First Look: The San Francisco 49ers

A 19-13 victory over the Lions on Sunday helped the 49ers achieve two goals that the club has struggled achieving in recent seasons. The 49ers won on the road for only the fourth time in its past 29 attempts. And the 49ers strung together back-to-back victories for the second time in 3 1/2 seasons.

Yes, the 49ers are making progress under second-year coach Mike Nolan, as they have already equaled last season's win total with seven games to play. "It doesn't happen overnight," Nolan said. "When you're going through those difficult times ... I'm not a quick-fix guy, but at the same time, you don't want to endure those things forever."

The 49ers' turnaround remarkably has come after its lowest moment. On Oct. 29, the 49ers trailed the Bears 41-0 at halftime. It was the worst half of football in team history.

But since halftime of that game, the 49ers defense has allowed just one touchdown in 10 quarters.

"The guys have worked through it," Nolan said. "I'd like to think it's going to lead to more wins, and I think it's a turning point. Maybe it's not a huge turning point, but it's a turning point. As we all do, we climb the ladder up and then take a step back every once in a while. I'd like to think that we're going to climb for a while."

The key to the resurgence has been a defense that just two weeks ago was on pace to yield the most points in NFL history. But the defense has since spearheaded two victories, including a 9-3 victory over the Vikings a week earlier.

"We really haven't given up," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "There are still a lot of games, and there's hope. For us, it was about staying the course and eventually it'll turn for us. Right now, it is."

NOTES, QUOTES

--WR Arnaz Battle is turning into the QB Alex Smith's top third-down target even though he played most of Sunday's game with a broken left hand. Four of Battle's team-high six receptions came on successful third-down plays for the 49ers, including a key third-and-4 late in the game when the 49ers were trying to run out the clock.

"I wanted that ball in my hands," Smith said. "There were a couple third downs before that I wanted the ball in my hands. It felt good for the coaches to have the confidence in me to call that." Smith rolled right and found Battle beyond the first-down marker for a 7-yard gain. After the two-minute warning, the 49ers ran out the clock with Smith taking a knee three times.

"That's big for us," Battle said. "There was a lot of emphasis on third-down conversions because we struggled early in the year." The 49ers, who entered the game ranked 29th in the league with a 30.9 percent conversion rate on third downs, were successful on 10 of 19 (53 percent) on Sunday. Battle sustained a hand injury in the first quarter and continued to play. X-rays revealed a fracture to the outside of the hand, he said. He hoped he would not miss any time with the injury.

--Coach Mike Nolan tossed the red flag to challenge a call with the Lions driving late in the game despite the fact that he did not believe he would win the ruling. With the Lions attempting to drive for a possible game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter, officials originally ruled that Lions running back Kevin Jones fumbled with the 49ers recovering. But another official overruled the play. Nolan said that even though his assistants in the coaches' box advised him not to challenge the ruling, Nolan decided to throw the red flag to get his defense regrouped.

"Had I felt comfortable that the defense was set and everything was calm, I never would've thrown it (the red flag)," Nolan said. "One thing about being on the sideline, you feel your emotion and you feel the team."

--Veteran LB Derek Smith gave his teammates a rousing locker room speech before the team took the field. The 49ers have had a difficult time at the start of road games, and Smith tried to set the tone for the 49ers to begin quickly.

"It wasn't as much what he said as the energy he brought to it," TE Eric Johnson said. "He brought the energy up about 10 levels and got everyone going. I thought that helped our energy before the game."

PLAYER NOTES

--TE Vernon Davis missed his seventh consecutive game with a broken right leg. There is a chance he'll be able to return to action against the Seahawks. The loss of Davis has left the 49ers without a speedster to either make plays down the field or take attention away from WR Antonio Bryant.

--RB Frank Gore rushed for a career-high 159 yards -- 148 of which came in the first half -- against the Lions. It was the most yards rushing in a half in 49ers team history. Gore's status for Sunday against the Seahawks in unclear after he left in the third quarter with a mild concussion.

--FS Keith Lewis has helped ignite a 49ers defensive improvement. The special teams ace has started the past two games and has delivered. He had an interception and a forced fumble against the Lions, and he also added two special teams tackles.

--CB Shawntae Spencer, whom the 49ers signed to a contract extension through 2012 earlier this season, played his best game of the season. He broke up two passes and forced a fumble on a corner blitz for the first sack of his career.

--RT Kwame Harris, who has been much maligned since coming to the 49ers in 2003, had a strong game against the Lions in run blocking and pass protection. He was a big part of Frank Gore's 159 yards rushing.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. LIONS

PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus --
Quarterback Alex Smith completed 14 of 20 passes for 136 yards with no TDs and no interceptions, but he also missed some passes and made a poor decision on one pass that should have been intercepted. Smith made some key third-down passes, four of which went to WR Arnaz Battle. The 49ers clinched the game on Battle's 7-yard catch on a third-and-4 with about two minutes remaining.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus -- RB Frank Gore set a 49ers record with 148 yards rushing in the first half. He finished with 159 yards and a TD on 22 carries before leaving with a mild concussion late in the third quarter. Gore set the tone for the 49ers, who have fallen behind repeatedly on the road, with a 61-yard TD run on the opening drive of the game.

PASS DEFENSE: A-minus -- The pass defense was superb. S Keith Lewis wrapped up the game with an interception on a fourth-down pass on the Lions' last scoring chance. The 49ers also were able to generate a pass rush against QB Jon Kitna, as they recorded three sacks. CB Shawntae Spencer had his best game of the season, as he broke up two passes and forced a fumble on a corner blitz.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- The 49ers allowed Kevin Jones to rush for just 44 yards on 13 carries. Kitna gained 27 yards on four scrambles. The 49ers did a good enough job on first and second downs to put the Lions offense in third-and-long situations. Keith Lewis also forced a Jones fumble that resulted in a San Francisco field goal.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Joe Nedney made all four of his field-goal attempts from 28, 23, 23 and 47 yards. His kickoffs weren't the best, as the Lions' average start point after kickoffs was the 33-yard line. Andy Lee had a clutch 45-yard punt midway through the fourth quarter to deny the Lions good field position.

COACHING: A-minus -- The defensive game plan was solid, as the 49ers took care of the Lions on early downs and then turned up the heat on Kitna on passing situations. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner had a solid game plan in which he used the run game, then play-action off the run game. He also had Smith run a lot of movement plays to get outside the pocket.


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