49ers report card

Handing out grades to the 49ers - some good and some bad - after their 34-31 loss Sunday to the Dallas Cowboys:

RUSHING OFFENSE: The 49ers kept pounding the rock, and this time it worked. Though the final numbers seemed better than the actual effort, Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore both got untracked with their best games of the season as the Niners rushed for 124 yards, averaging five yards a pop. The run blocking was much improved over the first two games, and Barlow and Gore finally gave the Niners what they envisioned (a combined 19 carries for 107 yards) from their tailback tandem. The 49ers couldn't push it over the goal line from the 1 in a pivotal sequence – they only got one shot at it – but otherwise the running game was solid and opened opportunities in the passing game for the first time this season. Grade: B

PASSING OFFENSE: What a thing of beauty it was during the first three quarters. Tim Rattay finding Arnaz Battle all over the field. Rattay finding Brandon Lloyd for an 89-yard touchdown bomb. Rattay finding Lloyd for a 13-yard touchdown pass to put the Niners ahead 31-19 entering the fourth quarter. At that point, Rattay was on his way to his best game ever. But it all changed in the fourth quarter, as Rattay threw two pivotal interceptions. The first came with the Niners nearing field-goal range early in the period. The second was a killer, coming with a minute to play on San Francisco's final, last-gasp drive after the Niners had given away all of that big fourth-quarter lead. Those consequential picks nullify a high grade, but this effort otherwise represented a rebirth of the passing game and the continued emergence of Battle and Lloyd as legitimate offensive weapons and a productive receiving duo (10 catches for 210 yards combined). Rattay's late picks aside, this was an effort good enough to win. Grade: B-

RUSHING DEFENSE: A very solid effort against a good rushing team. The Cowboys had some success early with Julius Jones, but the 49ers began stuffing him as the game progressed and he had to work hard to finish with 85 yards rushing, averaging just 3.3 yards on his 26 carries. Dallas averaged just 3.0 yards a carry, and San Francisco's interior linemen did a fine job up front against the Cowboys' beefy linemen. The linebackers also did their job against the run, and Parrish offered strong support while making a game-high nine tackles. Grade: B

PASSING DEFENSE: The good news first: Tony Parrish returned to his ballhawking ways again with two interceptions, one of which he returned 34 yards for a touchdown and the other of which set up San Francisco's final touchdown. Those were huge plays that should have been enough to win this game, but they weren't because San Francisco's pass defense was giving it back to Dallas all afternoon. The 49ers' pass rush got some pressure on Drew Bledsoe – two sacks and some pressures that forced him into errant throws – but not nearly enough, considering Bledsoe's lack of mobility. That allowed him to stand tall in the pocket and shred the Niners for 363 yards passing, completing 24 of 38 passes for two touchdowns, including the winning TD in the final minutes. By failing to stay with assignments, the Niners had several blown coverages that allowed Dallas to cover ground quickly after the Cowboys had fallen behind by double digits on multiple occasions. Ten of Bledsoe's 14 incompletions came on passes San Francisco defenders got their hands on, but ultimately, this grade only makes it this high because Parrish put a touchdown on the scoreboard himself and made the play that led to another. Grade: D

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Andy Lee didn't hit the ball nearly as well as he usually does, but he still finished with a strong 38.2 net average as the coverage units once again excelled. The Cowboys averaged just 4.0 yards returning punts and 19.0 yards returning kickoffs. The 49ers didn't get much out of their returns, either, but the punt return team came up big to stuff the Cowboys on 4th-and-1 at the Dallas 34 when they attempted to cross-up the Niners by going for it instead of punting. Joe Nedney made a routine 20-yard field goal – only his second of the season – but was shorter than usual on his kickoffs. Grade: B

COACHING: The play-calling was brilliant at times, but coaching also contributed to the Niners blowing a 15-point lead that still was a healthy 12-point margin entering the fourth quarter. Once again – for the third time in three games this season – the Niners failed to score a point in the final period while the Cowboys scored 15 in the same time frame to pull out that win. That means the 49ers are failing to make the adjustments necessary to win. The Niners also botched their time management of the final minute of the second quarter when they had a first down at the Dallas 1, and it was instructions from the sideline that told Rattay to spike the ball instead of taking another shot at the end zone – something the Niners had plenty of time to do. Getting only three points instead of seven during that sequence obviously proved consequential at the end of the game. Mike Nolan gets kudos for laying down the law afterward, but that did nothing to help the Niners in this game. Grade: C-

OVERALL: Nolan spoke the unbridled truth after the game – that if the 49ers were a 2-14 team, this would be an OK performance. But they're not a 2-14 team anymore and, as Nolan said, that makes this loss unacceptable. It's a game San Francisco should have won against a better team but instead let slip away in maddening fashion. Still, in many ways, it was a promising effort for a team that continues to grow and learn how to adapt to its strengths and weaknesses. This game was very similar to the season-opener win against St. Louis, which was an "A" game despite the Niners allowing bushels of yards and a late comeback. It would have been the same story here, so with this near miss against a quality opponent – no matter how galling it was – you still have to take the good with the bad. To get a better grade, the Niners merely have to finish these kind of tests. Grade: C

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