Niners must fix third-down letdowns

Third downs were where offensive drives went to die for the 49ers last week as San Francisco was abysmal on that down during a heart-wrenching 27-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Niners did not convert a third down on 11 attempts, while the Vikings were successful on half of their 20 attempts.

But the 49ers' problems weren't so much what they did on third downs, as opposed to what they did on first and second downs.

"We were getting in third-and-long situations and we have to do a better job on first and second downs," 49ers center Eric Heitmann said.

Four times the 49ers were faced with third and at least 12 yards. Their average third down required a gain of nine yards.

Quarterback Shaun Hill completed five of eight passes on third downs for 32 yards, but each time the completion came up short of the required yardage.

"That's going to be key for us," Hill said. "You can't go 0 for 11 on third downs and expect to win ball games. We'll have to be on top of our game no doubt. Our defense played great, and we kept them on the field too long and that goes to our third-down efficiency. We put them in a bad situation throughout the whole game because we couldn't convert on third down."

The 49ers' offense had its chances to put the game away in the fourth quarter at Minnesota. The 49ers scored the go-ahead touchdown on a six-play, 80-yard drive in which they never got to third down. The 49ers got the ball back twice more, needing a first down or two to run out the clock.

Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye could not get anything going with the run game. Rookie running back Glen Coffee, playing in place of injured Frank Gore, had runs of minus-2 and minus-5 yards to set up a third-and-17.

When the 49ers got the ball back with 1:49 remaining, Coffee had three consecutive run plays that netted two yards on every attempt. The 49ers punted the ball away to Brett Favre and the Vikings to set up the remarkable finish: Favre's 32-yard scoring pass to Greg Lewis for the winning points with two seconds remaining.

"We expect much better of ourselves as a team," said Coffee, who rushed for 54 yards on 25 carries as San Francisco was limited to 246 yards total offense. "That should never happen no matter the circumstances of the game. It's definitely something we won't let happen again, because it's embarrassing for our offense. We all had things we could have done better, and it cost us our victory."

Coach Mike Singletary stood by the play-calling of coordinator Jimmy Raye.

"What we did, I totally support," Singletary said. "I don't go back and try to analyze why I didn't do this or that. What we did, we thought would give us a chance to keep the ball. It didn't happen, if we won the game, we wouldn't be talking about it."

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Singletary did not want his team glossing over their last-second loss to the Vikings. He wanted it to be a learning experience that will serve them well for the entire season.

"It's already a positive," Singletary said. "It's one of those things where you go through a season and you hope that it doesn't happen. We were 2-0 and everyone was thinking, 'Well, hopefully, we can keep this thing going.' When you lose a game of this magnitude, we knew it was going to be a war coming in here. ... I'd rather we lose now, taste it, chew on it, swallow it and get better.

"I want them to remember it. I want them to remember what it feels like. It's not a taste you want to have very often, but learn from it and go from there."

Furthermore, Singletary said he expects the 49ers to get another shot at the Vikings in January.

"The only reason we play this game is to win," Singletary said. "The only reason we did all the things we did in training camp is go to the playoffs. This is a good football team we played (last week). I do look to see them again."

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Defensive lineman Justin Smith nearly got quarterback Brett Favre, but the Vikings quarterback ducked away. Then, just as linebacker Manny Lawson got there, Favre was able to get the pass away.

Favre fired a 32-yard dart to Lewis at the back of the end zone with :02 remaining to provide the winning points in last week's loss. How close did Lawson get to winning the game with a hit on Favre?

"Not close enough," he said. "But close enough to know I'll be thinking about that play for a while."

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In defeat, the 49ers might have seen their first proof that tight end Vernon Davis is a changed man. Davis, who has been a lot more promise that production through three NFL seasons, had his best game as a pro on Sunday.

Davis appears to be fitting in nicely with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye's design. Raye wants the 49ers to create a power running game and use the tight end. Davis had a the best day of his four-year NFL career with seven receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns.

Davis' leaping 20-yard grab of a Shaun Hill pass in the fourth quarter gave the 49ers the lead. Davis went up among multiple Vikings defenders to make the catch.

"He made a great play in traffic," 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill said.

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