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In The Hunt - By Bryan Hersh Nov 20 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 49ers managed to hold onto a whirlwind ending to defeat the NFC West leading Seahawks 20-16. The win, the 49ers third in a row, culminates the teams first 3 game win streak since 2002. For the first time in a long time the 49ers are playing meaningful games in November. As the team begins to focus on its division rivals the Rams for its next game, they are also looking to build consistency in winning, and finding success in adverse situations.

What I know:
The 49ers defense has taken it upon themselves to win games for this team. Perhaps that is because they were responsible for so many losses earlier in the season. Brandon Moore, Keith Lewis and Walt Harris have stepped up there games to a new level over the past three weeks, and its clear this has been a difference maker.

4-3 vs 3-4, does it matter? Yeah it probably does. The 49ers seem to be playing way more 4-3 defense lately, and the personnel seems to be a better fit for this defense – particularly with Brandon Moore on the field. Lo and behold the team has found a pass rush! Is this coincidental that it happened after Billy Davis got called out by fans and media in a big way? I believe so.

Mike Nolan has really increased his active coaching on the sidelines. By that I mean he is breaking down what the opposition is doing and informing the different units as to how they can counter the opposition. Nolan had not taken a very active approach in this area before, and I believe the players are benefiting from seeing the game through his eyes.

Jerry Rice’s retirement ceremony was a true hit (you can now view it in the HOP archive or in the video archive in the multi media tab on the main page 49ers Paradise). Rice is a true 49er, and it was great to see him catch one more TD from Steve Young. But did Joe Montana forget all that Rice did for his career? Did Montana forget that Rice attended his half time celebration despite actually playing in that game, and needing to go into the locker room? He must have, because I can’t imagine a reason for him not being there to support Jerry. It’s not like this was a last minute affair after all. On top of that, the way Joe has conducted himself versus the way Steve has conducted himself in their post football careers, I’d say the edge has to go to Steve. It was great seeing Bill Walsh, and seeing him healthy. I know that we all wish him the best (send him your regards http://www.49ersparadise.com/walsh/walshcard.shtml) . It was also nice to see Walsh and Seifert together. Along with many other alumni.

OK, fine, back to the game. Vernon Davis is not at full strength yet, otherwise the team would have used him more. But the team did use him in run blocking situations which should put to rest any question on his blocking ability coming out of college.

Frank Gore is for real. Gore is why the 49ers are able to move the ball on offense, and the team better hope that either Hicks or Robinson is able to pick up where Gore has left off if they need him. Hats off to Gore for his record breaking day. I hope he continues to stay healthy, run like a palomino and eventually learn to protect the football.

What I don’t know:
What is wrong with PK Joe Nedney? Nedney was absolutely on fire last year, he made 26 of 28 field goals last year, and was perfect on extra points. Already this year Nedney is 18-24, that’s a drop of nearly 18% in accuracy (and also an indication as to how much more often the team is in scoring position). I thought the place kicking position was locked down for the next three seasons or so, but I imagine that if Nedney continues as a 75% kicker (which is close to his career average) the 49ers will bring in more serious competition for his spot.

How Derek Smith is playing with one eye. It really amazes me that first of all, Smith is willing to take this risk, and second of all he is making plays. Smith had three tackles this week, but was a presence in the offensive backfield, and was not found out of position. I can see his reaction is a little slower – in finding the ball, but he is still producing at a solid level.

Why Jonas Jennings can’t stay healthy? Jennings must be the most injured player in 49ers history … next to Gabe Wilkins of course. (Yeah you remember Gabe “I’m too hurt to play in the Super Bowl so I got cut” Wilkins). Now Jennings has been quite productive over the past two games, and he teams well with Larry Allen, but the 49ers can’t afford to keep losing a starting lineman. Jennings is listed as questionable for next week, but the 49ers better hope he can stay healthy for the rest of the season.

Where the check downs in the redzone? I am a big fan of what Norv Turner has done to this offense. Production is way, way up. Alex Smith looks like he knows what he is doing, and there is often exciting and creative play calling. The miss directions, delays, trick plays, and so on all seem to have a purpose and all seem to be working well this year. But inside the redzone the 49ers are freezing up. Why? I think some of it is the lack of alternatives that Smith is given. Constantly, Smith is rolled to his right and looking to the corner of the endzone. I get that, it makes sense. He’s a good passer on the run, it reduces the chance of being hit, and gives Smith the opportunity to stop the clock by going out of bounds or throwing incomplete if need be. BUT FOR LOMBARDI’s SAKE, give Smith a second option, an underneath receiver or two … or something. That way Smith doesn’t have to force the ball to the only receiver on that side of the field. I’m just saying that’s all.

