Crabtree beat Cleveland defense throughout game
Handing out grades to the 49ers for their performance in a 20-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns while breaking down the positives, negatives and bottom line in every area of the team.
QUARTERBACKS -- Grade: B
Positives: Alex Smith completed 10 of 13 passes for 108 yards and had a 126.4 passer rating in the first half while directing 49ers to the game’s first 17 points. Smith finished with a 98.8 rating and his 41-yard strike to Michael Crabtree was San Francisco’s longest completion this season to a wide receiver or tight end. Smith also rushed for 22 yards and did a nice job avoiding defenders to convert on a third-down scramble in first quarter. Smith didn’t commit a turnover for the fourth time this season, continuing to do a superb job protecting the football.
Negatives: Smith overthrew an open Crabtree three times on plays that could have gone for big yardage, and he threw behind Braylon Edwards on a pass that was tipped and could have been intercepted on San Francisco’s first offensive possession. Smith was off target on some other throws and was just 5 of 11 for 69 yards through the air after halftime, when the 49ers converted on just 2 of 9 third-down plays.
Bottom line: Another controlled, winning performance, but Smith’s accuracy on throws longer than 10 yards down the field is becoming a concern.
RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: Frank Gore remained in top form, rushing for 134 yards on a career-high 31 carries, having already topped the 100-yard mark by halftime. Gore broke off big runs of 26 and 24 yards and was solid when held in to block in pass protection. Fullback Bruce Miller had another good game leading the way for Gore, and also on a 26-yard scamper by Kendall Hunter, who displayed his elusiveness during that run.
Negatives: Gore had a seven-yard touchdown run overturned by official’s review in second quarter, then couldn’t push the ball over the goal line on three successive carries that netted zero yards from the Cleveland 1-yard line. Miller couldn’t handle a pass that skipped off his hands. He also was called for a false start with the 49ers backed up at the Cleveland 1, but it cost the 49ers virtually nothing in half-the-distance-to-goal yardage. Isaac Sopoaga, in at fullback, missed several blocks in short-yardage situations.
Bottom line: San Francisco’s offensive success again revolved around Gore, who continues to string together one of the greatest stretches of games in his career.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Michael Crabtree had a game-high five receptions for 54 yards and showed the ability to get open deep on several occasions. Crabtree’s 41-yard reception was the longest of the season by a San Francisco wide receiver, and he also made his first TD reception of the season. Braylon Edwards made a successful return from a Week 2 knee injury and beat man coverage on several slant patterns while finishing with four receptions, one coming on an impressive diving catch. Edwards also impressed with his physical downfield blocking.
Negatives: Crabtree dropped a pass on third-and-4 on San Francisco’s first possession of the second half. Edwards lost a potential reception and got the offense off on the wrong foot to begin the third quarter when he caught a pass with his heel on the sideline on first play of the same possession. Eight of the 17 passes thrown to San Francisco wideouts went incomplete.
Bottom line: Could have been a lot bigger day for wideouts had Smith been able to connect more often with Crabtree behind Cleveland defenders.
TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B-plus
Positives: Vernon Davis ran for nine yards after the catch on his 19-yard reception early in second quarter. Justin Peelle also had a 19-yard catch for his first reception as a 49er. Delanie Walker took out two defenders with outstanding blocking to spring Gore on 24-yard run with 49ers backed up near their own goal line; Gore had taken the handoff yards into his own end zone. Davis and Peelle also had nice blocks to spring big-gainers in run game. Unit caught all four passes directed its way.
Negatives: Davis missed several plays in the second quarter after sustaining an injury to his right arm. Walker was not targeted for a pass the entire game and didn’t record a reception for the first time this season.
Bottom line: A quiet day in passing game but unit continues its superb all-around play and remains a huge factor in progress of offense.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: Another strong performance by entire unit in run game, paving the way for 174 yards rushing, including 145 in first half. Also was consistent and effective in pass protection, allowing just one sack. Anthony Davis was particularly strong on passing downs at right tackle as there was little edge pressure throughout day from that side. Joe Staley looked pretty nimble for a 315-pounder when he rambled 17 yards with a catch on a tackle-eligible play, the first reception of his five-year career.
Negatives: Alex Boone was flagged for a false start at left tackle on play following Staley’s reception. A few late blocks on gap-shooting defenders resulted in losses in the backfield.
Bottom line: The struggles of September are a distant memory for this unit, which continues to string together strong performances and was outstanding during the 49ers’ 4-0 October.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A
Positives: Unit again played major role in shutting down an opponent’s rushing game. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga had a stop in the Cleveland backfield and pounced on a fumble on the game’s second play from scrimmage after dropping into coverage. Justin Smith battled furiously with star Cleveland LT Joe Thomas throughout day and had four tackles and one QB hurry. Ricky Jean Francois had a strong game and picked up the slack at left end after Ray McDonald was forced from the game with an injury in the second quarter.
