49ers report card
PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Alex Smith lamented afterward that the 49ers would have blown out the Lions had he played a better game, and while there is some truth to that statement, some of his glaring errors shouldn't minimize what Smith did accomplish to guide the team to its first victory in a hostile road environment this season. Smith completed 14 of 20 passes for 136 yards, and he again moved well to evade pressure throughout the game and twice scrambled for first downs on third-down plays. Besides managing the game well, Smith's biggest contribution was completing passes on a series of crucial third-down conversions as the 49ers were 10-of-19 in third-down efficiency - one of their best showings in recent seasons. On the down side, Smith was bailed out early in the second quarter when nickel back Stanley Wilson dropped a sure interception deep in Detroit territory that he would have taken back for a long touchdown return that would have changed the complexion of the game. Smith also made some poor decisions when he had open receivers on check-down patterns but opted instead to go deeper to better-covered receivers. He also overthrew - but not by much - Antonio Bryant for what would have been a game-icing 46-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the fourth quarter. Those are some warts that bring down the final grade, but it was not a bad overall effort by the young QB. And Arnaz Battle wiggled open to made several big grabs among his team-high six receptions, four of the coming on third down, including a 7-yard catch on a third-and-4 with about two minutes remaining that clinched the victory and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock. RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- Give Frank Gore an A-plus. The second-year tailback was at his spectacular best, rushing for 148 yards in the first half alone - the most by a San Francisco back in one half in the team's 61-year history. That included a signature 61-yard touchdown romp on the game's first offensive possession, when Gore displayed his tackle-breaking skills, swift moves and instinctive cutback ability. Gore appeared on his way to a team record for most rushing yards in a game, but he left late in the third quarter with a mild concussion - he did not return - and finished with a career-high 159 yards on 22 carries. The blocking up front was tremendous, with all five offensive linemen having their dominant moments at one time or another. The 49ers finished with a season-high 198 yards on the ground, and this could have been an A-plus effort all around - and we rarely give out that kind of grade under any circumstances - except that when Gore was out, his understudies - Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson - combined for only 35 yards rushing on their 17 carries. PASSING DEFENSE: A -- It's almost difficult to believe this is the same San Francisco pass defense that was so porous and vulnerable just a few short weeks ago. Now the 49ers are aggressive and opportunistic against the pass, and they were simply superb in this area against a Detroit offense that entered the game with the NFL's sixth-ranked passing attack. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer had a highlight-reel hit/sack/forced fumble on Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna, and Spencer shrugged off his inconsistency this season to have one of his best coverage games of the year while knocking away two passes. Stud receiver Roy Williams had five receptions for 81 yards, but a lot of his numbers came late, and the 49ers did a good job blanketing him when it counted and forced a fumble after one of his catches. Walt Harris continued his tremendous season with another solid performance, and the underneath coverage with linebackers and nickel/dime backs was better than usual. But the real star here was Keith Lewis, who is making opponents think twice about coming over the middle. Lewis had the game-clinching interception when the Lions were 16 yards away from a potential game-winning touchdown, knocked away another pass and forced a fumble that was recovered by the 49ers. He continues to display skills and instincts in coverage that not many believed he was capable of at this level when he entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick in 2004. And when he hits, it hurts. The same can be said of up-and-comer Brandon Moore, who added two sacks to his team-leading total and also had two other hits on Kitna. RUSHING DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Lions wanted to set the tone by running Kevin Jones right at the 49ers and getting him to the second level, but that rarely happened, and Detroit had to move away from its running plans after falling behind 13-0 early in the second quarter. Still, Jones rushed for just 44 yards on 13 carries, and one of those was a 13-yard burst, which means he averaged just 2.6 yards on his other attempts. Moore once more was excellent against the run, and Derek Smith also got in a few licks as the 49ers often put the Lions in third-down passing situations by limiting them to short gains - or no gains - on first and second down. The front line held ground at the line of scrimmage, allowing the linebackers and safeties to flow to the football. Lewis had a few hellacious hits in run pursuit, and he also stripped Jones for a fumble that led to a 49ers' field goal. SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- After a slow start - by his standards - Joe Nedney is gaining momentum and he routinely made all four of his field-goal attempts from 28, 23, 23 and 47 yards. That gives him a string of 10 consecutive makes after he missed four of his first 10 attempts this season. He had a few short kickoffs, however, and the Lions' average starting point after kickoffs was their 33-yard line. The coverage teams allowed dangerous Eddie Drummond a few good kickoff returns, including a 36-yarder, but otherwise kept him in check on kickoff and punt returns. Brandon Williams had a 26-yard kickoff return for the 49ers, but didn't do much else on returns. Punter Andy Lee had a quiet day after his monster performance last week against Minnesota, but his clutch 45-yarder midway through the fourth quarter denied the Lions good field position for the start of their final offensive drive. COACHING: A-minus -- The defense continued its dramatic turnaround, and this time it came against a pretty good offense that was playing on its home turf. After searching long and hard to find what works, the Niners now are maximizing what they have to work with in both talent and scheme. The 49ers found ways to put pressure on Kitna, who never really got in a rhythm the entire afternoon. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner again came up with a solid game plan in which he used the run game, then play-action off the run game. He also had Smith run a lot of movement plays to get outside the pocket, and the Lions never adjusted. Also give a lot of credit here to Mike Nolan and his staff for finally finding what it takes to prepare this team to get it done on the road, particularly considering the fiascos that resulted the last two times the 49ers played away from home.
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