49ers vs. Saints: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for San Francisco's reeling pass defense, linebacker Takeo Spikes, safety Michael Lewis, the 49ers' protection of QB J.T. O'Sullivan, O'Sullivan's recurring turnover problems, kicker Joe Nedney, Mike Nolan's third-quarter challenge, TE Vernon Davis' emotions, WR Arnaz Battle's emergence, WR Isaac Bruce, return specialist Allen Rossum and much, much more? Check inside.

Thumbs down: So much for the 49ers' goal of being the NFL's top pass defense after getting repeatedly burned on the back end all afternoon by Drew Brees and his receiving targets. The Niners, who entered the game with the NFL's seventh-ranked passing defense, simply looked terrible as they let New Orleans receivers get behind them for big plays. Brees passed for a whopping 363 yards, including four gains of 30 yards or more, and embarrassed a secondary that had been playing some of its best football in several years.

Thumbs up: Takeo Spikes got his first start of the season at inside linebacker next to Patrick Willis, then played like he belonged with the starters with impact performance throughout the afternoon. Spikes had an outstanding leaping interception to stop one New Orleans drive in the first quarter and made several plays during a day when the San Francisco defense was getting gouged. He finished with eight tackles.

Thumbs up: The scrappy play of safety Michael Lewis was a highlight for the beleaguered San Francisco defense. Lewis had a crushing hit at the goal line to prevent a New Orleans touchdown and force a fumble in the fourth quarter that stopped the Saints from turning the game into a blowout right then and there. Lewis finished with a game-high 11 tackles and broke up two pass attempts.

Thumbs down: The 49ers picked up a series of careless defensive penalties that helped keep the New Orleans offense moving even while the Saints were figuring out how to do that quite well on their own. The 49ers finished with nine penalties for 63 negative yards, most of them coming on the defensive side of the ball.

Thumbs up: The 49ers began the game getting tremendous pressure up the middle from their inside linebackers. Spikes pressured Brees into an incompletion on first down after the Saints had reached midfield on their first drive, then Willis did the same on third down, almost sacking Brees before another weak incompletion resulted in a New Orleans punt. Spikes and Willis combined for three quarterback hits and several other pressures.

Thumbs down: That said, after getting excellent pressure on Brees early to rattle the New Orleans QB, the 49ers failed to record any sacks in a game where they desperately needed to get to the quarterback to keep him out of rhythm. Brees simply had too much time to throw, and he made the 49ers pay for it. The 49ers failed to turn up the heat when they needed to.

Thumbs down: After apparently making substantial progress last week against Detroit, the 49ers' pass protection regressed in a big way as quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan was hounded throughout the day and sacked six times. O'Sullivan was either hit, sacked or pressured on 23 of his first 29 pass attempts, and it never got any better as the Saints pinned their ears back and kept coming after him the more the game starting getting away from the 49ers.

Thumbs down: Speaking of O'Sullivan, the quarterback had a recurrence of struggling to protect the football. O'Sullivan, who had three turnovers in the season opener but none in the next two games, had three killer turnovers. The first was a fumble that led to New Orleans' first touchdown, and the next two were interceptions in the end zone on throws that O'Sullivan simply has to refrain from making. Without those two interceptions, this game could have been different.

Thumbs down: The San Francisco offense, ranked 11th in the NFL entering the game, was 0 for 5 attempting to convert third downs in the first half. That's a good way to fall behind early. No wonder the Saints enjoyed a 21-6 bulge at the intermission.

Thumbs up: The 49ers had problems the closer they got to the New Orleans end zone, but kicker Joe Nedney produced points and kept them in the game by steadily drilling all three of his field-goal attempts in the game's first 38 minutes, hitting from 38, 47 and a season-best 49 yards.

Thumbs down: That was a ridiculous challenge by coach Mike Nolan that cost the 49ers a timeout midway through the third quarter. It came on a nonconsequential play in which tight end Mark Campbell made a six-yard reception on a first-and-10 play near midfield. It looked like a completion from almost every angle, but Nolan decided he needed to challenge the play. Huh? Why burn the timeout when the play is inconclusive at best? So what if the Saints have a second-and-4 at the 50-yard line instead of second-and-10 at their 44? The play was upheld, and the 49ers lost a timeout. Not that it mattered in this game, but you want to save those for the end, and this seemed like a foolish spot to risk losing one on a very debatable challenge.

Thumbs down: The Saints only averaged 3.3 yards per rushing attempt, but the San Francisco defense appeared to give up the tough yards up the middle that the Saints needed to keep their drives moving. Deuce McAllister could not be stopped in several short-yardage sequences.

Thumbs up: It was nice to see the breakout emergence of receiver Arnaz Battle, who was a factor throughout the game and picked up the slack for Bryant Johnson, who was battling a hamstring injury. Battle almost doubled his production of the first three games with game-high totals of seven receptions for 120 yards, and he will give opposing defenses something else to think about down the road.

