First quarter report card: Grading the 49ers

As the 49ers move into the second stage of their season with a 3-1 record that has them alone in first place atop the NFC West, we take a look back at week-by-week report cards while handing out grades to the Niners for their performance through the first quarter of the season.

QUARTERBACKS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- A. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- B. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- B. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A.
Unit analysis: Alex Smith has emerged as statistically a top 10 NFL quarterback through the first quarter of the season and has been greatly responsible for San Francisco matching its best start of the past 13 years. Smith is the NFL's eighth-ranked quarterback with a 97.7 passer rating, and he ranks fourth in the league in completion percentage (67.3) and second in interception percentage (0.9). He has performed efficiently within the system and stepped up as a playmaker when the Niners needed him to go to the air to rally back from a 20-point deficit during an upset victory in Philadelphia. Smith has had a few stretches where he's reverted back to the inconsistent play that characterized his first six NFL seasons, but he mostly has played like a quarterback who has found his rhythm and hit his stride during the best start of his career.
First quarter season grade: A

RUNNING BACKS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- B-minus. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- C. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- C-minus. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A-plus.
Unit analysis: Frank Gore struggled to break loose or find yardage during San Francisco's first three games, when he averaged just 2.5 yards a carry during his poorest start to a season since becoming the team's front-line tailback in 2006. But he shrugged off both the early struggles and a sprained ankle for a vintage 127-yard rushing effort against Philadelphia that moved him up to 14th among the NFL's leading rushers with 275 yards and suggests he is returning to top form. Rookie Kendall Hunter has provided a new dimension at the position and has given the unit quite a boost the past two weeks with the threat he provides as both a runner and receiver. Rookie Bruce Miller has displayed great promise at fullback and may make it difficult for Moran Norris to get his starting job back when the veteran returns next month from a fractured fibula.
First quarter season grade: B

WIDE RECEIVERS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- B. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- B. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- C. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A-minus.
Unit analysis: The loss of Braylon Edwards on the first offensive possession in Week 2 hurt, but Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan have emerged as productive threats within the overall incremental progress of the offense. Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams also have contributed in limited roles. Crabtree has battled some dropped passes but has become a go-to target since returning in Week 3 after missing the Dallas game with a foot injury. Morgan leads all wideouts with 10 receptions for 145 yards, a healthy 14.5 average.
First quarter season grade: B

TIGHT ENDS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- B. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- B-plus. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- A. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A-minus.
Unit analysis: Vernon Davis continues to assert himself as one of the premier all-around tight ends in today's NFL, and he has established himself as the top target in San Francisco's passing game with team-leading totals of 19 receptions for 224 yards. Delanie Walker has been his typical solid receiving complement to Davis – he has a 29-yard TD reception to his credit – and has been a terror on special teams.
First quarter season grade: A-minus

OFFENSIVE LINE
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- C-plus. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- D. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- F. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- B.
Unit analysis: Line struggled to varying degrees of concern in several areas during first three weeks before resurgent performance against Philadelphia suggests better days are ahead. This has been San Francisco's weakest and most troublesome unit during first quarter of season. All five starters have had conspicuous problems at one time or another, none more than right guard Chilo Rachal, who finally lost his starting job after a Week 3 meltdown. QB Smith has been sacked 14 times, which puts him on a pace to be dropped 56 times this season. Run-blocking, particularly with right guard Mike Iupati, displayed its potential while salting away victory in Philadelphia. Snyder provided an upgrade over Rachal in that game and may now be with starting unit to stay.
First quarter season grade: C-minus

DEFENSIVE LINE
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- A. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- B-plus. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- B-plus. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A.
Unit analysis: Defensive front wall of Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith was consistently outstanding through first four games, particularly in stuffing the run game at the line of scrimmage. McDonald and Smith also have provided good pressure on passing downs and have combined for 4.5 sacks. Sopoaga has been superb in holding the point of attack after taking over for the departed Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle. The staph infection that has Sopoaga doubtful to play in this week's game against Tampa Bay is a big hit to the unit and must be monitored closely.
First quarter season grade: A

LINEBACKERS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- A-minus. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- B. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- A. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- A.
Unit analysis: Who would have thought this unit could add a player that could actually out-perform perennial All-Pro Patrick Willis? That's what second-year veteran NaVorro Bowman has done in his first season as a starter next to Willis. Bowman leads the 49ers with 36 tackles and has made an impact in all phases of the game. Willis remains a top-level performer and is next with 28 tackles. Ahmad Brooks has made his presence felt on the left side, giving the 49ers three steady, impact starters on the second level of their 3-4 defense. Parys Haralson and rookie Aldon Smith both have made their share of plays and have combined for 3.5 sacks while splitting time on the right edge.
First quarter season grade: A

SECONDARY
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- B. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- D-minus. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- A-minus. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- D-plus.
Unit analysis: San Francisco defensive backs have been wildly inconsistent, playing well at times and making opportunistic plays but also being torched for big yardage when facing strong passing attacks. Dallas passed for 432 yards and Philadelphia had 416 yards through the air. LCB Carlos Rogers has two interceptions and has been the steadiest player of unit, which got a big boost the past two weeks from the return of FS Dashon Goldson, who missed first two games with a knee injury. Newcomer SS Donte Whitner has made his presence felt but has been limited by a hip injury. Unit has not played up to the level of the other defensive units around it.
First quarter season grade: C

SPECIAL TEAMS
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- A-plus. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- A. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- A-minus. Game 4 at Philadelphia -- C.
Unit analysis: Specialty units got off to a spectacular start and were instrumental in Niners' first two wins before faltering for first time last week in Philadelphia. Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns in season opener but has not had many impact returns since. Punter Andy Lee leads the NFL in net average and continues to be a factor in every game with his booming punts and good placement. Kicker David Akers has been an impact weapon on kickoffs and with a 7-for-7 start on field goals before missing a FG and getting another blocked last week. Coverage units have been consistent and at times exceptional.
First quarter season grade: A-minus

COACHING
Weekly grades:
Game 1 vs. Seattle -- B. Game 2 vs. Dallas -- C. Game 3 at Cincinnati -- A. Game 4 at Philadelpha -- A.
Unit analysis: After feeling their way around a bit and getting accustomed to the NFL level with a cautious approach through September, Jim Harbaugh and crew already have figured out what it takes to win – even on the road in close games against heavily-favored opponents. Some coaching moves backfired against Dallas, contributing to the 49ers' only loss despite the team leading by 10 points in the fourth quarter, but the overall performance by coaches has been exceptional considering this was their first four games together with the 49ers. Not only is Harbaugh changing the culture and instilling a new attitude with the Niners, but he also is pushing the right buttons and developing a style and image that sets apart both himself and his team.
First quarter season grade: A


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