QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: B
Positives: Alex Smith made the biggest and most consequential throw of his career when he hit tight end Delanie Walker perfectly with a fourth-and-win/lose pass from the 6-yard line with the outcome of the game hanging in the balance and 1:51 remaining to play. It was the first time in Smith’s seven-year career that he has thrown a game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes. Seven of Smith's 17 completions went for first downs. Smith was 11 of 15 through the air in the first half to help the 49ers take a halftime lead after trailing 10-0 entering the second quarter.
Negatives: Smith was off-target on several throws with his intended receivers open and sprayed the ball high on numerous attempts. His ugly third-quarter interception was badly overthrown and changed the momentum of the game when the Niners were driving in Detroit territory with the lead a chance to assume command. Smith also had the ball taken out of his hand as he cocked to throw on a blind-side sack on San Francisco’s first offensive play. He completed just 6 of 17 passes for 48 yards in the second half with the 49ers engaged in a tight, seesaw battle. Smith had just two completions of more than 12 yards and finished with season lows in completion percentage (53 percent), passer rating (60.0) and yardage per pass attempt (3.9).
Bottom line: Smith’s worst game of the season ended with him making the best clutch throw of his career to complete a huge comeback victory.
RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: A
Positives: Frank Gore turned the game in the 49ers’ favor with his big-play running after San Francisco had fallen behind by 10 points entering the second quarter. Gore’s 47-yard burst set up his own 1-yard scoring run that trimmed that margin to 10-7, and Gore later had a 55-yard run that set up a field goal that put the Niners ahead 15-13 midway through the third quarter. At that point, Gore had 121 yards rushing and was averaging 20 yards per carry. He finished with a season-high 141 yards rushing, averaging 9.4 yards a carry while showing burst and power and making defenders miss on his long runs. Kendall Hunter complemented Gore with 33 yards rushing, several of them tough yards between the tackles.
Negatives: With Gore in top form and the running game clicking, the 49ers should have fed him the ball more during the middle of the game. Fullback Bruce Miller was flagged for a false start. When lined up at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga was flagged 15 yards for ripping off the helmet of Detroit defensive end Willie Young in the second quarter, effectively thwarting a drive that began in Detroit territory.
Bottom line: Gore’s elite performance provided the big impact the 49ers needed from him to win this game. The Gore/Hunter tandem again played a major role in keeping the offense from bogging down on a day when San Francisco’s passing game was off.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: B
Positives: Michael Crabtree produced a career-high nine receptions on a day the 49ers threw to him 15 times as the primary target in their passing game. Crabtree displayed exceptional hands on several of his catches, few of which were easy grabs. Both of Ted Ginn Jr.’s two receptions helped the 49ers drive to a go-ahead field goal in the final 55 seconds of the first half. Crabtree and Ginn both worked hard throughout day when called to block downfield. Ginn rushed for 21 yards on two reverses.
Negatives: Crabtree and Ginn combined for at least three dropped passes, two of them slipping right through Crabtree’s hands. Crabtree averaged just 8.6 yards per catch and was not effective in getting necessary yardage after the catch on a few occasions. Crabtree made a spectacular catch near the goal line that went unrewarded when he got one foot down inbounds twice but couldn’t get the other down before going out of bounds in the third quarter. The 49ers had to settle for a field goal.
Bottom line: Crabtree made some big catches and some tough ones, but unit was inconsistent throughout the day.
TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Delanie Walker ran route perfectly to get in position for game-winning touchdown catch, then carried defender into the end zone and did a good job of stretching and getting football over goal line before his legs touched ground. Walker also had an exceptional game as a blocker, helping spring Gore for several of his big runs. Vernon Davis never took a play off and also was a stalwart as a blocker. One of Davis’ two receptions converted a third down on 49ers’ first TD drive, setting up Gore’s 47-yard run on the next play.
Negatives:Walker dropped a potential touchdown pass he had in his hands in corner of end zone and 49ers had to settle for a field goal in third quarter. Walker and Justin Peelle both were flagged for false starts. Davis, the 49ers’ leading receiver and a top offensive threat, had only two balls thrown his way on a day when the 49ers threw 32 passes.
Bottom line: Davis/Walker combo continued stellar all-around play with Walker coming through with big play for winning touchdown.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: B
Positives: Line continued its rise to prominence as a run-blocking unit by out-playing Detroit’s vaunted defensive line and paving way for 203 rushing yards. Right guard Adam Snyder held his own against All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh, who was leveraged out of several plays by unit’s blocking schemes. Center Jonathan Goodwin continued strong play and both he and left guard Mike Iupati picked off defenders at second level on numerous running plays. Right tackle Anthony Davis held up well in pass protection and might have had his best game of season, blasting Suh to open hole for Gore’s scoring run. Left tackle Joe Staley recovered from first-play slip-up to have a solid and effective game.
Negatives: Staley was beaten around left edge by defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch on San Francisco’s first offensive play, resulting in a blind-side sack of Smith and fumble that led to Detroit’s first score. Davis was flagged for a false start and illegal formation on back-to-back series, with the second penalty being declined, then was flagged again for illegal formation late in second period. Staley also was penalized for a false start. Snyder had a holding penalty that was declined, and then had to leave late in the game with a shoulder stinger.
