49ers report card

This was no 'A' winning effort by any stretch, but the 49ers get far more than just a passing grade after a 20-17 overtime victory against the Houston Texans in their season finale gave them a two-game winning streak to build on in 2006.

PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- The 49ers got off to a rocky start as tackle Kwame Harris was flagged for illegal use of hands while trying to pass block on San Francisco's first offensive play. That was the start of a dismal day for Harris, who again was embarrassed in pass protection and had another illegal use of hands penalty that was declined in overtime. Don't expect to see him back in the starting lineup next season. The protection otherwise was adequate at times and shaky at other times, but Alex Smith showed some ability to instinctively avoid pressure, particularly on the first touchdown pass of his career. Smith made a nice throw to Brandon Lloyd on the run to record that milestone, part of his 11-of-14 first half which also included his 11th interception on a forced pass that shouldn't have been thrown. Smith struggled in the second half (5 of 15) and continues to overthrow open receivers, but he put some nice air under a 39-yard pass on which Arnaz Battle made an exceptional catch while diving backward. That play got the 49ers out of a hole and gave them the upper hand in overtime field position on their way to victory.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus -- Rookie Frank Gore gave a glimpse of what the future may look like for the 49ers with a productive, hard-charging effort during which he showed the full complement of his rushing skills. Gore moved the pile, burst through holes and squeezed extra yardage out of plays that appeared stuffed at the scrimmage line. He also displayed an ability to carry the load, toting the football a career-high 25 times despite playing with fractures in both of his shoulder capsules – injuries that will require surgery now that the season is finished. Gore gained a career-high 108 yards and was the one constant on an offense that struggled with inconsistency all afternoon. Maurice Hicks provided a nice complement with 64 yards on 18 carries as the 49ers continued their late-season ground surge with 182 yards rushing. Center Eric Heitmann had another strong effort and guards Justin Smiley and David Baas both provided some solid run-blocking, particularly Smiley, who flattened a few defenders with his quick-strike surges. The blocking was inconsistent early but got better as the game progressed and the 49ers wore down Houston's front seven.

PASSING DEFENSE: B-plus -- Except for a few glitches, the 49ers received another outstanding performance from their young, patchwork secondary, a group that basically took the game away from the Texans. Houston's lone touchdown pass actually came against linebacker Julian Peterson, who had receiver Corey Bradford covered well down the field but reacted poorly with the ball in the air near the goal line. There was no such poor reactions from cornerback-turned-safety-turned-cornerback Mike Adams, who asserted himself as a true playmaker and may have single-handedly won the game for the 49ers. Adams had two interceptions in the game's final 27 minutes, including one he returned 40 yards for a touchdown that San Francisco needed to get the game into overtime. Once there, Adams picked off backup quarterback Tony Banks again, and he had the presence to lateral the ball to safety Ben Emanuel, who returned it 35 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. Banks was in the game because the 49ers had knocked out starter David Carr in the second quarter after Carr had completed just four of 11 passes for a measly 23 yards. The 49ers had no sacks, however, and Banks had some success and put the Texans in the lead before his late interceptions turned the tide.

RUSHING DEFENSE: B-plus Rookie Vernand Morency found some cracks early, including on an 11-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that gave the Texans an early 10-0 lead, but Houston managed just 38 yards on the ground after halftime and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. Morency's TD scamper proved to be Houston's longest run of the day. San Francisco's front seven surged to the football all afternoon and Derek Smith, with a team-high seven tackles, had the usual kind of effort that made him the 49ers' defensive MVP this season. Emanuel, who's athletic and likes to hit, also provided good run support from strong safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Riding the theme of this season to the end, kicker Joe Nedney once again was special, drilling field goals from 42 and 33 yards, the latter of which ended the season and became the 14th game-winner of his career. That made Nedney 26 of 28 on field-goal attempts this season. The forceful winds at Monster Park, however, held up and played havoc with his kickoffs, and those winds downright doomed punter Andy Lee, who had perhaps the worst game of his otherwise solid two-year career with the 49ers. Lee's first punt went 18 yards, his second was blocked, and both set up short fields and early scores for the Texans. Lee's third punt went only 22 yards and he had four others 37 yards or shorter, but he came through with his best kicks in overtime. His average net on nine punts, however, was just 26.5 yards. Otis Amey had a 13-yard punt return but did little with his four kickoff returns and continues to have trouble getting past the first wave of defenders. San Francisco's return units struggled a bit with talented rookie returner Jerome Mathis who, even when taking short kicks, was able to tack on extra yardage. The average starting point of the Texans' 15 offensive possessions was the Houston 38-yard line – San Francisco started its 14 drives, on average, at its own 24 – and that disparity in field position almost swayed the outcome in a close game that might not have gone to overtime had Houston kicker Kris Brown not missed a gimme 31-yard field-goal attempt with six minutes remaining in regulation.

COACHING: B-plus The 49ers almost seemed to play down to the competition – if that's actually possible with this team – and there was the usual confusion on play-calling and getting people in the huddle on time that forced the team to unnecessarily burn timeouts. But the 49ers stuck with solid game plans on both sides of the ball and, in the end, clearly out-coached their Houston counterparts, the leader of which was fired the day after the game. The play-calling got very conservative during a fourth-quarter downpour – the 49ers attempted only one (incomplete) pass on an 11-play drive that could have won the game late in regulation – but it was the right way to play it considering the conditions and circumstances. Mike Nolan also made the right call by not sending Nedney out for a 53-yard field-goal attempt with a minute to play in regulation. The Niners easily could have played for a tie in overtime – an outcome that would have significantly improved their position in the 2006 draft – but they played to win. And, for the second week in a row, they made adjustments that allowed them to overcome a halftime deficit. Most of the rest of this season, it usually has been the other way around.

OVERALL: B-plus Who ever would have thought just a few short weeks ago that this team could end the season on a two-game winning streak? For that matter, who ever would have thought this team simply could win two games in a row? It wasn't pretty by any means, but the 49ers made the plays needed to win against an opponent that they made look inferior by the time overtime was finished. That's not the way things were looking early in the game. When you step back and look at San Francisco's winning finish for what it was, you see the team the 49ers had envisioned they'd be this season – a gritty squad that relies on an aggressive, opportunistic defense to carry a young, developing, ground-oriented offense. This certainly wasn't an ‘A' performance by any stretch, but the 49ers out-gained an opponent for the first time this season and continued to show progress, giving them something promising to build on in 2006. For this team, that's worth far more than just a passing grade.


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