
You have to give credit for the second half adjustments made by the coaching staff, but they fell short overall in the game. It was curious to the see Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman trying to run the offense as pass-first, run-second, as oppose to the other way around. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio hardly called any blitzes even after the defense proved they could not generate a pressure with just four pass rushers. Fangio could not find an answer to stop Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. This was Harbaugh’s worst loss as the 49ers head coach.