49ers vs. Cards: Thumbs up and thumbs down

Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 20-16 upset of the Arizona Cardinals, including an unleashed pass rush, a paltry rushing attack, RB Frank Gore, TE Vernon Davis, QB Shaun Hill, kicker Joe Nedney's big leg, a predictable offense, LB Patrick Willis, DE Justin Smith, third-down defense, a solid secondary performance, WR Isaac Bruce, DB Dre Bly and much, much more? Check inside.

Thumbs up: Let's hear it first and foremost for the 49ers' improved pass rush, and motor-man Justin Smith in particular. After appearing disturbingly ineffective during the preseason in that area, the 49ers apparently were just holding back for the real deal as they unleashed a torrent of pressure on Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, perhaps the biggest factor in San Francisco pulling out the well-deserved victory. Smith ended Arizona's final two offensive drives with hits on Warner, who was sacked three times and hit on eight other occasions.

Thumbs up: This is a continuation of the above thought, but outside linebacker Parys Haralson deserves his own thumbs up. Haralson was all over Warner with a sack and four QB hits, and he truly made Arizona offensive tackle Levi Brown look like a chump during a good portion of the afternoon. If Haralson and the 49ers can apply consistent pressure such as this all season, their defense truly is ready to take it to the next level – which is the NFL's top level.

Thumbs down: For a unit that advertises itself as a power rushing team, the 49ers could never get their ground game off the ground as they rushed for a paltry 21 yards on 25 carries, with seven of those carries being stopped for negative yardage. It began with Frank Gore being stuffed for a two-yard loss on San Francisco's first offensive play and then losing three more yards on the next play, and then never got a whole lot better. The 49ers had minus-12 yards rushing to show for their first four offensive drives. The Cards stacked the box and blitzed their linebackers and safeties into rushing lanes, but if the 49ers are going to get where they need to go on offense, they better hope Sunday's performance was an aberration, because future opponents will no doubt be looking at film of this game.

Thumbs up: Gore couldn't get much going on the ground, but he did add three receptions, the last of which provided the winning touchdown. In the process, Gore became the first San Francisco player to have a rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown in the same game since Kevan Barlow in 2003.

Thumbs up: Shaun Hill limped a couple of throws short of receivers when he had time, but overall he did a pretty darn good job standing strong in the face of constant Arizona pressure and making the right decisions. He played turnover-free football despite having Arizona defenders quickly in his face all day, and he also hit on some key throws down the field. And when it counted, with the 49ers behind in the fourth quarter and the game in danger of getting away from them, Hill masterfully guided San Francisco 80 yards in 15 plays to the winning touchdown, completing 9 of 13 passes along the way.

Thumbs up: It's good to see that Joe Nedney's big leg is in fine working order after his erratic cameos during the preseason. Nedney put all five of his kickoffs into the end zone – two of them for touchbacks – and he also made a 50-yard field goal look routine, booming it through the middle of the uprights with plenty of room to spare.

Thumbs up: It was a solid starting debut by Dashon Goldson, a free safety who can fill the hole. Goldson came up quickly to finish off runners and had several good licks on Arizona ball carriers while also holding up well in coverage.

Thumbs up: You might miss everything he does within the flow of the game, but if you kept your eyes strictly on San Francisco's star middle linebacker, you'd know that Patrick Willis had another awesome game. In addition to making a fine leaping grab in front of a receiver while falling back into coverage for an interception, Willis also had a game-high 13 tackles and even contributed to the team's heat on passing downs with blitzes.

Thumbs down: It must first be noted that Justin Smith gets an overall thumbs up for his stellar performance – make that a BIG thumbs up – but we also must knock the guy down for two costly penalties, both of which hurt the 49ers and showed the gritty defensive end unnecessarily trying to get away with too much. He was called for holding an offensive lineman, which allowed Arizona to convert on third-and-long, and also was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for calling out signals while the Arizona offense was at the line of scrimmage.

Thumbs up: Isaac Sopoaga's job is to do the dirty work in the defensive interior, but the brawny lineman also shined by getting his big paw up to deflect a pass and showed great pursuit on a few plays to the outside.

Thumbs up: The San Francisco defense did a great job getting off the field on third downs, particularly early in the game when Arizona started 0-for-6 on third-down conversions. The Cards finished just 4-for-14, converting on only 29 percent of their third downs. That's winning defensive football.

Thumbs up: We like to see the ball in Allen Rossum's hands at every opportunity on kick returns, but a little razzle-dazzle in the return game doesn't hurt, either. After fielding a punt, Rossum ran right and handed off the ball on a reverse to Nate Clements, who also can be good with the football in his hands. Clements got an extra seven yards after taking the ball from Rossum, and mixing it up like that is another thing opponents will have to be wary of when the dangerous Rossum is scooting around with the football.

