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49ers Bounce Raiders - By Bryan Hersh OCt 9 2006

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In his post-game press conference, Mike Nolan said that the 49ers 34-20 victory over the Raiders puts this team back on track. Back on track? Back on track? I presume beating one of the leagues worst teams is something the 49ers will have to make a living off this season, I do not share Nolan’s optimism based on this single win. Yes, there was a whole lot that the 49ers did right to be the Raiders, and that is commendable especially after the defeat they suffered just one week ago, but at the end of the day, I have a very hard time believing that the team is any better today than it was last Monday. That of course is a reflection more on the opponent than on the 49ers themselves.

Here is what I know:
-The Raiders are one of the leagues worst, so the 49ers beating them should not be of any surprise. But as bad as the Raiders are, they still played the 49ers competitively in the first-half, and managed to rack up 20 points.
-The 49ers defense is clearly in need of a make over. The lowly Raiders put up enough points to win a football game – and that is simply unacceptable. For improvement to have been seen this week, the 49ers would have had to blow out the Raiders, and that didn’t happen.
-Each week the run defense seems to lock down for a bit, and then loosen up. Either teams are getting a handle on what the 49ers are trying to do against the run, or the defense is fatigued. Often the defense gets spread wide and the running back is able to turn the corner. I attribute this to the same containment issues the team has against the pass. Players are working individually to make something happen against both the pass and the run, but this is coming at the expense of holding to their assignments. The result is holes in the defense that are exploited by either the QB or the RB.
-Third downs, particularly third and long are the worst situations for the 49ers defense. Time after time, season after season, teams are able to take 3rd and ridiculous and turn them into first downs. The reason for this is that when the 49ers defense comes off the field it is not typically a result of a good defensive stand, but rather the result of a “big play” like an interception. Unfortunately, interceptions and fumble recoveries are far rarer in the NFL than are 3rd downs. It is great that the team is able to force turnovers, but until they learn to make consistent third down stops they will not make the jump into the next tier of teams.

Here is what I saw:
-Frank Gore looked far better this week than last. I believe the coaches managed to get his confidence back and that was a big factor. Gore broke several longer runs, had a huge day running, and a good day receiving out of the backfield. He was also superior to the past few games in pass protection. Somehow, Gore also managed to hold on to the ball. This is the Frank Gore we were all hoping would emerge, the question now will be his consistency.
-Walt Harris had a really strong game. He recorded three interceptions including one in the corner of the endzone. Harris appears to be the best cornerback in the 49ers defensive backfield, unfortunately that does not say much. Much like Spencer had the advantage of teams simply exploiting the other weaknesses in the defensive backfield last season, Harris has that working to his advantage this season. I have a hard time justifying how good or bad he actually is.
-Bryant Young is just a tremendous player. I know I am stating the obvious here, but the guy recorded his 80.5th sack this weekend, ranking him in the top 6 of active players in the NFL. All this with titanium rods in his legs? Young is a guy that year after year the 49ers have tried to bring in fresh blood to challenge him, but there is a reason why Sopoaga, Fields and Adams names were barely heard this week. They simply are not at this level of play.
-Despite throwing his third interceptions of the season, Alex Smith had a great game. Three touchdowns (though he got serious help on the YAC from Maurice Hicks on one of them) and a high percentage of completions helped Smith lead the team to a victory. Where I was most impressed with him was: the opening drive, Smith directed the team down field for a sustained command of the game. It set the tone. Then after throwing an interception on his second drive (because he didn’t protect the ball on a pass to Bryant), Smith came back and started putting the ball where only his receivers could get it. This was particularly true on a touchdown pass and third down conversion to Arnaz Batttle. This was instant learning on Smith’s part and something I hope he doesn’t forget how to do in the coming weeks. Smith has really taken charge of the team, he moves players around the formation and signals to them on the field. This is “his” team. The next step for Smith will be to learn to audible plays as he comes up to the line of scrimmage.
-Arnaz Battle grabbed a touchdown and made a Brand Lloyd like catch for a first down on the sidelines. But I am still left to believe that the 49ers need another receiver. Why? Simply because Battle remains injury prone, and the team has no proven depth beyond him. Antonio Bryant got shaken up at the end of the game recovering an onside kick, and naturally I thought – what if he can’t play next week? Unless Vernon Davis emerges quickly as a go to guy, the 49ers need at least one more reliable set of hands for Smith. Eric Johnson is solid and contributes every time he is on the field, but he lacks the explosion of a true offensive weapon. The 49ers need another receiver.
-Norv Turner had to like the way his offense performed against his former team. The offensive coordinator devised a well balanced attack that dismantled the Raiders defense. If the 49ers defense was able to play as well as the offense than this would have been a blow out. Turner had his offense ready to go, and the progress that Alex Smith makes on a weekly basis is a real tribute to Turner.
-Delanie Walker saw action on a kick off return. He tip toed down the sideline for 25 yards. That was Walker’s only opportunity to touch the ball, and I have a feeling it will not be his last. I would be shocked if Antonio Bryant remains a kick returner now that Hicks and Walker are emerging.

