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49ers Lose To Cardinals - By Bryan Hersh Sept 10 2006

THIS CONTENT IS COPYWRITED, REDISTRIBUTION OF IT (including copy/pasting it to a message board, forum or bbs) IS PROHIBITED AND COULD RESULT IN LEGAL ACTIONS - feel free to quote up to 1 paragraph providing a source link to http://www.49ersparadise.com is included

The 2006 San Francisco 49ers are a very different team than last season’s – and while that is obvious because the team has made over its roster, it was not obvious on the field until the opening kick off this past weekend. Despite losing to the Cardinals in the season opener, the 49ers managed to look competitive, and played a full four quarters – never quitting. It was almost enough to win – which will probably be a general theme for this season.

There were four takeaways from this game that I think will also be general themes of the season. Some for the better, and some for the worse. 1) Alex Smith is way better than last year. He may not be superman, heck he may not even be as good as he showed today, but he is definitely way better than last year. 2) The 49ers defensive backfield is pitiful. Teams should not even try to run against our defense, just throw it up. 3) The 49ers found some resemblance of a pass rush in the second half of the game. It’s encouraging to see that, but of course, it’s nothing to get excited about yet. 4) Third downs on both sides of the ball remain a real problem.

At quarterback Alex Smith had the best day of his young career. This is exactly the type of performance I was hoping for from Smith. Although far from perfect, he made good decisions with the ball, managed the clock well, did not turnover the ball, and made quite a few throws. Still Smith can learn plenty from this game – which should help him to continue to improve. I have no doubt that as teams see more of Smith they will be able to prepare better for him as well, but is completely clear that Smith can develop into the QB the 49ers need him to be. Smith will not perform like he did each week, but in the long haul I have confidence that if he stays healthy and can consistently play at the level he has shown he is capable of he can become a top tier player. Smith should continue to get better from here, and I find that very encouraging.

The 49ers made a serious effort to get Alex Smith some help this offseason. Part of that help was an improved offensive line. Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings were expected to be a big part of that solution. Unfortunately both players suffered injuries in this week’s game that has them listed as doubtful on the early injury report for next week. Both players will undergo further tests, but initial screening suggests a sprained knee for Allen (who may miss substantial time) and a high ankle sprain for Jonas Jennings. The loss of either of these two players is a devastating blow for this team. While there is some depth along the offensive line, there is very little beyond replacing these two players. Despite a few penalties, one crucial one against Kwame Harris that negated an Antonio Bryant touchdown, the line played quite well. Smith had a good amount of time to throw in most cases, and the running backs had room to run. It was a breath of fresh air compared with last season.

Frank Gore did a very good job for the team on Sunday. Gore lead the team in rushing, averaging 5.4 yards a carry on 16 attempts, and had 6 receptions for 83 yards. Gore was responsible for 2 of the team’s touchdowns. Gore had good blocks from fullback Chris Heatherington for most of the day also. If Gore can remain healthy for the season, the team should have confidence in its run game. Michael Robinson was limited to one attempt, and will likely be worked in a little more as Smith becomes more comfortable with the offense, and as the team tries to address its inability to convert third downs.

Vernon Davis took his first regular season NFL reception and turned it into a 31 yard touchdown. Davis looked fast, but did not look like he was even in full gear on the play. Although he racked up four other receptions too, he also dropped a few balls, and fumbled another. Davis needs to learn to make the catch first, and then worry about making the big play. If he does not learn to protect the football better, and to take the sure yardage first, it may be a long season for him. Davis was also always around his team-mates helping them up, and keeping them away from the opposition. Eric Johnson had a limited role in the passing game, and both performed well in the blocking game.

Receiver Antonio Bryant caught 4 balls for 114 yards. Bryant gave the 49ers a legitimate threat at receiver, something this team has been lacking for quite some time. He also had a long touchdown called back due to a Kwame Harris penalty. It is clear that he and Smith have good chemistry. Bryant will have to answer to Nolan about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty though. Although Bryant has been a model citizen within the club, he will have to watch the way he flashes his intensity on the field too. Bryan Gilmore contributed with a reverse for 22 yards, and a few receptions. Arnaz Battle’s best contribution came on a punt return in side the Cardinal’s five yard line.

In all the 49ers offense looked completely different than last year. It never quit. It moved the ball well, and was able to put up points. There is still lots of room for improvement. The players need to become more comfortable with their assignments and need to make it a priority to pick up the yards, then try and make a play – not the other way around. The team did not convert any of its nine third down opportunities, but at least was able to pick up 19 first downs, far better than last season.

On the defensive side of the ball, I was pleasantly surprised with the pass rush – particularly in the second half of the game. Although slow to get going, the defense picked up three sacks, from Brandon Moore, Bryant Young, and Walt Harris. There was also more pressure on the quarterback than I have seen in a long time, and more than I was expecting the team to generate. The team also forced two fumbles, and Sammy Davis dropped an easy interception.

The defensive line played better than I expected. If they can continue to build on the performance this week, the 49ers may have some hope of defending the pass. Defending the run was no problem at all. Edgerin James was only able to average 2.8 yards per carry.

The linebackers had a pretty decent night. Moore, Ulbrich, and Smith each made a few big plays. Manny Lawson was around the quarterback quite a bit, and exhibited good instincts on quite a few players. Still this area is not the strength is has been the past few seasons, at least not yet. An improvement from this group against the passes out of the backfield and two the tight ends will be vital over the course of the season.

The defensive backfield was virtually non-existent. In most cases the only reason for an incomplete pass was an error by the Cardinals, not a result of a good 49ers play. Sammy Davis also dropped a would be interception that likely would have been run back for a touchdown. This group is a far cry from where it needs to be to be competitive in the NFL. Fitzgerald and Boldin had a field day against the secondary, putting up 195 yards between the two of them. This is what I was expecting from the defensive backfield, I just hope it can get better, the players were giving it their all, and a few made some plays (like Keith Lewis and Mike Adams). But push come to shove opponents will have their way with the 49ers defensive backs.

The 49ers got a good effort from their special teams players. Battle and Hicks did a good job returning punts and kicks, and Andy Lee had a good job punting, leaving 3 inside the Cardinals 20 yard line. Joe Nedney uncharacteristically missed a very makeable field goal. The 49ers will expect more from him as the season progresses, and he will have to return to last year’s form in order to deliver consistency at the place kicking position.

Penalties were a big problem for the 49ers this week. You can bet that Mike Nolan is going to crack down on the team about penalties during the week. Not only did the team have 8 penalties, but they were often at bad times, or for unnecessary actions (like the Harris holding call that negated a touchdown, or the Antonio Bryant taunting penalty at the end of the game). These actions simply cannot continue week to week. The 49ers left 17 points up on the board, between Davis’s would be interception, Bryant’s negated touchdown, and Nedney’s missed field goal. That would have been more than enough points to swing this game, and so Nolan will have to focus his team on not beating itself.

As the 49ers look ahead to next Sunday when they face the Rams at home, the team should be able to build on this week’s performance. It is clear that the 49ers can be far more competitive this year than it was last year, but finding a way to win is the next step that the 49ers will have to make. It is nice to see progress, and despite a loss, an encouraging way to kick off the new season.

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