49ers/Bengals: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs up: With Frank Gore having about as off an off day as he ever has, the 49ers went to rookie Kendall Hunter with the game on the line, and Hunter came up big. Hunter popped two first-down runs to get San Francisco's only touchdown drive moving midway through the fourth quarter, then finished the drive with a seven-yard burst into the end zone to put the 49ers ahead to stay on a day when yards on the ground came with a high degree of difficulty.
Thumbs down: On that note, Gore looked disturbingly average for the third consecutive game to begin the season, and after Sunday's performance, you have to wonder how much of it is on him and how much is on the team's struggling offensive line. There's no question about one thing: The critical fumble in the fourth quarter that put the Bengals ahead and could have cost the 49ers the game was all on Gore, who simply failed to secure the football deep in his own territory.
Thumbs down: And how about that struggling offensive line, anyway? In a word: Horrible. And that was everywhere – trying to open holes for the ground game, in pass protection and also while getting flagged for an assortment of penalties, four of them false starts.
Thumbs down: And just to magnify what a collective effort it was, the ENTIRE offensive line was called for a false start on a first-and-goal from the five-yard line late in the third quarter, forcing the 49ers to eventually settle for a field goal on their first drive of deep into Cincinnati territory. How often do you see an entire five-man unit flagged on the same play?
Thumbs up: Vernon Davis showed why he has become the 49ers' top offensive threat with a performance that illustrated why the Niners have to make him a primary component of their passing game every week. Davis had game-high totals of eight receptions for 114 yards, with big-play catches of 39 and 20 yards both leading to San Francisco scores in the second half.
Thumbs up: Shaking off a first half when he was off with his throws and couldn't move the offense, Alex Smith came through with a winning performance when the Niners needed him the most in the fourth quarter, calming directing a 10-play, 72-yard TD drive that put San Francisco ahead to stay. Smith completed two-thirds of his passes, had a season-high 201 yards passing, finished with a solid 85.6 passer rating, and most importantly didn't commit a turnover despite being sacked five times and hit eight times against a Cincinnati defense that came after him all afternoon.
Thumbs down: The 49ers stopped themselves throughout the game with 12 penalties for a negative 70 yards backwards, figures that often would lead to a losing performance.
Thumbs down: Right guard Chilo Rachal not only is working himself out of the starting lineup, he could be working himself out of a job. Rachal so was so bad that he became a liability for an offense that already was having enough problems. Rachal was pushed into the backfield on running plays and was flagged twice for holding and once for a false start in the first half alone before finally being replaced by Adam Snyder.
Thumbs up: It was a tough couple of weeks to open the season for nickel safety Reggie Smith, but Smith showed why he belongs on the field with a spectacular diving interception to halt Cincinnati's final drive and essentially secure the victory. Smith looked like a skilled receiver picking the ball up inches off the ground and keeping his hands underneath it to make sure the pick couldn't be taken away on review.
Thumbs down: Why, exactly, do the 49ers keep deferring to their opponent after winning the opening coin toss? The Niners have opted for that maneuver three consecutive times to begin the season. Given the ball first, the Bengals marched right down the field to a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line before settling for a field goal. After the Niners deferred to Dallas last week, the Cowboys drove 77 yards on 13 plays to open the game before missing a chip-shot field goal.
Thumbs up: Three cheers once again for kicker David Akers, who again contributed greatly to the victory with his usual strong-legged and accurate effort, booming four of his five kickoffs deep into the end zone and connecting on a clutch 53-yard field goal with 2:16 to play to give the Niners a seven-point lead and some breathing room. Akers scored seven of San Francisco's 13 points.
Thumbs up: After getting picked on through the air early, the 49ers' linebacker crew came on strong in coverage and were key to shutting down Cincinnati in the second half. And they were their same nasty selves in stopping the run all afternoon, with NaVorro Bowman (11 tackles) and Patrick Willis (eight tackles) both swarming to the football and making sure it stopped moving forward when they got there.
Thumbs up: San Francisco's red-zone defense continues to excel in key situations, holding Cincinnati to a field goal after the Bengals had a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line on their opening possession – when the Bengals had a chance to set the tempo and assert early control of the game – then holding the Bengals to another field goal after Cincinnati had a first down at the San Francisco 6 with a chance to go ahead by a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
Thumbs up: Nice to see rookie Bruce Miller making some plays in his first NFL start at fullback and holding up well in place of the injured Moran Norris. Miller was involved in the passing game with four receptions and he looked like he knew what he was doing whether blocking or slipping out of the backfield on pass patterns.
Thumbs up: On the scale of helmet-rattling hits, Ahmad Brooks taking off Andy Dalton's helmet during a sack that lost eight yards and thwarted a Cincinnati drive ranks pretty high for both impact and results.
Thumbs down: Strong safety Donte Whitner suffered a hip injury on the game's opening drive when he tried to make a leaping interception in the end zone. Whitner wasn't able to return, and that's a big loss for the San Francisco defense, which performed admirably without him.
Thumbs down: Sorry, but we just don't like the decision to have Andy Lee running around 18 yards backward and out of the end zone on San Francisco's final play from scrimmage, particularly since Cincinnati got the same opportunity for one final return that the Bengals would have got if Lee had kicked it away with a seven-point lead in the first place.
Thumbs up: It's always intriguing to see nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga at fullback during the opening possession of the second half, a nice 330-pound lead blocker for Frank Gore to pick up three yards behind on third-and-1.
Thumbs down: Michael Crabtree still is working his way back, but he needs to catch a third-down pass that's right in his hands to move the chains, particularly in a tight game. His drop over the middle on third-and-seven deflated any momentum the 49ers had after they reached their 46-yard line with the opening possession of the second half.
Thumbs up: Talk about a defense that knows how to get off the field. The 49ers' stingy unit allowed Cincinnati to convert just once on 10 third-down opportunities, holding the Bengals to 14 first downs, 157 net passing yards and just 24:40 in time of possession.
Thumbs up: What started off as a hideous performance ended with the 49ers rallying back and showing resilience and toughness to pull out a hard-fought road victory, which happens to leave them all alone in first place in the NFC West after three weeks. That's a pretty good place to be and a wonderful way to end up on an afternoon that started as badly like this one did.
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