49ers rewind: Five points

Five points of interest while looking back at the 49ers' 27-20 victory over the New York Giants.

Offense not one-dimensional
For anybody who was wondering if the 49ers could pass when they had to, how about just saying now that they can pass when they want to. Because that's what they wanted to do against the Giants, and that's exactly what they came out and did. They had the element of surprise working for them this time, because New York admittedly was expecting the same grind-it-out formula on offense that had been working so well during San Francisco's 7-1 start. But the Niners didn't wait or have to resort to the pass – they came out and established it from the start, throwing on 9 of 11 plays on their first offensive possession. Twenty of San Francisco's 26 offensive snaps in the first half began as passing plays, and the Niners began each of their first five offensive drives with completed passes that went for 11, 14, 9, 5 and 14 yards against a New York defense that was slow to get the message. If anything, the 49ers leaned toward the pass with 32 passing plays called among San Francisco's 52 offensive snaps. None of this would matter if the 49ers couldn't make things happen when they went to the air. But that wasn't the case as quarterback Alex Smith made plenty happen, completing 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards, some much-needed totals on a day the Niners finished with just 77 yards rushing and got zero yards on six carries from bell-cow running back Frank Gore. "We'd like to throw it 50 percent of the time, run it 50 percent of the time. Be good at both," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And I think we're making progress in both the running game and the passing game. You need both." The 49ers proved they have both with the way they threw the ball around against the Giants in a game and situation of high magnitude.

David Akers makes a big difference
Sunday's game might have been the best illustration yet of how much of an impact kicker David Akers is making in his first season with the 49ers. Everybody knows kickers are important in today's NFL of tight games and kickoffs from the 35-yard line, but Akers' strong and accurate left leg has become a veritable lethal weapon for the 49ers. Akers split the uprights on four more field goals against the Giants, and he scored 13 more points Sunday to raise his season total 91 points and keep him on course to obliterate the team record for most points in a season. Akers also drilled a 52-yard field goal, making him 5 for 5 on field-goal attempts beyond 50 yards this season – he already held the team record with four – and 23 of 25 on all field-goal attempts this season. He also is helping the 49ers win the battle of field position with his booming kickoffs, sending six into the end zone against the Giants, with four of those resulting in touchbacks. Akers also displayed his deft ability to make the football go where he wants it to go on San Francisco's perfectly-executed onside kick that helped the Niners take their first lead of the game. Akers one-hopped it perfectly into the arms of Delanie Walker on a play that looked like just the way you would draw it up in practice. "That's the way David Akers is kicking this season," Harbaugh said. "We thought he'd be a high 80-percent field-goal kicker and in the 87-88 range, but he's darn near 100. Already close to 30 touchbacks (this season), and then factor in the pressure kicks. These are plus-50 kicks, plus high-40s kicks, these are game-on-the-line kicks he's been making. He's been near perfect."

Justin Smith can do it all
The way Justin Smith made it sound after the game Sunday, he was on his last legs as the Giants were driving down the field in the final minutes for a possible tying touchdown that could have sent the game into overtime. After playing each of San Francisco's previous 69 defensive snaps, the high-motor stalwart had just about had it and said he was too tired to rush on a fourth-and-2 play from the San Francisco 10 as Eli Manning dropped back to pass. So Smith instead grappled with New York left guard David Diehl at the snap and got himself in position to get into Manning's passing lane. Smith showed his tank wasn't all the way empty by leaping in the air to bat down Manning's throw and seal the win, his second game-saving play this season that had teammates – and later, Harbaugh – calling him the team's "closer." Harbaugh was calling Smith something more than that after another workmanlike performance in which Smith also collected six tackles. "He's a great player," Harbaugh said. "He's having a great year. He should be in the MVP category, conversation. He's having that kind of year for us." Smith isn't likely to get serious MVP consideration, but he is having a terrific all-around season with 61 tackles, 4.5 for losses, 4.5 sacks, 35 QB hits, 40 QB pressures, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles. And he's doing it with a motor that never stops, even if it's almost out of gas.

Harbaugh cashing in on coordinators
Boy, did Harbaugh ever get it right with his coordinators when he was assembling his first coaching staff with the 49ers. Once again, a well-designed offensive game plan caught an opponent off guard and was too much for the Giants to handle. The defense always comes to play and has held the upper hand against virtually every opponent it has faced this season. And San Francisco's special teams have been nothing short of dominant, with coordinator Brad Seely calling for the onside kick that caught practically an entire stadium of people off-guard – certainly the ones wearing Giants uniforms – and swung both the momentum and scoreboard in San Francisco's favor. Seely, Greg Roman (offense) and Vic Fangio (defense) are the behind-the-scenes faces that have been almost as important as Harbaugh in the 49ers' resurrection. And Harbaugh knows it. He has always praised the job and results produced by his subordinates, and he knows that if this keeps up and the 49ers continue on their current path of success, this group of coordinators probably won't be around long with him and the 49ers. "Brad Seely, been talking about it all year, he's just a phenomenal football coach," Harbaugh said. "We've got coach Seely now and at some point, some smart organization is going to hire him away from us. We'll be playing against him, and that probably can be said for, the same with Greg Roman and Vic Fangio." When a follow-up question asked Harbaugh if he has three head-coaches-in-waiting on his staff, Harbaugh responded, "Yes, yes I do. I believe that. Been around a lot of coaches, seen a lot of coaches both as a player and as an assistant coach and as a head coach. There is no doubt in my mind those are three great coaches."

Frank Gore needs to be monitored closely
The 49ers weren't going to sit down two-time Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore in a game of Sunday's magnitude, even if he was hampered by a sprained ankle that wasn't serious enough to keep him out of the lineup. But they need to consider sitting Gore when he is hurting from this point forward and need to closely monitor his health to keep him fresh for the stretch run and playoffs to follow. Gore was fifth among the NFL's leading rushers entering Sunday's game, but it was obvious he wasn't at full strength from the get-go, and that resulted in the least-productive results of Gore's career – zero yards rushing on six carries. It may or may not have had something to do with his ankle injury, but Gore also hurt his knee during the second quarter, an injury that finally convinced the Niners to put Gore on the bench and keep him there the rest of the game. Gore is a guy who will play through pain and injuries, but he's also a seventh-year running back who's showing signs of wearing down to the heavy punishment he has absorbed over the years. The Niners lost Gore for good to a hip fracture last season in Week 12 at a time Gore was on the same kind of pace – both in workload and production – that he is on this year. With Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon capable of stepping in and offering diversity at running back, the Niners need to watch Gore closely, pick their spots with him and consider sitting him when he's not at full speed. As Harbaugh said, "You just feel like right now, we've got a stable of backs. We've got Frank Gore, we've got Kendall Hunter, we've got fresh legs in Anthony Dixon. This bodes really well for our football team." But not if Gore is removed from the equation for any lengthy period of time, like he was around this time last season.

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