How Bryant Young is able to play at such a high level for so long. It amazes me each time Bryant Young makes a play, that this guy is still performing at a top level. Bryant is well conditioned, perhaps the best conditioned player on the team since Jerry Rice, and it shows. Three tackles, two assists, and just another day on the field for BY. Keep doing what your doing!

How much longer Antonio Bryant will be able to keep his cool, given that he’s been more active in down field blocking then receiving, and when he does catch a pass, its typically called back due to a penalty elsewhere on the field. Both Battle and Bryant did an exceptional job of down field blocking in this game. Gore certainly benefited from this, but so did Eric Johnson on a few receiving plays. Yet for a guy who is supposed to have a temper, Bryant is quiet. He is not catching a million balls, in fact he only caught 2 for 21 yards this week, but he’s doing his job. I am amazed he’s been able to keep his cool, and clearly he has learned from his past mistakes. So the 9ers need to find a way to get him the ball, and I have a feeling the return of Vernon Davis should reduce some of the double coverage Bryant has been facing.

How bummed Tony Parrish must be after being inactive for this victory. Parrish is a workhorse. He’s had a heck of a career, and just keeps fighting. I was surprised to learn he was inactive for the game – but Mark Roman played well, and has played well since Parrish was demoted. For a guy who has had the career Parish has had, it must hurt sitting on the sidelines knowing he’s not contributing anymore.

What we are bound to find out:
How bad this defense can look if Sammy Davis sees more play time. Towards the end of the game, with Shawntae Spencer injured, Davis entered the game and was torched repeatedly. Eventually the 49ers compensated by shifting Davis to the other side of the field (the quarterbacks back side) which helped take the target off his back. But gosh are the 49ers in trouble if either Harris or Spencer miss a game or part of a game. If Davis is the next inline, the 49ers better hope they never have to see him on the field. He really was that bad.

Can the team improve its redzone efficiency and not leave points on the board? The 49ers left 10 points on the board that absolutely would have taken this game out of reach of the ‘Hawks, and left the 49ers in control of the game. They need to learn how to put away teams. This was not the first time points were left on the board. 2 missed field goals, and a horrible instant replay call coupled with a bad decision to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the 2 inch line with momentum.

Will the defense be able to contend with a top quarterback on a skilled team? The 49ers got a break in facing the ‘Hawks without Matt Hasselbeck, and so the question remains, can the 49ers beat a truly top tier team. Similarly I am not convinced that the team has learned to provide proper containment on mobile quarterbacks. So far the team has gotten off easy in these two respects in the past 3 weeks. They have not faced a top team with a top quarterback, or a highly mobile quarterback who has the experience to know how to use it and the weapons to make him deadly.

Is Alex Smith’s production being capped by his mentor? An interesting discussion has surfaced on the web regarding Smith. Is he turning into Trent Dilfer? And although Smith’s current passer rating is about as good as Dilfer’s ever was, there is question about the growth pattern of Smith. Is he becoming a game manager as opposed to a game winner? I think this is an interesting discussion, and one that will surely be on going. On the one hand, at 22, Smith is still way younger than most QBs in the league. He’s also way less experienced – and yet he is learning to manage the game quite well, and learning when to take risks with the football. I also think Smith is learning when to take risks when playing with a lead, which is probably completely foreign to Smith. In other words – he still has a lot to learn. Although Smith’s game management lately is very reminiscent of Dilfer’s he also improvises and directs the offense in a way that Dilfer never did. Smith also picks up the key first down with his legs in a way that did not happen this week, but in a way that has happened in earlier games, and in a way that Dilfer never did.

So hang in there, Smith still has lots to learn especially when it comes to managing risk with and without a lead. As he is able to put the team on his shoulders more, I believe the 49ers will give him more opportunity to do so. And as he is given more opportunity he should be able to extend his ability far beyond on what Dilfer was able to do.

And while we are on the topic of Smith, I just have to mention that he needs to get a little bit better on timing the ball on deep routes, and trusting his receiver to be there. Consistently he’s a second or two slow which has given the defense time to close because of the amount of air under the pass. Smith needs to work to correct this issue as he continues to learn to manage the game, and make the players around him better.

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