San Francisco can extend its current streak away from home and remain unbeaten on the road when it faces the slumping Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. The 49ers haven’t started 4-0 on the road since 1992.
But as his team packed up Friday for its only road trip in a five-week span, Harbaugh said the 49ers are guarding against getting comfortable with themselves and the newfound success they’re having far away from the Bay Area.
“We want to stay sharp, take no shortcuts, don’t want to let our guard down,” Harbaugh said. “But I have a lot more confidence now than we did the first time we went on an East Coast road trip. And that really comes from the way the players are going about their business. The plan is in place and it’s the way our guys prepare, which is big.”
The 49ers have gotten three of their biggest wins on the road this year during their climb back to prominence after eight consecutive seasons without a winning record or playoff berth.
In a four-week span before its Oct. 23 bye week, San Francisco rallied in the fourth quarter for comeback wins at Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Detroit. Those three teams now have a combined record of 14-8.
The 49ers did not return to the Bay Area after their Sept. 25 victory at Cincinnati, instead spending the ensuing week in Youngstown, Ohio, to prepare for their next game at Philadelphia. San Francisco rallied from a 20-point deficit in the third quarter for a 24-23 victory over the Eagles, and the success of that 10-day road trip had an impact on the entire team.
“We started playing real good football after that,” offensive tackle Joe Staley said. “That might have had something to do with it. We just kind of started playing better.”
Staley is the leader of a unit that struggled in September, but has improved steadily since then. The line has played a significant role in San Francisco’s five-game winning streak and the team’s climb to sixth in the NFL rankings in rushing offense.
That line has performed well in the raucous atmosphere of enemy stadiums, marking a change from how a young unit typically handled road games last year. Staley said the 49ers have better focus now than during his first four NFL seasons, when San Francisco won a total of eight away games – and just one against a team outside the NFC West.
“The belief we have in ourselves and the confidence level we play with goes hand in hand with playing better on the road and believing we’re going to win even if we’re on the road,” Staley said. “You have to be really dialed in to what you’re trying to do and not let crowd noise affect you. We’ve been doing a good job keeping that to a minimum and really focusing.”
The Niners also have done a good job silencing road crowds with their stifling and aggressive play on defense.
“Every stadium really feeds off defense and big hits and that’s really where the momentum comes from,” safety Dashon Goldson(notes) said. “When your defense goes out there on the field and the crowd is into it and on their feet, that’s when you’ve got to be ready to step up. We’re preparing ourselves and not letting that East Coast time be a factor in our field of play.”
Rookie of Month Smith passing test with 49ers
The first time Aldon Smith showed up at 49ers headquarters earlier this year, new coach Jim Harbaugh gave him a test. Not about how the former Missouri defensive end would transition to outside linebacker. Or how his right leg had healed after it was broken.
Instead of working Smith out before the draft, Harbaugh quizzed him on the history of football and various other subjects. Smith failed miserably the first time around.
''It was questions like, `Who was Knute Rockne?' I had no idea,'' Smith said.
''Coach of Notre Dame who died in a plane crash,'' he responds.
Smith has proven to be a quick study.
After racking up 6½ sacks during San Francisco's 6-1 start, the No. 7 overall pick of the 2011 draft earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for October. Smith has distinguished himself as one of the contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he's done it all playing a position that was completely new to him.
Smith spent almost his entire college career as a defensive end. He made 13 visits to NFL teams before the draft and had seven workouts – only three with teams wanting to convert him to a pass-rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Smith only had to drop back in coverage on a few snaps in college, requiring him to start in an upright position, an entirely different technique from playing with his hand on the ground. On one of those plays, he intercepted a pass by Landry Jones and ran 58 yards to set up a touchdown in Missouri's 36-27 upset of No. 3 Oklahoma. It was Smith's first game back after breaking his leg.
The 49ers took notice. Along with an aggressive and productive linebacker corps that includes Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Smith is a big reason the 49ers defense has become one of the NFL's best. San Francisco leads the league with only 15.3 points and 73 yards rushing allowed per game and the franchise already has as many wins as last season.
Smith's selection by 49ers general manager Trent Baalke on draft night stunned some fans in the Bay Area who craved a quarterback or even a more well-known quantity. Some scouts believed he was selected too high and doubts about whether he could transition lingered. After all, not everybody can make the move to linebacker.
''The toughest part, No. 1, when you're a dropper, is figuring out if it's a run or pass and getting into your drop at the right time,'' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ''Invariably what happens to most guys who are making this transition, they're either one way or the other to the extreme. They're very late getting out in their drop. Or because they're dropping, they're way too early. And you'll see a lot of these guys drop when it's a run. I know that sounds very elementary. But that's the hardest part.''
Not only has Smith played linebacker, he also has spent considerable time on the defensive line. Fangio credits Smith's work ethic and commitment to both positions, especially since he is often moving back and forth at different times in the game. Smith also has had to overcome the challenges of playing off the bench.
