QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: B
Positives: Alex Smith completed at least two-thirds of his passes in consecutive games for the first time since 2006. He had another efficient and steady performance, completing 16 of 24 passes for 179 yards to finish with a fine passer rating of 99.9. Both of his touchdown passes came on good reads and excellent throws. He also rushed for 21 yards.
Negatives: Despite good protection on the play, Smith threw his first interception of the season with the 49ers backed up in their own territory, allowing Dallas a short field to score a touchdown that tied the game.
Bottom line: It was another solid game by Smith, who played well enough to win despite his costly interception. He did a good job protecting the football and standing up to Dallas’ constant, unorthodox pressure.
RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: C
Positives: Frank Gore scored his first touchdown of the season on a 1-yard run, and Anthony Dixon turned his first carry of the season into a powerful six-yard burst on third-and-1 to keep San Francisco’s first touchdown drive moving. Gore displayed great power to convert a third-and-1 up the middle early in the game. Gore was exceptional in pass protection, and fullback Moran Norris had some good blocks to clear out space in front of Gore.
Negatives: Gore averaged just 2.4 yards on his 20 carries while gaining just 47 yards. He had little room to work and had four carries for no gain or negative yardage. Eleven of his carries gained two yards or fewer. Norris had a hot/cold performance, also whiffing conspicuously on a few attempted blocks.
Bottom line: Gore keeps working hard to get the most out of the tight openings – or no openings – the line in front of him is providing, but his production continues to be below standard.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: B
Positives: Ted Ginn stepped in early and made some nice catches while leading the 49ers with four receptions. Josh Morgan also got open for a few key receptions. Kyle Williams made a nice two-handed grab in the corner of the end zone and got his feet down for the first TD reception of his career.
Negatives: Braylon Edwards was lost for the afternoon on San Francisco’s third offensive play, when he sprained his right knee on a 21-yard reception. He might have been headed for a big day against Dallas’ depleted secondary.
Bottom line: This unit did its job, running clean routes, getting open consistently and catching the balls that came its way. Losing Edwards was an early blow but Ginn stepped in nicely in his place.
TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Delanie Walker exploited a mismatch with a nice sell in the backfield, then a fine route to beat linebacker Anthony Spencer and get wide open for a 29-yard scoring pass that put the 49ers back in the lead late in the third quarter. Vernon Davis worked hard and had some nice blocks when asked to perform that role.
Negatives: Davis was targeted only two times the entire game, and was virtually a nonfactor with two receptions for 18 yards. He was asked to do too much as a blocker and didn’t finish on a few of those plays.
Bottom line: It was a great call to take advantage of Walker’s skills on his TD pass, but what were the 49ers doing not getting Davis more involved in the passing game against a banged-up secondary when San Francisco was having trouble running the ball all afternoon?
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: D
Positives: There were several times when San Francisco linemen did a good job in pass protection against Dallas’ relentless pressure, particularly on the edges where tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis were able to handle star rusher DeMarcus Ware. The left side of Staley and Mike Iupati blew open a hole in a goal-line situation on Gore’s TD run.
Negatives: Jay Ratliff beat center Jonathan Goodwin for a crucial sack on San Francisco’s only possession of overtime, one of six sacks allowed by the 49ers, who also allowed their quarterback to be hit nine times. This unit continued to create very few openings in the running game, which was shut down most of the game and never allowed the 49ers to take control of the game after opening they opened a 14-0 lead late in the second quarter.
Bottom line: The line worked hard and stuck with it against a superior opponent, but it was outplayed most of the day by its Dallas counterparts.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Despite finishing with just one sack, the defensive front applied good pressure on Dallas quarterback Tony Romo most of the afternoon and forced him to get the ball out quickly. Romo was hit seven times, including two each by tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Dallas’ ground game went nowhere when running into this unit, which did a good job holding blocks to allow linebackers to clean with tackles.
Negatives: The pressure seemed to weaken during Dallas’ final two drives, when the Cowboys scored 10 points to send the game into overtime.
