49ers report card

The 49ers won ugly with an inconsistent effort in their teetering-turned-thrilling 20-17 season-opening victory over the Arizona Cardinals, and that is reflected with a divergent set of grades for their Week 1 performance.

PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus -- The passing game that entered the season with such promise never materialized in the opener until it mattered most. The 49ers would have deserved a failing grade here if not for that final, game-winning drive in the last three minutes when quarterback Alex Smith collected 60 of his 126 yards passing, including a 22-yard strike to Arnaz Battle on third-and-13 that set up the winning touchdown. The 49ers dropped at least five passes and failed to reel in several other catchable balls, resulting in a subpar 15-of-31 passing night for Smith, who contributed to those numbers by being off-target several times with hurried throws. The pass protection in front of Smith struggled throughout the evening as he was sacked three times for 24 yards in losses and harassed into incompletions several other times. Battle stepped up with game-high totals of five receptions for 60 yards, but newcomer No. 1 threat Darrell Jackson was limited to four receptions for 36 yards and could not handle several catchable throws, including one right in his hands in the end zone in the final minute.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Frank Gore exploded up the middle for a signature 6-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter for San Francisco's first score of 2007, but that proved to be one of the few highlights for a rushing attack that couldn't find its 2006 form in the opener. The rushing lanes were difficult for Gore to find, and the reigning NFC rushing champion gained just 55 yards 18 carries. Gore had a long gain of only 12 yards, and the team's biggest run of the night came on a crucial 25-yard scramble by Smith on a fourth-and-1 play to keep the final drive alive. Smith ran for two first downs and finished with 36 yards on three carries, the last of which was a game-ending kneel-down. The game-winning touchdown also came here on Battle's 1-yard end around with 26 seconds remaining.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- Wow, what's not to like? Well, maybe a pass rush that again failed to distinguish itself, but with the back end playing so superbly, the weak pass rush ultimately didn't doom the team. It's difficult to do better than what the 49ers did against the Cardinals, shutting down one the league's rising passing attacks. Matt Leinart had a tough day as he struggled to find open receivers and looked uncomfortable when he had to look for secondary options. He completed just 14 of 28 passes for a measly 102 yards. Cornerback Walt Harris had an interception on Arizona's first offensive play and finished with three passes defensed. Nate Clements also had a strong showing as the Cardinals seemed reluctant to test his side. Shawntae Spencer capped the game with an interception as the 49ers had nine passes defensed on the evening. Receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, who have destroyed the 49ers the past two seasons, combined for only 42 receiving yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: C -- The 49ers appeared to fare a little better here than the numbers might suggest, but the Cardinals did finish with 161 yards and a 4.2 average per carry on the ground. The Niners gave up some yards to Edgerrin James - who finished with 92 on 26 carries - but when they needed to stop him, they did. The run defense held late in the fourth quarter to get the ball back to the 49ers' offense for the game's seminal drive. The 49ers let Leinart get away from them a couple times as he broke from the pocket to rush for 35 yards, including a crucial 20-yarder on third-and-long that set up the go-ahead touchdown with 6:40 remaining. The 49ers received solid play from their linebacker corps, which was spearheaded by a tremendous performance by rookie Patrick Willis, who was credited by coaches with a game-high 15 tackles and also forced a fumble.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- In a game where the 49ers struggled all night on one side of the ball, these units played a significant factor in field position and ultimately played a key role in the victory. Kicker Joe Nedney made field goals from 33 and 30 yards and also sent his kickoffs deep. The Cardinals' average starting point was their own 28 on their 12 possessions, and it was back to the 22 after six San Francisco punts. The starting position for the 49ers on their 11 series, meanwhile, was their 35. Andy Lee averaged 41.7 yards with a strong 38.2 net - four yards better in each category than his Arizona counterpart. The coverage units were excellent, allowing Arizona a 0.3 average on three punt returns. The only down side was Keith Lewis' running-into-the-punter penalty that kept a drive alive for a Cardinals field goal in the first half.

COACHING: B -- The offense struggled out of the gate, and after a first-half fumble on a sack, new coordinator Jim Hostler turned conservative, and the offense looked awkward at best to allow Arizona to assume command in the fourth quarter. Hostler did not want the offense to lose the game on a night the defense was playing well, but that approach left room for a lot of second-guessing. But there was no second-guessing the plan in the final three minutes, when the 49ers went 86 yards for the winning score with a well-conceived drive in the clutch. The end around for the game-winning touchdown was a magnificent call and made up for a lot of duds that preceded it. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky called a strong game on the other side of the ball, as he mixed up the 49ers' defenses and seemed to confuse the Cardinals' offense. Mike Nolan did well managing the game and letting his subordinates do their jobs, and his calming influence and never-say-die belief in his troops helped push the 49ers to a pivotal victory in the end.


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