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- By Bryan Hersh
Sept 15 2008
It will be Monday afternoon by the time I am done writing this post, and I'm still excited by the 49ers win. This was what football is all about, and the type of game that makes me look forward to every Sunday. It's been a long time since the 49ers were participants in a thriller like this. It was the type of game that could be enjoyed by a fan from any team. It had everything you ask for in a game: momentum shifts, lots of scoring, turnovers, odd plays, and of course great plays. Across the board this was just a thrilling game to watch. That the 49ers won, makes me happy as a fan, but there was just so much more to this game then just the win.
This was a character building game for the 49ers. It is evident that a shift in power is taking place in the NFC West even if the Seahawks were extremely banged up. As amazing as parts of the 49ers performance was though, there remains plenty of room to improve, and I will now try and temper my excitement and provide some depth of analysis. OK� one last hurrah, because I'm absolutely giddy with this win!
It's not that the 49ers were dominant, but rather they showed they could be. The team has to continue to improve, and do so quickly. The opponents are getting tougher on the team's schedule, and the 49ers made enough errors to lose this game. In fact, the only reason this game ever went to over time was because the 49ers never managed to put the Seahawks away. Nevertheless, the strides this team made are character building stepping stones that provide a real reason for optimism. That's something that been missing from 49ers Land for far too long.
It is hard not to start the analysis at quarterback. JTO had the type of breakout game that 49ers fans have been waiting for from any of the team's recent quarterbacks. He earned his starting job with this win, and added an exclamation point to the position as well. For the first time since 2004 (and it only happened once that year), a 49ers quarterback threw for 300+ yards. Prior to 2004, Garcia, Young and of course Montana made this more of a regular habit than an anomaly. In reaching this milestone in his first start away from home, JTO did what plenty of others (Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Ken Dorsey, Cody Pickett, Chris Weinke, et al.) failed to do. JTO's performance though was about so much more than the yards. He was sacked 8 times, and somehow escaped 2-3 other potential sacks that could have ended drives or stifled the 49ers momentum, and he converted big plays on most of these escapes. He managed to will his team down field, and threw strike after strike to his receivers. He absolutely elevated the play of those around him, and carried this team to victory. A performance that I have not seen the likes of since Jeff Garcia defeated the Giants in the playoffs. JTO put the 49ers in scoring position throughout the game and twice to give Joe Nedney a chance to ice the win. That is what makes a winning quarterback. He used his legs when he had to, he used his arm an awful lot, and he managed to persevere a heavy onslaught to win in a stadium that visiting teams simply don't win in often.
Braun is great, but it
also takes a degree of psychology to be online for success.
JTO's performance has improved tremendously since the pre-season, and significantly from even last week. Yes, he still had his share of bad throws, or mental break downs (you never want to see your quarterback running backwards 20 yards, or forcing the ball when he has an easy run for a first in front of him), but the improvement gives hope that he can continue to improve and sharpen his skills so that the breakdowns are fewer and further between. Aside from the aforementioned backward running plays, I can recall 4 other plays that are significant learning opportunities for the quarterback. One play, and JTO has already acknowledged this, he was rolling with the pocket to his right. JTO did not set his feet and he skipped the ball off the ground. Two throws to the endzone were called pass interference. These calls could have gone the other way, and in one case the ball would have been intercepted. JTO needs to hit the corners of the endzone more in sync with the receiver. The other pass was also towards the endzone, and on the final drive, 3rd down, of the 4th quarter. JTO threw over the middle to a well covered receiver, but at the top left of the field another 49er was left completely open and would have had the easy touchdown. These few plays are exhibits of areas that JTO needs to continue to improve in. He was much smarter with the football then in week one and held onto it way better in the face of some heavy pressure. The improvement is huge, and hopefully he can continue moving up the steep learning curve as quickly as he did since week one.
Ok, enough about the quarterback. There is still the rest of the team to talk about it. So how about WR? When your quarterback has as big a day as JTO did, receivers tend to do well. But it wasn't just that they picked up quite a bit of yards, they also brought a different game with them than we have seen in quite a few years. Isaac Bruce reminded 49ers fans why they hated him with the Rams. He did everything a veteran receiver of his caliber is supposed to do, and proved to the NFL that he is still a legitimate threat. Bruce got the ball often, and had a big day. He won the match ups at the line of scrimmage and made clutch catches to bring the team down the field. On one play, Bruce had the wherewithal to recognize he was going to be caught from behind, he looked up at the jumbotron and saw the defender closing in on him, so he secured the ball with both hands to make sure he would not cough up the ball as he was tackled. That is veteran suaveness. Bryant Johnson was equally impressive. Johnson caught a host of passes, and was very effective on the quick slant (also scoring a touchdown in this manner). Johnson was able to get off the line quick and secured the ball well. Arnaz Battle caught the 49ers first clutch first down and was a reliable threat to make some clutch passes throughout the game. There was help from others too, but these three really played receiver like it hasn't been played for the 49ers in a very long time.