Thumbs down: Once again, the 49ers failed to get explosive tight end Vernon Davis involved in the offense. Davis reeled in one short pass late in the fourth quarter, and turned it into a 19-yard gain on the 49ers' lone touchdown drive. Sure, his blocking is needed in pass protection, but the 49ers are wasting his talent by not dialing up more plays for him in the passing game.

Thumbs down Davis has to get a handle on his emotions. After his reception, he jumped up and started pounding his chest and screaming at the San Francisco sideline. Given the situation, it was totally unnecessary. Can it, Vernon. This isn't all about you.

Thumbs up: After Davis' outburst, he was benched by coach Mike Nolan for the final five minutes of the game. Nolan said afterward he just wanted Davis to sit down and cool off. Good move, coach. Davis has to learn he can't let his emotions get the best of him. Sitting on the sidelines ought to serve as a lesson.

Thumbs up: Despite their problems and mistakes, the 49ers still showed signs of life on offense, and O'Sullivan got the ball downfield for receptions of 19 yards or more to five different receivers. He had a 36-yard throw to Battle, O'Sullivan's ninth completion of 25 yards or more in four games this season. The 49ers only had 10 completions of 25 yards or more the entire 2007 season.

Thumbs down: It's disconcerting to see linebacker Manny Lawson injured again. Did you see Lawson running down the field on a kickoff early in the third quarter? It looked like he'd been shot as he grabbed the back of his left leg and immediately hit the ground hard. Lawson's status was not immediately available after the game, but it didn't look good.

Thumbs down: Everybody in the San Francisco secondary gets thumbs down in this game, but a big thumbs down for the particularly wretched play of the team's safeties. Mark Roman and Dashon Goldson both allowed New Orleans receivers to run right past them in coverage to reel in touchdown passes, and Roman also was flagged for illegal contact. There were also a few conspicuous instances where safeties were slow to get over and help the corners on deep passes. One word to sum up their play in coverage: Yuck.

Thumbs up: With five receptions for 54 yards, Isaac Bruce moved into fifth place on the NFL's all-time list of reception leaders, leaving Andre Reed behind. Congratulations, Isaac, you certainly deserve every rung you climb on that list.

Thumbs down: The 49ers let a guy named Lance Moore catch two touchdowns passes, while leading the Saints with a career-high seven receptions for 101 yards. Lance Moore? Come on. The 49ers made it easy on a New Orleans passing game that was without top receiver Marques Colston and top receiving tight end Jeremy Shockey, both of whom missed the game with injuries.

Thumbs up: Veteran kick returner Allen Rossum continues to be a weapon for the 49ers. He averaged 37.3 yards on four kickoff returns, including a 55-yarder. He has added a threat in this area that the 49ers haven't had for a while.

Thumbs down: After looking strong in his first start for the 49ers last week, right tackle Barry Sims had a rough afternoon and occasionally was tossed around by New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant. The 49ers need better from Sims, who looked like an upgrade over Jonas Jennings but now has you thinking twice about that after Sunday.

Thumbs down: With the game won, and the Saints in possession of the football at the San Francisco 13-yard line, New Orleans coach Sean Payton calls timeout and elects to kick a short field goal with 32 seconds remaining. What, exactly, was the reasoning behind that? Payton should have had his team take a knee, since the 49ers had no timeouts remaining and would have only half a minute to run a couple of plays from their own 13. That was a lame decision by Payton, who said he wasn't trying to run it up, but looked sorry making that call for more points nonetheless. That's a bad karma move, Mr. Payton.

Thumbs up: The 49ers had to go away from him when they fell behind, but running back Frank Gore quietly had another productive game. Gore rushed for a game-high 82 yards on 16 carries, averaging 5.1 yards per pop, and added 31 yards on two receptions. The NFL leader in yards from scrimmage with 412 entering the game, Gore added another 113 to his total in a losing effort.

Thumbs down: There goes a nice surge of momentum for the 49ers as their two-game winning streak ends with a thud. It's not exactly back to the drawing board, but this result shows the 49ers that they have multiple things to correct to become a winner and there's still plenty of work to get done to piece together future winning streaks and prevent games like this from happening again.

Thumbs up: But the silver lining is, despite the loss, the 49ers still are in first place in the NFC West. Give thanks for that to the New York Jets, who scored 34 points in the second quarter Sunday on their way to a 56-35 pasting of the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the 49ers and Cards with identical 2-2 records atop the division. Despite what transpired in New Orleans, the 49ers have reached the quarter pole of the season as a first-place team, and it's still all out there for them to grab as they enter the second stage of their season next week at home against defending AFC champion New England.

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