49ers report card
QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: B
Positives: Alex Smith came through in the clutch, completing 5 of 6 passes for 57 yards in the decisive fourth quarter, including 4 of 5 for 48 yards while calmly directing a signature 10-play, 72-yard drive to the winning touchdown with the game on the line. Smith completed 20 of 30 throws for 201 yards, finished with a solid 85.6 passer rating and did not commit a turnover, protecting the football well despite getting hammered repeatedly again. Smith put the ball on the money on a deep sideline pass to Vernon Davis for a 39-yard gain that was San Francisco's longest offensive play this season.
Negatives: Smith was erratic during a poor first half, when he misfired often, threw low and skipped passes to his receiving targets. Smith wore a bulls-eye in the pocket all afternoon and was unable to escape as he has in the past while being sacked five times.
Bottom line: Gritty play and production in fourth quarter outweighs Smith's first-half struggles and adds up to a solid, winning performance despite the inconsistency.
RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: C-minus
Positives: Kendall Hunter provided a critical spark in the fourth quarter and displayed decisive burst and explosiveness through the hole on a 7-yard run for the game's only touchdown. Rookie Bruce Miller, in his first career start at fullback, had some good blocks and caught four passes for 25 yards. Frank Gore plowed over the left side for a key first down on third-and-2 to keep the touchdown drive moving. Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, all 330 pounds of him, contributed with some bullish blocking at fullback.
Negatives: Gore injured his ankle on a 7-yard run late in the second quarter and was never the same after that, gaining just 10 yards on nine carries the rest of the afternoon. His lost fumble that gave Cincinnati a first down at the San Francisco 16-yard line with 10:29 to play could have cost the 49ers the game. This unit didn't produce until late despite creative formations, unbalanced lines and a variety of run-heavy personnel groups. Miller also fumbled on his first career carry, but the Niners recovered it.< br> Bottom line: Hunter's late surge lifted entire unit, but Niners averaged just 1.7 yards per carry and this group put the football on the carpet twice.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: C
Positives: Michael Crabtree ran a nice route to convert on a third-and-6 pass despite tight coverage from Nate Clements. Josh Morgan's 12-yard reception from the San Francisco 28 kick-started the game-winning touchdown drive.
Negatives: Unit finished with just five receptions for 41 yards, including just two catches in second half. Crabtree dropped a pass on third-and-7 to thwart a drive that was moving near midfield after the second-half kickoff. Crabtree's athletic, leaping grab on an apparent 10-yard touchdown play was brought back after a questionable call by the officials, who flagged Crabtree five yards for an illegal touch on the play.
Bottom line: Unit had little impact on outcome of game, and its most noticeable effort – Crabtree's non-TD – came on a play that didn't even count.
TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: A
Positives: Vernon Davis was simply superb, catching eight of the nine passes that were thrown in his direction for 114 yards – accounting for more than half of San Francisco's final yardage output. Davis set up the Niners' first 10 points with catches of 39 and 20 yards, two of the team's biggest offensive plays so far this year. Davis and Delanie Walker both had key blocks on Hunter's game-winning touchdown run. Walker recovered two fumbles – one by teammate Miller and one on special teams to end the game.
Negatives: Davis fumbled after an 8-yard catch on the winning TD drive, but the ball skipped out of bounds before the Bengals could jump on it.
Bottom line: Davis came up huge when the 49ers needed him most and Walker continues to play well whenever – and wherever – he is on the field.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: F
Positives: Tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati both contributed with blocks to spring Hunter on his TD run. There also was a nice hole for Gore on his 12-yard run.
Negatives: Collectively, a horrible game by this unit, which could open few holes in the run game, got pushed around and occasionally pushed into the backfield, got called for a succession of penalties and allowed five sacks while QB Smith was being hit eight times. Standing out conspicuously was right guard Chilo Rachal, who was so bad he finally got replaced in the second half. Staley also had a tough time matched up against Frostee Rucker, who bull-rushed him for a sack of Smith and was the better player throughout the game. This unit was flagged for four false-starts, including one ignominious play when referee Jerome Boger announced a false start on the "entire offensive line."