Negatives: McDonald injured his left hamstring while pressuring quarterback Colt McCoy and did not return, missing the entire second half. Smith was called for roughing the passer on Cleveland’s final offensive drive, but it was a bogus call by the official.
Bottom line: Unit continued to click even after loss of McDonald, who has played a significant role in its success so far.
LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A
Positives: The terrific twosome of inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis was at it again, making plays all over the field and combining for 18 tackles while stuffing a Cleveland running game that produced just 66 yards on ground. Bowman led way with 11 tackles, one for a loss, while Willis recorded his first sack of season and had two stops behind the line and a QB hurry. Willis displayed great recognition and closing speed to throw receiver Greg Little for an 8-yard loss on a wide receiver screen. Ahmad Brooks continued his excellent play on left edge with two sacks, one stop behind the line, two QB hurries and a forced fumble that set the tone on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Rookie Aldon Smith stretched his streak of recording at least one sack to four consecutive games.
Negatives: Bowman was beaten in coverage by tight end Ben Watson on a 29-yard passing play in third quarter.
Bottom line: The heat on the edge and pounding in the middle remains in full force for this aggressive, productive unit that continues to overmatch the opposition and play a leading role in San Francisco’s winning success.
SECONDARY -- Grade: B-minus
Positives: Unit was strong in coverage while shutting down Cleveland passing game most of first half. Safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson combined for crushing hit after reception by running back Chris Ogbonnaya that caused a fumble and sent ball skipping backward. Goldson was in great position to make end-zone interception in third quarter – his first of the season – to halt Cleveland’s best offensive threat to that point, with cornerback Tarell Brown also right there with him on the play. Rookie Chris Culliver had another strong outing as the No. 3 cornerback, finishing with five tackles and one of San Francisco’s five passes defensed.
Negatives: Brown allowed receiver Josh Cribbs to get behind him, then missed a sideline tackle as Cribbs took a pass 45 yards into the end zone to get Cleveland within seven points late in the fourth quarter. Goldson was late arriving on the play while in Cover-2 alignment. Goldson also was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness on a questionable call that set up the Browns for their first points at end of first half. Carlos Rogers dove at the feet of tight end Alex Smith and whiffed on a tackle that could have been a third-and-10 stop, instead allowing Smith to take a pass 20 yards for a first down. The Browns had 172 yards passing in second half. Culliver had his hands on an interception opportunity on Cleveland’s second offensive possession but couldn’t hold on to make the pick.
Bottom line: Letdown in second half against a weak passing game allowed Browns to stick around, but big interception by Goldson contributed to another winning performance by unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A
Positives: Another routine day at the office for San Francisco’s specialty units, which means they excelled in most areas. Kept dangerous Cleveland return specialist Josh Cribbs under wraps throughout game. Browns’ average starting point was their 23-yard line after five kickoffs by David Akers, who drilled short field-goal attempts from 26 and 29 yards. Punter Andy Lee rose to occasion when called upon in second half, averaging 53.6 yards with a 42.8 net on five punts after halftime, dropping two inside the Cleveland 20. Tavares Gooden had two tackles on coverage units.
Negatives: Cribbs’ 31-yard kickoff return and 17-yard punt return were his best of the day but nothing more than minor damage.
Bottom line: Another great job of everybody on these units doing their jobs, and also not allowing Cribbs to become a factor in the game.
COACHING -- Grade: A-minus
Positives: Kept a good Cleveland defense off balance throughout the first half with an endless variety of offensive formations. Reached into the playbook to get offensive tackle Joe Staley and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga their first career receptions, giving future opponents even more to think about. Diverse playbook got wide receiver Michael Crabtree open behind defenders several times. Defense was all over McCoy and Cleveland offense in first half.
Negatives: Cleveland made better adjustments at halftime and Niners were slow to counter-adjust in second half. No way the Lions should have been sticking around late in this one after the way they were dominated in first half. Second-quarter sequence of three consecutive runs up middle could have been better after reaching second-and-goal from the Cleveland 1.
Bottom line: So the Niners went a little flat in the second half after building an early three-score lead. It happens, and it would only be nitpicking to downgrade for that a coaching staff that has done most everything right during a 6-1 start with a team that was 1-6 at this point a year ago. This could have been a trap game with San Francisco returning from its bye week, but the 49ers came out and dominated an inferior opponent in the first half, then coasted to the finish. Against the Browns, that was more than good enough, and forgive the 49ers for scaling down in the second half and saving their stuff for later.