Bottom line: Unit settled down after rough start and, considering the opponent and the circumstances, played a solid game to the end.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A-plus
Positives: This Unit – which pretty much consisted of tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald with the Niners in their nickel front most of game – got constant push on passing downs and pretty much dominated Detroit counterparts. Lions left tackle Jeff Backus struggled all day to contain Smith, who displayed his raw power and Pro Bowl form while finishing with seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and three QB hits in a star performance. McDonald didn’t have big numbers, but he also was a bully up front while knocking down two passes and finishing with 0.5 sacks and one QB hit. Isaac Sopoaga returned at nose tackle after missing one game but played sparingly. By the end of this game, McDonald and Smith had Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford looking for cover.
Negatives: McDonald was flagged six yards on an encroachment penalty.
Bottom line: Simply a great performance by McDonald and Smith, each of whom are playing great football.
LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A
Positives: It’s a long list. NaVorro Bowman was all over the field, making a game-high 17 tackles while knocking down a pass and getting one QB hit. Patrick Willis had seven tackles and a QB hit while rising to the challenge in pass coverage and finishing with three passes defensed, including one in end zone. Ahmad Brooks was a menace on the left edge with five tackles – three of them for losses – one mean sack and two QB hits on Stafford. And then there was rookie Aldon Smith, who continued his coming-out party with two sacks, one of them in the end zone for a safety. Smith, who often lined up at defensive end in nickel packages, also had one forced fumble, one pass batted away and one QB hit to go with his four tackles.
Negatives: Smith was flagged for roughing the passer and a neutral zone infraction on the first two plays of Detroit’s second offensive series. Smith also dropped a sure interception thrown right into his hands in the second quarter. Bowman was flagged five yards for holding. Willis was beaten for a touchdown pass despite outstanding coverage on tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Starting ROLB Parys Haralson suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not play in second half.
Bottom line: A few minor negatives is all that stops this outstanding performance from getting the best grade possible.
SECONDARY -- Grade: B
Positives: Unit did a fine job containing star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, whose seven receptions for 113 yards didn’t end up hurting Niners much. Coverage was resilient throughout afternoon against Detroit passing game that put ball in the air 50 times. Rookie Chris Culliver continued his emergence as an effective No. 3 corner and knocked down a pass. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson each had six tackles, with Whitner stopping Pettigrew for a third-down loss late in the second quarter that led to the 49ers getting the ball back for a field goal on the final play before halftime. Whitner also forced an intentional grounding by Stafford on a blitz. Cornerback Carlos Rogers had shutdown coverage on Johnson on a failed two-point conversion pass, and Rogers also knocked away a fourth-and-5 pass with 1:19 remaining, effectively sealing the win. Right corner Tarell Brown had another solid game in coverage. Detroit averaged just 4.4 yards per pass attempt.
Negatives: Rogers was flagged 19 yards for pass interference on Detroit’s first touchdown drive, and later was beaten for a 41-yard reception by Johnson. Goldson was flagged for delay of game after kicking the football following an incomplete pass, turning a third-and-10 situation into third-and-5 on Detroit’s final touchdown drive.
Bottom line: Unit made lots of plays and held up well against one of NFL’s best passing offenses.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A
Positives: David Akers drilled a 55-yard field goal to end the first half, giving the 49ers their first lead, then gave the Niners back the lead with a 31-yarder in the third quarter before later making a 37-yarder to put the finishing touches on a six-point win. Akers also blasted each of his five kickoffs deep into the end zone for touchbacks. Andy Lee dropped four punts inside the Detroit 11-yard line, boomed a 60-yarder and had a fine 41.0 net on his nine punts to help the Niners win the battle of field position. Ted Ginn Jr.’s returns had a big impact on the game and his 40-yard punt return gave the 49ers a short field on their game-winning touchdown drive. Ginn had seven returns for 177 yards, averaging 24.0 yards on his three punt returns and 26.3 yards on four kickoff returns, often bringing them back from deep in the end zone.
Negatives: Chris Culliver was flagged for running out of bounds while covering a punt, adding five more yards onto a 16-yard return – Detroit’s longest of the game.
Bottom line: Akers, Lee and Ginn are playing as well as anybody in the NFL at their positions, and their performance and production again played a huge role in a San Francisco victory.
COACHING -- Grade: A
Positives: Both coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said this was one of the best defensive performances they have ever seen, and they knew what they were talking about, because they are the guys who drew up the game plan. It was simply a marvelous effort that had Stafford – one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks – increasingly flummoxed as the game progressed. Offensive plan also was sound and attacked Detroit in vulnerable areas. Running right at Suh was unexpected and turned out to be a winning strategy. Coaches sent out a play on the decisive fourth-and-6 near end of game that gave the Niners a good chance to succeed, and they did.
Negatives: Harbaugh’s reasoning for his two challenges – one that was against the rules and cost the 49ers a 15-yard penalty, the other that pretty clearly didn’t have a chance to be overturned – seemed to make some sense, but they both were obvious losing decisions that shouldn’t have been made. With Gore ripping through the Detroit defense at will, the Niners should have went to the hot hand more often in the middle of the second half with the game screaming for one team to take control.
Bottom line: Somebody should shake Jim Harbaugh’s hand after this one. He and his staff have the 49ers rolling into their bye week with a 5-1 record and four-game winning streak after a signature victory over an undefeated team in a hostile environment on the road. It doesn’t get much better than that. High-fives and chest-bumps all the way around.