Here is what I do not know:
-How good is this team? The 49ers beat an awful Raiders team. The offense looked commanding, the defense looked like it was sleeping for a good chunk of the game. I am not convinced that this victory can tell the 49ers where they are positioned in the grand scheme of things.
-Why is Smith rolling left? On one play from scrimmage the 49ers ran Smith on a naked bootleg to his left side. Three receivers were to that side, and a receiver screen was likely the intended play. The question is why run this play to the left and expose Smith to a likely crushing hit? In rolling left Smith has to take an extra two steps to square his shoulders and get rid of the ball, this required too much time and the defense was in his face. Accordingly the pass was incomplete. The same play ran to the right side was successful. The only time Smith should roll left is on a designed scramble.
-Why did Spencer get all that money? I continue to re-iterate that he is not that good. Spencer benefited from being the strongest CB in a very weak secondary last year. But this year, he is a weak link. And that means teams are taking advantage of him. Spencer is a decent corner, but that’s it. The 49ers are going to have to live with the fact that they over paid him.
-Should the 49ers plan on moving on without Jonas Jennings? Jennings suffered an arm injury this past week, but the truth of the matter is the offensive line seems to perform better when Wragge is in – and Jennings is out. At least, that is the case without Larry Allen. I know Jennings and Allen have chemistry together, so I am excited to see the two work together – but if Allen is out, I wonder if Wragge should consistently start instead of Jennings.
-If Michael Robinson keeps hitting people like he did this past week he will injure the opponents. Robinso runs very hard, and is a great asset in the straight ahead run game and with play action fakes. The 49ers try and get cute and use him off center or break him outside, but right now that should only come in to play to keep defenses guessing as to what Robinson will do with the ball. In other words using him on key downs and not using him to his strengths is a bad move – and it happened again this past week.
-Melvin Oliver had a heads up play that resulted in a touchdown. Clearly the 49ers need to get Oliver more involved in the defense. The same can be said about Parys Haralson who like Oliver is a rookie looking to make a name for himself. The fact of the matter is most of the defensive starters have shown the 49ers they are not capable of starting in the NFL – so why is the team so hesitant to try something different on defense?
-4th and 1 situations should be a sure thing in the NFL. Especially when its more like 4th and inches. The 49ers fell short on two 4th down conversions this past week. If you can’t get inches against the Raiders, you should not expect to win in this league. The 49ers did answer the challenge on defense following the turnover, but it never should have come to that. The 49ers will have to devise a way to convert first down. One of the key problems that I saw was that the running play and blocking by the offensive line did not seem to coordinate. The line for example would be on the ground done with their blocking for the RB even took the ball. Synchronizing this timing or calling for longer blocks to be held could make the difference – but they could also result in more holding penalties. Somehow though the running backs and offensive line need to get on the same page.

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