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Putting the Loss Behind Them - By Bryan Hersh Sept 25 2006

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The 49ers believed this past weeks match up against the Eagles would provide a measuring stick for the club. The game did exactly that, and revealed a whole lot about the stature of the club.

No doubt execution was a problem in this game. The team came off its blocks to quick, was out of place on defense, and did not provide the protection Alex Smith needed to win to win this game. Of note, 8 bad penalties, in particular one that called back a 60 yard pass to Antonio Bryant, and one to start the game that gave the Eagles excellent field position. Also, a 12 men on the field and unsportsmanlike conduct penalty were easily avoidable. Execution was a key issue throughout the game that also includes a bad fumble by Gore on the goal line (again) and defensive backs being far out of position.

It is clear that the 49ers do not know how to play a team like the Eagles yet. And by that, I mean a team with a mobile, strong armed quarterback. Not only was the team unable to frazzle McNaab, but when he was flushed from the pocket, the defensive backs were so far out of position, it was an easy completion for McNaab. Another thing that teams like the Eagles have is lots of explosion. The 49ers were troubled by explosion against Arizona, but in that case it was just the receivers. The Eagles have explosive players at all skill positions, and the 49ers defense simply can’t match up with that – even with some excellent scheming.

The opening flee-flicker set the tone for the entire first half. The 49ers are not built to stop big plays, and any team should be able to have success going deep on them. The result of that one pass, was far too much respect being paid to the receivers for the remainder of the half. The 49ers were completely off balance, and as the offense struggled with a slow star the defense did not have a chance to catch its breath.

Derek Smith did manage to look good despite the rest of the team. Smith had a very good game in pass coverage, something I have seen him do in pre-season but until this game was not confident he could do the same thing during the regular season. Brandon Moore saw increased activity as the team was in the 3-4, and this may have led to Smith having some more flexibility.

The 49ers offensive line was troubled all day. The line needed to give Smith an extra second or two… but somehow Smith managed to have a pretty good day. He made smart decisions with the ball, ran when needed, and showed he can stand in and take the hit. You could tell the pressure got to him though, as he rushed some passes, and failed to set his feet on a few others. Smith is adding another dimension to his game by using his legs, and if he can learn to use them in the face of pressure like he saw this week a little more, it could really help neutralize the blitz. Steve Young used to do this all the time, especially when he had no running game around him. As Smith develops this combined with the rollout will be a big asset to him.

Also to freeze the blitz the 49ers need to work on the execution of their screens. The timing was off, as was the blocking. The play action worked later in the game, but it took a long time to get the Eagles to respect the run game.

Vernon Davis suffered a cracked leg bone on Frank Gore’s goal line fumble. Losing Davis for about 4 weeks will have an interesting effect on the team. On the one hand, Davis is supposed to be an explosive talent. On the other he really hasn’t emerged as a weapon in this offense. Notice, that like Davis, I only used one hand at a time – kind of like the way he tries to catch the ball. Davis dropped another big play opportunity this week because he only used one hand to try and catch the ball. Perhaps he has not adjust to the velocity on the ball at the NFL level, or perhaps he watches too much Sports Centre but when Davis comes back to the team he will have a hard time fending off Eric Johnson. Johnson stepped right up, and had a big day receiving, including a touchdown, and key first down as the team was trying to mount its comeback.

Now about that Frank Gore fumble. Gore has fumbled on the goal line twice in basically the same twisting motion. I have a feeling that Gore (who suffered an abdominal strain) is going to be used much less in the short yardage situations, especially with Michael Robinson’s two touchdown performance. The team will have to address this issue with Gore. The one play, lead to a 14 point swing, and basically kept the 49ers from mounting a comeback that would have made this game far closer.

Trent Dilfer is very much involved with this team. He listens to every offensive call, and is constantly cheering on his team and offering Smith advice. I admit I was not crazy about signing him at the time. But each week my support for Dilfer as the team’s backup grows trememndously.

Imagine getting sandwiched by Mike Adams and Tony Parrish running full speed. That’s what happened one play to McNaab. Chad Williams was also in at safety, making it a three safety set. An interesting blitz packaged that brough a different look to the defense. Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer teamed for a forced fumble and recovery also.

Third downs remain an issue for the defense, and a big part of that has to do with the respect the corners are giving the receivers, and the lack of a pass rush without a blitz. The only way for this defense to get off the field is to be aggressive, but it cannot afford to do that every play. On the other side of the ball the offense finally put together some longer drives in the second half. That is the type of drive that can control a game, and is something I had not seen from the explosive style of offense the team has this year. If Turner can get that type of drive going more often, the team will slowly begin to win the time of possession battle too, which will make life easier for the defense.

Through three games I have to say I am impressed with the second half presence of the team, and the half time adjustments. I really thought the team lacked in the half time adjustments the past few years, and Nolan and his staff have stepped this up in a big, big way. Nolan was booed for punting on 4th and 1 at the end of the first half, but he knew what he was doing. The 49ers mounted a formidable attack in the second half, and if not for the Gore fumble would have been right in the “thick of things” in a game in which they really had no right to be in at all. Of course being able to make these half time adjustments is a good thing, but so is being able to “start hot” like the Eagles did, something I am not convinced this team can do yet.

No doubt, the Eagles game served as a measuring stick, and while I know many people are very negative about this loss, I for one am not. This game was closer than it should have been, playing against one of the better teams in the NFC. Of course, the 49ers are still a long ways away from being average if they were playing in the AFC. The “parity” in the NFL really does not mean all teams are near equal in talent, just that the better teams changeover at a greater rate. No doubt the AFC is still much stronger than the NFC. That aside, I think the 49ers can learn big time from this game. Smith is really coming along as a quarterback, and the team was exposed to a different type of team than it is used to playing. I walk away with a positive feeling from this game, as the team is clearly on the right track, with the right guidance, and the right guy at quarterback. Now if only it could get healthy…

 
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