49ers report card

McDonald, D-line made life difficult for Jackson

Handing out grades to the 49ers for their performance in a season-opening 33-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks while breaking down the positives, negatives and bottom line in every area of the team.


QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: A
Positives: Alex Smith played mistake-free football, and he didn't have one bad pass among the 20 throws he delivered during the game. He ran a conservative, constrained game plan with consistency and never forced the issue. His decision-making was sharp and his previous tendency to hold the football too long was never an issue. He completed 75 percent of his passes and also used his legs to escape the pocket and make plays, including his 1-yard TD run in which he spun past the goal line after being hit. He was not sacked and had no turnovers.
Negatives: Smith averaged just 6.2 yards per pass play, a figure that ranks 21st in the NFL among quarterbacks after Week 1. But that was more a result of play-calling than anything Smith did. On the few occasions when he was allowed to throw down the field, Smith had a 27-yard completion to Vernon Davis and a 26-yard connection with Josh Morgan. Smith also fumbled a snap and fell on it for no gain.
Bottom line: It's not Smith's fault coaches put handcuffs on him and the offense. Smith did just about everything right and certainly everything that was asked of him, and he made several of the plays on offense that helped the 49ers win the game. The 49ers had just 209 yards of total offense, but Smith was directly responsible for 146 of them.

RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: B-minus
Positives: Frank Gore ran hard and made just about as much as he could of the few openings in front of him. He rushed for 59 tough yards on 22 carries against eight-man fronts and a defense that was designed specifically to stop him and force the San Francisco offense to try to beat Seattle in other ways. He was able to break loose for gains of 12 and 16 yards. Gore also had three receptions for 19 yards and was the other half of San Francisco's offense – Gore and QB Alex Smith accounted for 98 percent of the 49ers' total offensive yards.
Negatives: Gore could not get the first down when handed the ball on third-and-7, third-and-3 and third-and-2 situations in the first half. He also dropped a pass on third-and-6. Gore had three carries where he lost yardage, he was stopped for no gain on two others, had four carries on which he gained just one yard and four others when he was stopped for three or fewer yards. The rest of the RBs on the San Francisco roster were nonfactors.
Bottom line: Gore had little room to work but still popped a few plays on his own. Gore's performance exceeded his final numbers, particularly since it came within an offensive game plan that did little to keep Seattle from loading up against the run.

WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: B
Positives: Josh Morgan made a tremendous leaping grab on the run for a 26-yard gain that kept San Francisco's final scoring drive moving in the fourth quarter. Braylon Edwards had three receptions in tight spaces underneath. Wideouts combined to catch six of the nine passes that were thrown in their direction.
Negatives: Michael Crabtree dropped a short pass deep in San Francisco territory on the first possession of the second half and did not appear in the game again after pain increased in his surgically-repaired left foot.
Bottom line: This unit wasn't given much opportunity to make a difference in the game, but it did its part within a conservative game plan that gave it few chances to make plays down the field.

TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B
Positives: Vernon Davis was the top target in a passing game that kept it simple, and he responded by catching five of the six passes that came his way to finish as San Francisco's leading receiver. Three of Davis' receptions were short stuff underneath coverage and two of those lost yardage, but he did make receptions down the field of 27 and 19 yards that accounted for two of San Francisco's three longest offensive plays.
Negatives: The 49ers did not get Delanie Walker involved in the passing game and he finished with one reception for minus-1 yards. The blocking here did not do much to help the 49ers open space against overloaded Seattle defensive fronts.
Bottom line: This was a game where the 49ers could have used a third blocking tight end such as Nate Byham to help in the running game. Otherwise, this was a typical outing where Davis delivered as a primary target in the passing game.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: C-plus
Positives: The pass protection was good and held up throughout the afternoon, giving Smith time to make his throws. He was not sacked for the first time in his last 10 starts and was hit only once in the entire game.
Negatives: The final grade would be much better if the line could have generated more openings up front. But it couldn't get much push on running downs, which stagnated San Francisco's offense. Guards Chilo Rachal and Mike Iupati were slow to engage defenders when they pulled, which allowed defenders to strike first and thwart running plays. Gore had nine carries on which he lost yardage or gained 1 yard or fewer, and some of the blame belongs here. Linemen failed to pick up safety Earl Thomas a few times when he ran past them to make stops behind the line. Joe Staley had a false start penalty that pushed the 49ers back after Smith scrambled for five yards on San Francisco's first offensive play of the season.
Bottom line: The line will need to be better in the run game against better opponents, but its main job here was to give Smith adequate protection to avoid mistakes and keep the chains moving, and it showed much improvement in that area over its shaky summer performance.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A
Positives: It was an exceptional game by San Francisco's defensive front, almost worthy of an A-plus, a grade we rarely give. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga soaked up offensive linemen at the point of attack, and bookend tackles Ray McDonald and Justin Smith were ferocious throughout the game. That pair combined for 10 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss and six hits on Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The rotational players also performed well. Ricky Jean Francois held up at the point of attack when giving Sopoaga a blow, and Will Tukuafu grabbed a fumble out of the air and returned it 12 yards to set up a field goal on the first play of his NFL career.
Negatives: Not much to find here, besides Francois getting flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness at the start of 64-yard drive that brought Seattle within 16-10 early in the fourth quarter.
Bottom line: Pretty much a dominant effort that suggests this unit will be as good as it was last year, if not better with McDonald being elevated to a full-time role.

LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: Inside backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were very active, combining for 11 tackles while bottling Seattle's running game. Each had two stops behind the line and Willis also had a QB hit and knocked down a pass. Ahmad Brooks was solid holding the edge and had a QB hit. Parys Haralson had four tackles, two sacks and a career-high two forced fumbles. Rookie Aldon Smith knocked down a pass after Seattle reached the red zone to help slow a drive and limit the Seahawks to a field goal.
Negatives: Bowman's short drop in coverage left a hole in the middle on Doug Baldwin's 55-yard touchdown reception, though that might not have been Bowman's responsibility on the play.
Bottom line: The Niners got consistent heat on the edges without even having to blitz, and the run defense from this unit was superb, helping limit the Seahawks to 2.9 yards per carry. It combined with the D-line to produce a dominant performance for San Francisco's front seven.

SECONDARY -- Grade: B
Positives: Played well together and displayed some cohesion despite beginning game with four new starters, none of which started a game for the Niners last season. New LCB Carlos Rogers had a strong debut with the 49ers, as did newcomer Donte Whitner, who continued to be strong and active in underneath coverage. Tramaine Brock recorded his first career interception, and three of the four starters got their hand on a Seattle pass to break up a play. Whitner also was active around the trenches with five tackles. He made a fine play to escape blockers and stop Justin Forsett for an 8-yard gain near midfield on a screen pass that was set up for big yardage, perhaps even TD yardage.
Negatives: Brown was caught out of position on both of Seattle's TD passes, though he did not have deep responsibility on Baldwin's 55-yard catch and run. Safety Reggie Smith over-ran that play as Baldwin was able to find a soft spot in San Francisco's coverage. Brown also gave Baldwin too much room on a third-and-10 reception near midfield that kept the chains moving on Seattle's first touchdown drive. Madieu Williams was flagged for unnecessary roughness and the penalty moved Seattle into the red zone, but it was a bad call and actually a nice play by the newcomer safety
Bottom line: The two slip-ups on Seattle's touchdown plays couldn't take the luster off an otherwise solid performance by San Francisco's revamped secondary in its first outing together. This unit clearly played well enough to win against a Seattle team that's only chance at winning would be to do so through the air. But the Seahawks could manage only a paltry 3.7-yard average gain per pass play.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A-plus
Positives: Sunday was an afternoon of virtual once-in-a-lifetime performances by several individuals on these units, which also played exceptionally well as a whole. Ted Ginn Jr. clinched the victory for the 49ers with his late-game heroics that included a 102-yard TD return of a kickoff followed by a 55-yard TD return of a punt 59 seconds later. Ginn also had a 31-yard punt return to set up San Francisco's first score, and his team-record 268 return yards are the 15th most in a NFL game since 1950. Andy Lee put up magnificent, career-best numbers on his five punts with a 59.2 average and 54.2 net, and his booming kicks were big in getting the 49ers out of some early holes and helping them win the battle of field position. David Akers was perfect in his debut as 49ers kicker, going 4 for 4 on field goals and making all three of his PATs. The coverage teams also were strong, with Delanie Walker standing out in particular with four tackles on those units – the fourth-most by a 49ers player in a game since 2000.
Negatives: Newcomer Tavares Gooden was flagged for roughing the punter to give Seattle a new set of downs on its first possession, then later was flagged for unnecessary roughness on a questionable call for a borderline out-of-bounds hit.
Bottom line: You may never see a better performance by special teams units than what you saw delivered by the 49ers against the Seahawks. That's a strong statement, but it's no exaggeration. These units get the highest grade possible after a performance that was worthy of that and more.

COACHING -- Grade: B
Positives: The approach of playing to the team's strengths and not wavering from that strategy produced a 16-point victory over the defending NFC West champions, a team that beat San Francisco by 25 points in last year's season opener. With a new coaching staff, there were no snafus in clock management or play transmission and few hiccups in managing the flow of the game. San Francisco's defense dominated most of the afternoon without coordinator Vic Fangio having to do anything tricky or show much of his blitz packages. After multiple problems during the preseason, San Francisco's special teams made a complete turnaround into play-making units that factored huge in the victory.
Negatives: The 49ers called rather basic running plays in several third-down situations – one of them was third-and-7 – and they predictably went nowhere. The offensive play-calling was almost ultra-conservative at times, including several situations when the Niners were in a position to go for the jugular and blow open the game. Instead, they appeared content to just hold the lead, and that could have cost them when Seattle closed within two points late in the fourth quarter. The play-calling had a lot to do with the 49ers going 1 for 12 on third-down conversion attempts, their most glaring failure of the game.
Bottom line: Jim Harbaugh said – in fact, he said it a few times – during his day-after news conference on Monday: "We're playing to win." And, despite the obvious appearances that the Niners were playing it safe, the coaches had a sound game plan to beat an inferior opponent and – perhaps most significantly – they were prepared and had their players prepared. That wasn't often the case for the 49ers last season. The Niners could have attacked more offensively, but the time is sure to come soon enough when they'll have to do that out of necessity. Some of the play-calling may have allowed Seattle to get back in the game in the second half, but to begin the Harbaugh era of high hopes, the job on the sidelines by a first-year staff couldn't have been a whole lot better for those looking for bottom-line results.

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