49ers report card

Handing out grades to the 49ers for their performance in Sunday's 28-3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

RUSHING OFFENSE: The blocking up front was solid, as good as it has been this year. RT Kwame Harris, C Jeremy Newberry and LG Justin Smiley each were notable for their push off the snap. Fullback Fred Beasley had his best blocking game and was used more often, and tailback Kevan Barlow broke tackles and had several nice runs. Barlow (99 yards on 18 carries) could have been even more effective had he hit holes and followed open lanes better. Frank Gore provided a nice complement to Barlow as the Niners rushed for a season-high 133 yards, averaging 4.8 per pop. Harris was called for a false start on first-and-10 and an illegal formation on second-and-1. Eric Heitmann had a false start on a second-and-6 play. Each of the three drives those plays occurred on bogged down after those penalties. Grade: B

PASSING OFFENSE: The first test as a starter was bound to be a tough one for Alex Smith, and the rookie quarterback had few of the right answers. His numbers pretty much say it all – nine completions in 23 attempts for just 74 yards, four interceptions, five sacks and a lost fumble when he stayed too long in a collapsing pocket. Smith got little help in pass blocking from a line that had difficulty picking up blitzes and stunts. The Colts were coming hard from the edges and tackles Harris and Anthony Clement were overmatched at times. The line wasn't exactly a sieve in front of Smith, but he often had little time to throw even while taking short drops. Not that it would have mattered much, the way Smith sailed several of his passes when he attempted anything other than short throws. Smith completed just one pass to a wide receiver – and none to a wideout on San Francisco's final nine series. That's terrible, and makes it almost impossible for a team to win. Grade: F

RUSHING DEFENSE: The 49ers allowed their first 100-yard rusher of the season as Edgerrin James ploughed for 105 yards on 21 carries. The Colts averaged 4.3 yards on their 28 rushing attempts and scored two of their three offensive touchdowns on the ground. The linebackers were active – particularly Jeff Ulbrich, who had a heroic 10-tackle effort playing with a detached bicep, and also forced a fumble at the goal line – but they didn't always fill gaps, allowing James to slip through big holes after cutting back. The big guys up front played to a standoff against the run and clogged the middle lanes. Grade: C-

PASSING DEFENSE: Most teams would consider it a success to limit Peyton Manning to 255 yards and one touchdown passing while intercepting him twice and sacking him for the first – and only – time in five games so far this season. The 49ers should consider it a success, too, and that effort kept them within striking distance going into the fourth quarter. There was good pressure on Manning at times and the depleted secondary played about as well as could be expected, considering the changes in personnel and the opposing receivers it was going against. Mike Adams had tight coverage several times in the slot and safeties Tony Parrish and Keith Lewis protected the deep middle as the Colts' longest passing play went for 21 yards. Cornerback Bruce Thornton, in just his third NFL game, earned himself a permanent roster spot by limiting Indy's Marvin Harrison to just two catches for 17 yards and intercepting a long bomb intended for Harrison in the end zone. Linebacker Derek Smith also had a good day in coverage, intercepting a pass and knocking away two others. Still, Indy had 14 first downs through the air, and that kept drives moving. Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: The 49ers surprised the Colts with a successful onside kick and another that should have been. Punter Andy Lee had a respectable 41.6 average and a good 38.4 net as the coverage unit allowed the Colts only 5.3 yards per return. Otis Amey downed another punt at the Indianapolis 4-yard line. Joe Nedney remained perfect on field-goal attempts this season – he's had only three – and provided San Francisco with its only points for the second time in five games this season. The 49ers didn't do much returning kicks, but their special teams continue to play well enough to win – or at least give San Francisco a chance to do so. Grade: B+

COACHING: A successful onside kick to begin the second half – the second already this season – was a nice call, but a second attempt five minutes later didn't fool anybody and probably was one too many. The 49ers devised a superb defensive game plan that got the most out of their personnel, disguising coverages that seemed to throw Indy's passing game out of rhythm. To think that the 49ers were driving to make it a one-possession game late in the third quarter says something about how this depleted team was prepared against a powerful opponent. But the offensive plan devised for rookie Alex Smith's first start was too simplistic and easily solved by the Colts' defense. Smith also was put in bad positions several times by the play-calling, and the Niners were flagged for an illegal formation on a third-and-2 play at the Indianapolis 32 with the score 14-3 in the third period. That pushed them back five yards, and Smith was intercepted for the fourth time on the next play, ending San Francisco's final opportunity to stay in the game. Grade: C-

OVERALL: Take away San Francisco's dismal effort in the passing game, and the sum of the parts adds up to a competitive performance that allowed an overmatched team to keep it interesting for three quarters. But the 49ers still lost by 25 points. In summary, they weren't even close. That's how much it hurt San Francisco's chances to send out a rookie quarterback who may have grown and learned from the experience, but in actuality was easily taken out of the game and forced into mistakes by a seasoned defense. Until the 49ers get together an offense of NFL caliber, there are going to be more days such as this when the defense and special teams play well but all it gets the 49ers is a lopsided loss. San Francisco reaches its bye week with a 1-4 record and four-game losing streak, and that's a pretty accurate testament to where this struggling team is right now. Grade: D


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