Thumbs up: Mike Singletary's first challenge of the season was an impressively good challenge. Late in the first quarter, after the 49ers had returned a punt to their own 45-yard line, a flag came out and it was ruled the 49ers had 12 men on the field, giving the Cardinals enough yards for a first down. But sometimes, the officials can't count. Singletary picked up on this right away and threw the red challenge flag. After a review, the call was correctly overturned – it was obvious the 49ers only had 11 men on the field – and San Francisco went on to drive for a field goal and 6-0 lead.

Thumbs up: Receiver supremes Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin combined for zero receptions in the first quarter as the San Francisco secondary played very well in coverage throughout the afternoon. Fitzgerald ended up with decent numbers – 25 of his 71 receiving yards came on the game's next-to-last play against a prevent defense – but Boldin was a nonfactor while being limited to two receptions for 19 yards.

Thumbs down: It's not good seeing a No. 4-receiver type such as Jerheme Urban beating Nate Clements for a 40-yard gain in man coverage. Clements, the team's supposed No. 1 cornerback, was beaten in man coverage in each of San Francisco's four preseason games – even though he played only sparingly in a few of them – and that disturbing trend has carried over into the regular season. That big play basically accounted for Arizona getting in position for its first points of the season. On the plus side, Clements had an interception and played pretty well overall in coverage and was a beast coming up to make hits against the run, as usual.

Thumbs down: The 49ers should scrap that reverse play to receiver Isaac Bruce, the one that lost eight yards in the first half, turning a first-and-five play into a second-and-13 situation.

Thumbs up: But since we're talking about Bruce, let's give the man his credit that is due. Bruce again made timely plays in the passing game, including turning around Bryant McFadden and shaking the Arizona cornerback on a double-move for a 50-yard reception that set up San Francisco's first touchdown. Bruce finished with four receptions for 74 yards, in the process joining Jerry Rice as the second player in NFL history to record 15,000 receiving yards. Congratulations, Isaac.

Thumbs up: We're still waiting for him to get deep in the open the field, but tight end Vernon Davis was a factor in the passing game with a team-high five receptions for 40 yards, making a few key grabs to keep the chains moving. At this rate, Davis is on a pace for 80 receptions this season, which if it remains that way ought to make everybody happy, particularly VD himself. An unprotected Davis – leaping high in the air for a pass – also took a massive helmet-to-helmet hit that led to a 15-yard Arizona personal foul penalty, but he bounced right back up as though it was nothing.

Thumbs up: Veteran Dre Bly didn't hang his head because he didn't win the starting job at right cornerback this summer. Bly made a few fine plays in coverage as the nickel back and showed himself immediately to be a factor in the team's secondary packages.

Thumbs down: Young guards Chilo Rachal and David Baas can provide some mauling pop in the ground game, but both need to be quicker off the ball as Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett blew past them into the San Francisco backfield on several noticeable occasions. They also failed to open up much room in the rushing lanes.

Thumbs up: It's always good to see the 49ers get Delanie Walker involved in the passing game as his first reception of the season went for 17 yards into Arizona territory and led to a field goal. That little throwback to Walker slipping off the line on the backside ought to work all season and should be used regularly. Walker had two other passes thrown toward him, and the 49ers should keep going his way.

Thumbs up: Lets not forget punter Andy Lee averaging 49.1 yards on his eight kicks. That kind of big booming always factors into the final outcome, and that certainly was the case in this four-point game.

Thumbs down: Just a thought: It may be viewed as a conservative approach that goes hand-in-hand with the team's improving defense, but San Francisco's offense looked a bit too predictable in Jimmy Raye's debut as offensive coordinator, and finished with just 203 yards to show for it.

Thumbs down: When running back Tim Hightower catches a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards, somebody is obviously winning a particular matchup, and they're winning it all afternoon. And it wasn't the 49ers.

Thumbs up: Not necessarily related to this game, but we must note that the Carolina Panthers were embarrassed 38-10 at home Sunday by the Philadelphia Eagles. The 49ers hold Carolina's first-round draft pick next year, and at this rate, that pick is going to be higher than San Francisco's own first-round selection.

Thumbs up: In the final analysis, the 49ers just get one collective BIG thumbs up for this hard-fought upset victory, giving them a huge road victory over ostensibly one of the NFC's best teams. It's also a good omen for what's to come, considering that one team has swept the season series between the 49ers and Cardinals in each of the past five seasons. If that trend continues this season, it's the 49ers that will do the sweeping.

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