49ers vs. Saints: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers in their 24-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints to begin the exhibition season, including QBs Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, rookie OLB Aldon Smith's auspicious debut, safety Donte Whitner in coverage, Andy Lee's punting, Jim Harbaugh's new offense, ILB NaVorro Bowman's undisciplined play, horrible punt coverage and much, much more? Check inside.

Thumbs up: Well, how about that first-team 49ers defense, anyway? When looking for small victories in this generally ugly performance, that's a big one. The first unit got after it, limiting New Orleans to just 17 yards and no first down on its first three possessions, the three that the Saints had Drew Brees playing quarterback. Brees completed only one pass for six yards, and the Saints' top offensive unit went nowhere on the ground.

Thumbs up: As advertised, first-round draft pick Aldon Smith looks ready to contribute right here and right now. The rookie saw extensive action and was often around the football while making several appearances in the New Orleans backfield. He led the 49ers with five tackles, had the team's only sack and also forced a fumble in an auspicious professional debut.

Thumbs down: Colin Kaepernick, the passing quarterback, is still very much a work in progress. Kaepernick, who played almost three entire quarters, got a rough indoctrination into the NFL, spraying the ball around the field, making several misreads, and throwing two interceptions while taking four sacks. Completing 9 of 19 passes for 117 yards, Kaepernick didn't get the ball out of his hands quickly enough on several occasions and failed to use his check-down options as often as he should have. It was about what you'd expect from a raw rookie quarterback in his first professional game.

Thumbs up: Colin Kaepernick, the running quarterback, can make things happen with his feet. He's a terror in the open field and a dangerous threat on broken plays, as he displayed when breaking a tackle in the pocket and speeding away for a 28-yard gain. Kaepernick is an instinctive scrambler, has legitimate speed and is tough to catch when he turns the corner. He was San Francisco's leading rusher with 47 yards on six carries, several of them scrambles out of the pocket.

Thumbs down: So much for sprinting out of the gate with coach Jim Harbaugh's new offense. The 49ers were forced to punt after each of their first seven possessions of the game, which included four 3-and-outs to start the game, without any of those four drives picking up more than six yards.

Thumbs down: San Francisco's first two offensive line units struggled mightily in pass protection, allowing six sacks in the first half alone. After he converted a third-and-10 situation with a nifty 20-yard completion to take the Niners into New Orleans territory for the first time in the second quarter, Kaepernick was sacked on three consecutive downs by a bunch of no-name defenders.

Thumbs up: Well, one position the 49ers don't have to worry about is kicker, where newcomer David Akers promises to give them a scoring weapon any time they can get on the opponent's side of the field. Akers showed plenty of leg on his 59-yard field goal to provide San Francisco's only points of the evening, a booming kick that would have been the longest of the five-time Pro Bowler's distinguished career if it had happened in a regular-season game.

Thumbs down: It was not a good showing for Adam Snyder in his first start at center. He was pushed into the backfield on several occasions and has trouble setting up quickly enough to get leverage on defenders after snapping the ball. He didn't do that very well, either, as there were bobbled snaps by both Smith and Kaepernick with Snyder in the game.

Thumbs up: Kicking from near, on and behind his own goal line four times in the game's first 10 minutes, punter Andy Lee kept blasting the 49ers out of deep holes by averaging 52.8 yards on those four punts to keep the Saints from having short fields early in the game. Lee's right leg got quite a workout and delivered a 46.6 average on his nine punts, which has become standard performance for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Thumbs down: He didn't get much help from the big boys up front, but quarterback Alex Smith did little to inspire optimism with the first-team offense, missing on his first five passes before finally throwing a completion. Smith finished 2 of 7 for 10 yards in the air, was sacked twice, fumbled once, and took a lot of punishment as protection broke down around him before had time to set up in the pocket.

Thumbs up: Second-year wideout Kyle Williams looks like he can be a real weapon out of the slot if he can stay healthy. His burst up the field on a 25-yard catch-and-run on a slant pass over the middle displayed a dimension the Niners sure could use in their passing attack. Williams led the 49ers on Friday with two receptions for 34 yards.

Thumbs down: It's a lot of youngsters and newcomers working with a new special teams coordinator, but the 49ers were downright terrible covering punts, particularly on Joseph Morgan's 78-yard punt return for a touchdown that changed the complexion of the game early in the second quarter. The Niners allowed 135 yards on seven punt returns, including a 28-yard takeback by Joique Bell.

Thumbs up: When they took the time to test their run game, the 49ers enjoyed some success on the ground, with Frank Gore moving the pile early on and Gore, Kendall Hunter and Xavier Omon all finding some holes and each averaging at least 4.1 yards per carry. Hunter, the fourth-round draft pick, shows some quickness through the hole and some ability to find openings and follow blockers. Now, he just needs to learn how to break a tackle.

Thumbs down: The final result could have been worse if not for a few drops by Saints receiver Robert Meacham after he had slipped behind the San Francisco secondary. Meacham burned cornerback Tramaine Brock with a move to the post that could have gone for a touchdown if he had not dropped Brees' perfectly-thrown pass. Meacham also had a chance for a long reception after safety Madieu Williams let an interception opportunity slip through his hands when he misjudged a jump ball on a deep Brees pass that hit Meacham in the hands after Williams whiffed at it.

Thumbs down: The 49ers hurt themselves with nine penalties for 75 yards, several of them thwarting drives and halting any momentum the team was building on an offense that produced just 234 total yards. A blocked punt by rookie Kenny Rowe that could have got the Niners back in the game also was nullified by a penalty.

Thumbs up: Newcomer Donte Whitner continued to shine at strong safety, extending himself horizontally to knock down a pass and doing everything right in pass coverage in his 49ers debut. Whitner looks like he'll be a huge upgrade in coverage over what the Niners started the season with last year at his position.

Thumbs down: New starting middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman plays with fire and is strong against the run, but he remains an undisciplined player who's susceptible to making stupid mistakes, like he did on his late hit way out of bounds on quarterback Chase Daniel, a personal foul that tacked on an extra 15 yards to Daniel's 19-yard QB scramble and put the Saints in scoring territory for the first time.

Thumbs up: They got it the hard way, but the 49ers need experience, and they got a load of it Friday against one of the NFL's best, most-established, veteran-led teams. The good news: There is nowhere to go but up, and it should only get better for Harbaugh and his crew from here.

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