Offensive line paved the way for 239 yards rushing
What better way to get well fast than a dominating performance against a neighborhood rival that all your fans love to hate? In coach Jim Harbaugh’s home debut Saturday night at Candlestick Park, the 49ers did a complete U-turn from their exhibition opener, getting their offense in order and putting the hurt on the Oakland Raiders during a 17-3 win that was much more lopsided than the final score.
This is a bit more what everybody had in mind after Harbaugh took over from Mike Singletary in January. The Niners completely shed the overmatched, deer-in-the-headlights look they wore last week in their exhibition opener, a 24-3 defeat in New Orleans that raised some eyebrows about San Francisco’s apparent inferiority.
This was a complete reversal. The 49ers took the opening kickoff and assembled a 16-play drive with quarterback Alex Smith at the controls. Though that drive stalled near the Oakland goal line and produced no points, the tone for the evening was set.
The Niners had come to play, and they spent the rest of the game doing things on both sides of the football that has them and everybody else feeling better about where the team is headed.
“We really wanted to see improvement from last week to this week,” Harbaugh said. “And I think that all happened. There are definitely some big areas of improvement.”
No bigger than on offense, where the 49ers rolled to 402 yards and 25 first downs, churning for 239 yards on the ground. Rookie Kendall Hunter led the way with 105 yards on nine carries, including a 53-yard jaunt to the end zone that saw him burst through the middle, cut back across the field and pull away from the Oakland defense until he reached the goal line.
Smith made progress in his pursuit to hold onto the starting job, converting a key third-down pass on the opening drive and later a 32-yard rope to Josh Morgan before finishing 8 of 13 for 126 yards passing. He threw into coverage and was intercepted on San Francisco’s second series to thwart another promising drive, but was not sacked and looked much sharper than the week before.
Colin Kaepernick, Smith’s rookie understudy, completed 6 of 8 passes for 52 yards and was sacked twice to pick up no ground in the quarterback competition with Smith.
The best news for the 49ers, however, was another stingy effort by a defense that is jelling quickly. The Raiders were limited to 214 yards of total offense, and on their best sustained drive of the evening, they were turned away on fourth-and-goal when Parys Haralson sacked Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell for a three-yard loss.
“That was big time,” safety Dashon Goldson said. “You harp on good defense and today we showed it. We made a stand out there and, collectively, we did a good job and bounced back from last week and put the two together.”
San Francisco’s defense was tough on key passing downs, allowing Oakland to convert on just 2 of 9 third-down opportunities, while cornerback Tarell Brown and safety Madieu Williams each came up with interceptions to turn back Oakland threats. The Raiders went nowhere on the ground, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, and their offense was on the field little more than 23 minutes.
The 49ers didn’t have that kind of problem as all four of their running backs averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry. In addition to Hunter’s breakout game, Xavier Omon rumbled for 62 yards on 14 carries, Anthony Dixon had 53 yards on 12 carries and Frank Gore added 21 yards on four carries in his brief starting cameo.
“We have a lot of weapons on offense, and we’re a team that is trying to establish an identity,” said receiver Braylon Edwards, who had a spectacular 32-yard, one-armed sideline reception. “The line played well tonight, and when we get that going, there’s no limit to what we can do.”