He is still behind starter Parys Haralson, although Fangio acknowledged Smith has probably seen more minutes recently. Coming in fresh has been no problem for the rookie, and his versatility also has made him an instant favorite in the 49ers' locker room.
''Aldon is playing well. Very much expected of him, he's our first-round pick,'' Willis said. ''But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where you're drafted, when you get the opportunity to go out there and play, you have to make it count. And he's most certainly doing that.''
S.F., Washington going in opposite directions
The 49ers are certainly enjoying their resurgent season, and a victory over the Redskins would give San Francisco its first 7-1 start and six-game winning streak since 1997, when the 49ers started 11-1 under first-year coach Steve Mariucci.
The mood seems to be much more somber in Washington, where the Redskins find themselves in the midst of what has become an annual three-game skid.
San Francisco continued its best start since 1998 with a 20-10 win over Cleveland last Sunday as running back Frank Gore rushed for 134 yards and a score. Gore, who ranks fourth in the NFL with 96.4 rushing yards per game, has recorded a career-best four consecutive 100-yard efforts. He's compiled at least 125 yards and found the end zone in each.
"I think our fans, they're happy, and I'm happy for them," said Gore, who passed Roger Craig for second place on the 49ers' all-time rushing list last weekend. "There's been some rough years, they've had some rough years and they've always been there and now we're doing something really great for them."
In addition to Gore's consistent play, the 49ers have used an outstanding defense to help build a four-game lead in the NFC West, where San Francisco’s three divisional rivals currently have a combined 4-17 record.
The 49ers' top-ranked run defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the last 29 games – the longest active streak in the NFL.
That doesn't bode well for Washington's Ryan Torain, who managed 14 yards on eight carries in place of the injured Tim Hightower during last weekend's 23-0 loss to Buffalo in Toronto.
After allowing 296.5 yards per game during their 3-1 start, the Redskins (3-4) have surrendering an average of 406.3 while dropping three straight. Washington has a losing streak of at least three games in 12 consecutive seasons – the longest such run in the NFL.
"The more adversity we face and the harder things get, it makes it tougher to stick together," defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. "This is when you need your leadership and your coaching and things like that to really step in, so we'll see."
Hightower's torn left ACL is one of many injuries to strike the Redskins. Tight end Chris Cooley (finger, knee) and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger (torn right ACL) are both out for the season while wide receiver Santana Moss (fractured left hand) remains out.
Left tackle Trent Williams' status is uncertain due to a sprained right ankle. Tight end Fred Davis, who leads the team with 36 receptions for 517 yards, was wearing a walking boot on his left foot earlier this week but is likely to be available.
Despite gaining just 31 yards on 20 carries over the last three games, Torain figures to again carry the load out of the backfield. Former Dallas running back Tashard Choice, whom the Redskins claimed off waivers last Saturday, has already been ruled out for this game.
November not a good month for reeling Redskins
The Redskins, who haven't had a winning November since 2001 and are just 11-26 during the last nine Novembers, are starting this month in big-time need of a victory.
Given its Week 5 bye, it has been a month since the Redskins have celebrated a triumph. Washington has lost three straight and fallen two games behind the New York Giants and into a tie with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.
During the intervening month, the Redskins have lost their best wide receiver, Pro Bowl tight end, No. 1 running back and the left side of the offensive line to injuries – and they changed quarterbacks.
The results have been ugly. Washington, which averaged 21 points, 356 yards and two sacks allowed during its surprising 3-1 start, has sunk to averages of 11 points and 273 yards during the 0-3 tailspin while allowing 15 sacks.
Only Arizona (1-6) and winless Indianapolis and Miami have gone longer without winning than Washington.
"It's rough going out there and picking your quarterback up off the ground," said center Erik Cook, part of an offensive line that allowed a franchise-record 10 sacks in last Sunday's 23-0 loss to Buffalo in Toronto.
"We're at a point where we can be upset, hang our heads and blame each other or we can ... just start going, put these first seven games behind us and just keep moving," said receiver Donte Stallworth.
However, a Washington offense which is averaging just 15.6 points now faces a San Francisco defense allowing a league-low 15.3 points per game. If the offense struggles again and the Redskins suffer a fourth straight defeat while Philadelphia (against Chicago) and Dallas (against Seattle) win at home, Washington will be back in the NFC East cellar at mid-season.
And that's before their rematches with the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys as well as visits from the powerful New England Patriots and New York Jets and the always-grueling road trip to Seattle.
"Sadly it can get worse," Cofield said.
Quarterback John Beck, who has lost all six of his NFL starts, remains hopeful the outmanned Redskins can get back on track. When he wasn’t getting sacked, Beck threw for 208 yards with two interceptions against the Bills.
"There's been a lot of change and with change comes times to adjust," Beck said. "We're doing everything we can to move that process up. It will continue to grow ... We've all had to go through games where you lose and lose badly. You learn that, 'I have to move on and I have to put that behind me.' I feel like this team has already done that."
But with the 49ers coming to town, what’s ahead for the Redskins doesn’t look much easier.