49ers report card

Handing out a set of grades to the 49ers this week that could have been a lot better had they held on in the final minutes of their disappointing 20-17 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- With the 49ers' running game once again in top form, quarterback Alex Smith had several opportunities to get things going in play-action situations, but he didn't have much success going down the field. Even though he typically got good protection and wasn't sacked on the day, Smith managed to complete only 13 of 25 passes for 148 yards against one of the NFL's better pass defenses. Smith did have a flurry of success late in the second quarter when he completed passes of 28 and 25 yards to Antonio Bryant on consecutive plays - which sparked San Francisco on a quick four-play, 73-yard touchdown drive - but those two plays accounted for more than a third of his passing total. Smith did execute a quick throw to Eric Johnson for a third-down touchdown pass that gave San Francisco it's first lead late in the third quarter, but the 49ers could not strike down the field through the air, and this was one of Smith's poorer games. He threw two interceptions, the first coming on a poor throw in the second quarter and the second coming on the final play of the game, a desperation heave when Smith was just trying to make a big play happen to get the 49ers in position for a tying field goal. The 49ers had only five receptions to wide receivers, with running back Frank Gore once again the team's leading pass-catcher.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- How far do you mark down a running game that was dominant most of the day for its failure to produce on one play? We're going to go down a full grade because Michael Robinson's inability to get one yard on third-and-1 late in the fourth quarter set off a sequence of events that ultimately cost the 49ers a victory. But otherwise, this was an 'A' effort all around, particularly by an offensive line that gets better and better every game and, of course, Gore, who continues his ascent among the NFL's elite backs. Gore rushed for more than 100 yards for the third consecutive game, finishing with 134 yards on 21 carries, including a 12-yard touchdown run that was classic Gore - following his blockers on a pitch, cutting decisively as the hole opened, then running over a defender to surge past the goal line. Maurice Hicks added a nice complementary touch with 32 yards on seven carries, but Robinson was stoned on what proved to be the 49ers' biggest carry of the game, and he needs to get that yard, particularly considering he missed a hole to his left that might have led him into the end zone.

PASSING DEFENSE: B-minus -- Here, too, the 49ers were headed toward a top grade before the Rams' final drive, when their pass defense suddenly got soft, allowing Marc Bulger to complete 9-of-9 passes to take St. Louis down the field to the winning touchdown. Cornerback Walt Harris again was exceptional, and he definitely should be receiving Pro Bowl consideration at this point, despite the low ranking of the pass defense he plays for. Harris blanketed star receiver Torry Holt most of the game and limited him to just four receptions for 30 yards, even though nine passes were aimed at Holt during the afternoon when Harris was on him. Harris knocked away two passes and had six tackles, but he also had an interception nullified by a penalty, and a fumble return for a touchdown overturned on a dubious reversal after Harris knocked the ball away from Holt after an apparent reception that ultimately was ruled an incompletion. Manny Lawson had an athletic, leaping interception and Bryant Young got some good pressure on Bulger and finished with 1.5 sacks and another quarterback hit. But the pressure elsewhere was sporadic, and this part of San Francisco's game didn't come through when the 49ers needed it most.

RUSHING DEFENSE: C-minus -- Again, a very uneven performance that would have received a higher grade had the 49ers come through in the end. St. Louis running Steven Jackson had a lot of room to roam in the first half as he slammed into holes and carried San Francisco defenders with him as the 49ers opted to leave just seven defenders in the box. The tackling was very poor as Jackson sliced right through the middle of the defense on his 36-yard touchdown run that put St. Louis ahead 10-0.But it was a complete reversal in the second half, when Jackson had only 18 of his 121 yards rushing. But 10 of those 18 second-half yards came on two fourth-and-1 carries during St. Louis' late game-winning drive when one big play by the San Francisco rushing defense could have secured the victory.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Arnaz Battle's fumble on a punt return late in the second quarter - Jackson scored on his 36-run on the next play - brings down the final grade for another solid performance by the special teams. That play was huge in the game because the Rams put seven quick points on the board coming off it. Punter Andy Lee had a good statistical game with a 51.5-yard average, including a booming 66-yarder that got the 49ers out of a deep hole when field position was becoming vital in the fourth quarter. But Lee also has two touchbacks when punting from the St. Louis 34 and from the San Francisco 44, and he needs to do better in those situations. The coverage teams again were solid, and Hicks had a few nice kickoff returns. The Battle fumble was the killer here.

COACHING: D -- Mike Nolan played it safe going for a field goal instead of a first down on fourth-and-very-short late in the game, but it was not a bad decision considering the circumstances of the moment. Then again, he could have made a statement - and the 49ers could have put the game away - had he gone for the first down, particularly considering the difficulty St. Louis was having in stopping San Francisco on the ground. Another Nolan decision might have been more questionable and just as consequential when he passed up a potential 52-yard field-goal attempt early in the second quarter to play the field-position game. The Rams made a similar field-goal attempt later in the quarter, and those were three points - and three non-points, in the 49ers' case - that ended up being a huge factor in the final outcome. Nolan also had Battle back returning punts for the first time in eight games, even though he had a broken left hand. That was a decision made before the game when rookie returner Brandon Williams was made inactive. On the plus side, there was some nice defensive adjustments after halftime, and the 49ers stuck with an offensive game plan that eventually wore down the Rams and should have won the game. The key words here are "should have." This is a game the 49ers definitely should have won, so the coaching gets downgraded for the role it played in losing it.


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