Bottom line: Another strong performance by a unit that clearly is establishing itself as one of the team’s greatest strengths. McDonald again was a load up front and is establishing himself as a productive performer in his new starting role.
LINEBACKERS -- Grade: B
Positives: Inside backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were very active and aggressive and bottled Dallas’ attempts to run throughout the afternoon. Bowman had a game-high 10 tackles and Willis finished with nine. Outside backers Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks each contributed three tackles, with Haralson staying at home on a reverse to record a four-yard loss on one of them and Brooks knocking down a pass. Aldon Smith had two hits on Romo
Negatives: There were no sacks from this unit and very little success for the inside backers when they attempted to blitz. This unit also struggled throughout the day in pass coverage, particularly when matched with Dallas tight end Jason Witten. Brooks was flagged for being offside on a third-and-9 incompletion late in the second quarter, giving the Cowboys new life to score on a 53-yard pass on the next play.
Bottom line: Great against the run, not so great against the pass.
SECONDARY -- Grade: D-minus
Positives: Donte Whitner and Tramaine Brock both recorded interceptions, with Whitner’s coming in the end zone to thwart a Dallas drive deep in San Francisco territory and Brock’s setting up the Niners’ final touchdown. Cornerback Tarell Brown had some tight coverage on the edges, particularly early in the game. Whitner finished with three passes defensed and cornerback Carlos Rogers had two.
Negatives: It was a horror show in coverage that just got worse as the game progressed after a solid start. The play here was a big factor in turning the 49ers from potential winners into losers with cornerbacks falling down, miscommunications and safeties taking the wrong angles and failing to make plays. Miles Austin embarrassed this unit for 143 yards receiving, with three of his nine catches going for touchdowns. San Francisco’s best two players in the secondary, Whitner and Rogers, stood frozen near the line as a second-string wideout streaked behind them to get open for the game-deciding 77-yard pass play.
Bottom line: The takeaways were nice, but 432 yards allowed passing just about says it all. The Cowboys got 288 of those in the second half and overtime. “We gave up entirely too many big plays as a secondary, as a unit,” Whitner said. Yeah, that about covers it.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A
Positives: Plenty of good here for the second consecutive game. The coverage units were solid, and kicker David Akers made a 55-yard field goal, the longest in Candlestick Park history, and also had four touchbacks. Andy Lee came up big again, blasting punts of 64 and 63 yards and finishing with a 55.3 average on six kicks with a 45.7 net. Rookie Kendall Hunter had a 43-yard kickoff return and Ted Ginn had a 20-yard punt return.
Negatives: Ginn never got a chance to return a kickoff as Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey had four touchbacks. Lee also had a touchback when he couldn’t stop a punt deep in Dallas territory when punting from his own 44-yard line.
Bottom line: The kicking specialists were again fantastic, the coverage units again did their job and the 49ers even broke some nice returns despite Dallas kicking away from their returners throughout the day.
COACHING -- Grade: D
Positives: The 49ers were ready and prepared at the start, which helped them move out to an early two-touchdown lead. San Francisco came out passing, going to the air on its first four offensive plays, and that was the right approach to loosen the Dallas defense. The offense dialed up some nice plays to exploit mismatches. The defense had a solid game plan up front.
Negatives: The 49ers were outcoached with the game on the line, and the Cowboys did a much better job adjusting at halftime, from which point they out-gained the 49ers 321-67 in total yards the rest of the afternoon. The Niners could not exploit a decimated Dallas secondary, nor an offense that was playing with an injured quarterback and second-string receivers at the finish.
Bottom line: Chalk it up as a learning experience for Jim Harbaugh and his crew, but they played not to lose, and that’s the same kind of approach that didn’t get it done for Mike Singletary and his staff. It was obvious what was going on during Dallas’ furious fourth-quarter rally, but the Niners could do nothing to stop it and lost a game against a playoff-caliber opponent that they should have won.