Bottom line: Boger's call typified a day when just about everybody could be blamed on this unit. We rarely hand out a failing grade to any unit after a game when the 49ers emerge victorious, but here we make a notable exception. The line was terrible.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was stout once again at the point of attack and took part in a season-high four tackles. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald also held their own and kept pushing hard all afternoon, though Smith's two tackles were the only appearance by either on the statistics sheet.
Negatives: The pass rush here was off compared to what it provided in the first two games.
Bottom line: Another strong, steady effort by a unit that comes to play every week and sets the tone for the entire defense.
LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A
Positives: Ahmad Brooks had a tremendous three-play sequence to keep Cincinnati out of the end zone after the Bengals had reached first-and-goal from the San Francisco 6 on the game's opening drive. He also had a crushing sack of QB Andy Dalton and finished with four tackles. The inside backers were superb as usual, with NaVorro Bowman recording a game-high 11 tackles and Patrick Willis contributing eight. Bowman got a hit on Dalton and Willis knocked down a pass with fine coverage on tight end Jermaine Gresham in a goal-to-go situation in the fourth quarter. Unit also was strong in stopping big Cedric Benson from picking up yards after contact.
Negatives: There were a few glitches in pass coverage, but nothing major.
Bottom line: Brooks had an outstanding game against his former team, and Willis and Bowman are playing as well as any inside tandem in the NFL.
SECONDARY -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: Carlos Rogers was key in the victory with standout play that included four tackles, two passes defensed and his well-read interception late in the fourth quarter. Reggie Smith's spectacular diving interception a few minutes later with the football just inches off the ground was highlight-reel material and sealed the victory. In his first appearance this season, Dashon Goldson made his presence felt at free safety with eight tackles, and Shawntae Spencer also contributed in an expanded role. Tarell Brown also played well as this unit clamped down in coverage, and the 49ers allowed just 157 yards passing – with only 67 coming after halftime.
Negatives: There were problems early as Andre Caldwell got open for 32 yards worth of receptions on three of Cincinnati's first five plays while Dalton was completing his first five pass attempts.
Bottom line: A stellar bounce-back performance after the unit was embarrassed by Dallas the week before. The return of Goldson and addition of Spencer made a noticeable difference.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: David Akers remained perfect on the season with two field goals, including a 53-yarder, and also boomed four of his kickoffs deep into the end zone. Andy Lee had a fine 41.3-yard net on his seven punts, including a 60-yarder, and his directional punting was key in a field-position game. The coverage units were typically solid and Cincinnati's average start after kickoffs was its own 20-yard line. Ted Ginn Jr. had kickoff returns of 32 and 27 yards. Larry Grant blew up Cincinnati's Brandon Tate on a kickoff return with the best hit of the game. Delanie Walker ended the game with a fumble recovery after Lee's free kick
Negatives: Chris Culliver was flagged for a blocking penalty and Anthony Dixon was penalized for a hold on return plays. Culliver also missed a tackle in kick coverage. Lee had a rare shanked punt that traveled only 14 yards, but the Bengals could not take advantage after starting the ensuing drive at their own 43.
Bottom line: More than just dependable, these units are helping the 49ers win games.
COACHING -- Grade: A
Positives: Whether or not there was a pre-conceived plan to get him more involved, coaches recognized early that the Bengals were putting single coverage on Vernon Davis, and they exploited that when not much else was working offensively. The misdirection throwback to Davis that set up the winning touchdown was a brilliant play that was brilliantly timed. The defense quickly regrouped after Cincinnati marched down the field on the game's first possession. Sticking with inexperienced rookie Hunter in place of a faltering Gore at the finish was a winning move. The 49ers were very well prepared for their first road game and made some necessary adjustments at halftime.
Negatives: The move to Snyder at right guard could have come sooner with the way Rachal was struggling. The play-calling still seems too conservative and is showing little faith in the team's offensive personnel, though perhaps with good reason.
Bottom line: The best game so far for Jim Harbaugh and his staff, who played a big part in keeping the team from folding in adverse conditions to give it a chance to win at the end. They played to the team's strengths and made all the right moves in the decisive fourth quarter to give San Francisco just its fourth victory in its last 23 road trips into the Eastern time zone. Their reward is sole possession of first place in the NFC West.
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