At running back and tight end the 49ers were not quite as successful. Even putting Gore's fumble aside (it could be attributed to Eric Heitmann anyway), the 49ers were unable to pick up much if any of the tough inside yards. Some of this fault has to go to the OL which played miserably, but Gore and Vernon Davis can't be exempt. Gore still managed a decent day, contributing in the passing game as well, but Davis continues to be more about hype than performance. I still hope one day things click for him, but at some point Delanie Walker may see his number called. Nolan's teams seem to consistently struggle at picking up short yardage and for that matter stopping the short yardage play. This has to be corrected as it will be a key ingredient to come away with the close games in the coming weeks.
As I already alluded to, the offensive line had a dismal game. EIGHT sacks, and there share of penalties as well (sometimes in key situations) does not bode well at all. The noise factor of playing against the Hawks likely has something to do with it, but the group has to find a way to overcome that. JTO cannot continue to be put into the turf and be expected to perform like he did today. I suspect some of the trouble the line is having in protecting JTO is that he moves around a fair bit, and will evade the rush when possible. The line is more familiar with blocking for Smith who rarely left the pocket unless it was a designed play. JTO thrives in chaos based on what we saw this week, but the 49ers would be better served if they could keep the chaos out of his face.
It has been a very long time since the offense won a game for the 49ers. This week, it was JTO and the offense that made this win possible. The defense gave up far too many points. Thankfully, when they had to, they buckled down and also came up with the big play. Although the offense won this one for the team, it would not have been possible if not for the defense. Walt Harris had a fantastic day. He intercepted a ball, and deflected another to Patrick Willis who returned it for an amazing touchdown run. Nate Clements also had a great day. Not a single pass was completed to Clements. The defensive backfield was supposed to have a big day though. They were playing against a severely crippled Seahawk offense. Aside from Harris and Clements the group was mediocre, unable to stop the Seahawks from moving the ball. A good portion of this trouble may be the result of the defensive scheme the team implored. More on this in my coaching staff critique below.
I am at a complete loss as to why Manny Lawson did not take a single defensive snap. He had a big day on special teams, blocking a punt the 49ers probably wish was never blocked (it oddly ended in a Seattle first down). The rest of the linebackers had a solid day, but somewhat underwhelming. Spikes played better, but as a whole, aside from Willis's TD the group had a pretty hard day. Yes, there was an occasional stop in the backfield, or such, but the group seemed to be held in check more by the defensive play calling then their abilities.
The defensive line lost the battle on the line of scrimmage for most of the day. Again, it's hard to say if they lost the battle, or if the coaches lost it for them. I remain baffled at the defensive play calling in this weeks game.
Special teams had their ups and downs. The group blocked a punt, and missed a field goal. This group seems to be average, a step down from what it was over the past few seasons.
This extensive review is clearly weighted heavily on the offensive side of the ball. That's not because the defense is not important, but rather because I find it hard to evaluate the players when the scheme and play calls don't really give the players a chance to perform at their best level. The offensive staff did their jobs this week in a big way. Yes, there were errors made, but they called the right plays and had the players in place to execute. It's been a long time since I've seen that with the 49ers especially to this degree.
The defensive coaching however did not seem to make any sense what so ever. It begins with not playing Manny Lawson at all on defense. He could have been matched up on Seattle's TE all game, and likely could have even the score to that end a fair bit. Instead, the team went very heavy in the defensive backfield despite the Hawks playing with receivers who barely have a place in the NFL. The scheme made no sense, as no pressure was brought on quarterback Matt Hasselback (with the exception of the end of the game). The veteran QB (who continues to play with a hurt back) had all time to throw, and as such was able to find his scrub receivers. Even I could have thrown the ball with that amount of time. After the game comments like "this is how we play Seattle" were made, but that is just foolish. You shouldn't play a team the same way every time. You should play a team according to the conditions of the moment. I'm actually impressed with the defensive players for playing as well as they did in spite the inept play calling from the coaching staff.
I simply do not understand how a defensive wiz like Nolan comes in with such a poor defensive game plan - and beyond that, does not make any significant adjustments until the last few minutes of the game. I don't know who to blame more, Manusky or Nolan, but whoever it was who kept 5 defensive backs on the field, and did not blitz for almost the entire game, better get their act together. The offense bailed the defense out in a big way this week. This "bend but don't break" mentality seems to be "broken". A healthier Seahawk team, or some of the tougher opponents to come would have absolutely handed it to the 49ers against this defensive plan. No excuses, the defense has to come to play at a far more aggressive level in the coming weeks.