SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 49ers won’t feel complete validation for their decision to trade Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick until they win a Super Bowl. But Sunday they took a necessary step.
They played their most balanced and complete game of the season, beating Smith’s Kansas City Chiefs 22-17 in the first match up against their former quarterback of seven seasons. For all their struggles in Weeks 2 and 3, it appears the 49ers are starting to hit their stride and figure out what they are good at, even without key pieces on either side of the ball.
”We got football players. That’s what we got,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Guys who can stand in front of the mirror, look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a football player’. That’s a heck of a feeling, if you’ve ever done that.”
San Francisco was without tight end Vernon Davis (back spasms), typically one of the team’s most important offensive players, whose versatility allows them to stretch the field vertically. He is also a stout run blocker. Without Davis, the 49ers were still able to move the ball effectively against Kansas City, netting 186 passing yards and 171 on the ground.
Temperatures reached over 90 degrees at Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers stuck with the running game to wear down the Chiefs defense in the second half. Frank Gore finished the game with 107 yards on 18 carries, eclipsing the century mark for the second straight week. They rushed for 106 yards in the second half.
”We some dogs,” Gore said, having averaged 5.9 yards per carry. “Our o-line, they played great. We have to give it up to them. Like I said, 49er football, do whatever it takes. We knew that we had to eat up the clock and we did. Me and Carlos (Hyde) did a great job on the ground, and like I said earlier, Kap did a great job in the air. So, we just played great team ball.”
Without right tackle Anthony Davis (knee, ankle), they were able to slow down Kansas City’s talented pass-rushing duo of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. The Chiefs managed three sacks, but didn’t force any turnovers, which went a long way toward the home team managing six scoring drives.
San Francisco’s problem, however, is that five of the scores were Phil Dawson field goals, who has made nine straight since a 45-yarder was blocked in Week 3’s loss to the Cardinals.
”We got to turn field goals into touchdowns,” right guard Alex Boone said. “That’s a no-brainer. Sometimes we stall when we get down in the red zone and that’s on the offense. Our defense is out there working so hard…We got to maximize our potential and that’s something we’re going to look at.“
San Francisco continues to play without All-Pro linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, who won’t likely be back on the field together until November. But the unit, led by Patrick Willis’ six tackles, allowed just one touchdown to Kansas City in the second half - a 17-yarder to speedy rookie De'Anthony Thomas.
In Kansas City's two-minute drill with a chance at the lead in the fourth quarter, cornerback Perrish Cox made his team-leading third interception to seal the win and prevent Smith’s comeback.
”We just had three verticals on that side, trying to hit (tight end Anthony) Fasasno up the seam. The ball got up a little bit,” Smith said. “It’s tough, you’re trying to make a play there at the end and move the chains. I thought I had it, but the ball just got up on me a little bit.”
It was a strange reunion for Smith, who didn’t get the nostalgia of returning to Candlestick Park, the site of his most triumphant NFL moment and also his most bitter memories as a pro. The euphoria he felt from his come-from-behind playoff win against the Saints in 2011 was backed up by the heart break of the overtime loss to the New York Giants in the conference title game the next week. The next year, he lost his starting job to the younger, more athletic Kaepernick.
Going against his former teammates was a strange experience for 2005’s top-overall pick, as was the week of preparation.
”It was there and watching the film was different, knowing a lot of guys, and even the scheme and I’ve played against (coordinator Vic) Fangio,” Smith said. “...Also, in some ways, it was just another game - new stadium, new place. This was all new for me.”
Sunday, Kaepernick passed for 201 yards on 14 of 26 completions with a touchdown, for a 92.0 passer rating. Smith had a 175 yards on 17 of 31 with two scores an interception. His rating: 79.4.
The Chiefs got on the board on their first drive when second-year tight end Travis Kelce took a bubble screen two yards on a well-designed third-down play into the end zone. The 49ers responded with Dawson’s 31-yard field goal.
After trading field goals in the second quarter, the 49ers, knowing they were getting the ball at the start of the second half, needed to establish themselves offensively going into halftime. They were successful, marching 93 yards on 13 plays, culminating on Stevie Johnson’s nine-yard touchdown grab when he beat another former 49er, corner Marcus Cooper. Johnson’s second score in as many weeks gave his team a 13-10 lead at the break.
The key sequence of the game came early in the fourth quarter after the Chiefs forced a three-and-out in San Francisco’s territory. On fourth-and-1, the 49ers took a risk in dialing up a fake punt to reserve safety Craig Dahl down 17-16.
The ball was snapped directly to Dahl, who pushed for three yards and got the first down.
”At that time of the game, we needed a big play. Fourth and short,” Dahl said. “We had it cued up and they gave us only six guys in the box so they were a little light in the gaps. Coach made a great call. We went for it, and executed great.”
Two plays later, on third-and-10, Kaepernick lofted a ball deep down the left sideline for Brandon Lloyd (3 catches, 76 yards), who leaped over, and in front of, Sean Smith for 29 yards.
Lloyd, 33, came in with just three catches on 10 targets through four games after spending last season out of football. He led the team in receiving yards Sunday, becoming the fourth pass catcher to do so through five games. Lloyd’s high-flying connection with Kaepernick was not a result of time on the practice field with his new QB, he said.
”I think it was just more of an in-the-game, instinctual kind of play as opposed to something that we’ve practiced,” said Lloyd. “I always like to think of lobs...as football’s version of the alley-lop. It’s the quarterback understanding the ability of the pass catcher and putting the ball in position where the guy can make the play.”
After three runs got the 49ers’ to the 9-yard line, they took the lead on Dawson’s 27-yard field goal, and later added another from 30 yard to push the lead to five.
The Chiefs had the 49ers stopped and forced a 54-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-2. A miss would have given Kansas City great field position down just a point with four minutes left. But, inexplicably, the Chiefs were flagged for 12 men on the field and gave San Francisco an automatic first down. The 49ers worked the ball down to the 12, and scored the game’s final points on Dawson’s right foot.
Dawson hit from 31, 55, 52, 27 and 30 on the day, accounting for 68 percent of the 49ers’ points.
”I’m sure the coaches would say five extra points would be better,” Dawson said. “There are days like this where you are out there and everything is going well, and there are days when it’s not...It’s not that romantic. It’s pretty simple. When they say go kick a field goal, I trot out there and try to make the kick.”
Hyde added 43 yards on 10 carries. Anquan Boldin made 4 catches for 72 yards. Eight 49ers caught passes from Kaepernick.
Running back Jamaal Charles, coming off a three-touchdown performance last week, had 15 runs for 80 yards. The Chiefs started the game 5 of 6 on third down, but finished 6 of 11.
San Francisco plays on Monday Night Football next week, when they fly to St. Louis to take on the Rams, who fell to 1-3 with a 34-28 loss in Philadelphia Sunday.
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