Everybody knows the 49ers can stop the run. But it's been a different story so far this season when…
49ers/Redskins: Thumbs up and thumbs down
Thumbs up: The first skyward thumb goes to running back Frank Gore, who once again was terrific running through and over the Redskins, particularly in the first half when he had 65 yards rushing on just seven carries to help the 49ers assume command of the game. Gore set a franchise record with his fifth consecutive 100-yard game, and he was slowed more by a tweaked ankle sustained in the second quarter than he ever was by Washington's defense before finishing with 107 yards rushing on 19 carries.
Thumbs up: Free safety Dashon Goldson is coming up with big plays every game, and in this one he simply beat tight end Fred Davis to the football with his physical style of play for a momentum-building interception late in the first quarter that set up the Niners for the game's first points. Goldson had five tackles and also got in a hit on Redskins QB John Beck on a blitz.
Thumbs down: With the 49ers holding the upper hand in all three phases of the game and mostly dominating on defense, you have to ask how the Redskins were able to make it a one-score game in the final minutes. San Francisco's rugged defense was great through three quarters, but it went a little soft on Washington's late touchdown drive, and the 49ers' conservative play on offense with a comfortable lead has allowed both the Browns and Redskins in consecutive weeks to stick around at the end of games in which they were clearly overmatched most of the way.
Thumbs up: But as in previous games, after opening the door the 49ers didn't let it slip away, making the play they needed at the end to secure victory. Give credit for that to a heads-up play by Vernon Davis on Washington's perfectly-executed onside kick with 1:10 remaining to play. That could have been disaster for the 49ers, but Davis didn't hesitate and took control of a volatile situation on a kick perfectly bounced high in the air, even if he was flagged five yards for signaling for a fair catch on the play.
Thumbs up: Braylon Edwards is a beast, and you have to appreciate the way he went looking for contact on his 24-yard reception, putting a shoulder into DeAngelo Hall at the end of the play that sent the Redskins' cornerback flying. How often do you see wide receivers seeking to deliver blows like that while tacking on yards after the catch?
Thumbs up: Whether they are low-riding missiles or booming high-flyers, David Akers continues to make field goals of 50-plus yards look routine. Akers drilled a 52-yarder early in the second quarter to get the 49ers on the scoreboard in a 0-0 game, and he also delivered on his three other field-goal tries, one from 45 yards.
Thumbs up: Chalk up another victory in the Eastern time zone, making the 49ers 4-0 in those games this season. That's a difficult thing for any team to do, particularly those that have to travel from the West coast, and you have to go back to 1990 to find the last time the Niners did it. The 49ers have won their first four road games for the first time since 1992.
Thumbs down: With the way Gore and the Niners were running the football, this game was just begging for some play-action passing where the 49ers could take some deep shots down the field. But San Francisco never even looked to go long, and the Niners' longest offensive play came on a pass to their fullback out of the backfield.
Thumbs up: But that pass was both well-timed, smartly-conceived and brilliantly executed as rookie Bruce Miller slipped out of the backfield and was wide open to catch a spot-on spiral by Alex Smith on a 30-yard scoring play that accounted for San Francisco's only touchdown and the first touchdown of the promising seventh round draft pick's career. This versatile kid – a converted defensive end, no less – could be making plays at fullback for the 49ers for a long, long time.
Thumbs up: And let's hear it again for Smith, who continued his winning play at quarterback with another assured and efficient performance. Smith completed 71 percent of his passes and finished with a 109.7 passer rating. He continues to show growth and protect the football, and after six shaky seasons, he's letting his steady play speak for itself.
Thumbs down: It has to be mentioned: Gore dropped his fourth pass of the season, and like a few of the others, it came on a play that ended up bogging down an offensive drive. This is a guy that once had 61 receptions in a season, but now is seeing fewer and fewer passes come his way this year because of plays like that.
Thumbs up: You want to know why Patrick Willis is so great? Take Sunday's tremendous performance by the All-Pro linebacker as a perfect example. Willis was around the football all afternoon while recording a game-high 13 tackles – and when Willis tackles, he tackles hard and aims for the football, as his two forced fumbles will attest. The guy also is strong in coverage and had one pass defensed.
Thumbs up: Both of those fumbles were recovered by the 49ers as San Francisco had three takeaways to once again win the turnover battle, which is becoming a staple of the Niners' success. San Francisco improved its turnover differential to plus-12 through eight games.
Thumbs up: Another indication of what Jim Harbaugh is doing in his first trip around the NFL as a head coach: Harbaugh joined Jim Mora of the 2004 Atlanta Falcons as the only rookie head coaches since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to lead their team to a five-game improvement from the previous season through eight games. The 49ers were 2-6 at midseason last year. Harbaugh also is the first rookie coach to lead the 49ers to a 7-1 start with a team that had a losing record the season before.
Thumbs down: The 49ers got hosed by the officials on that fourth-and-1 play at the Washington 11-yard line late in the first half, when tight end Justin Peelle was flagged for a false start when he was simply shifting backward as the 49ers shifted into a different formation before the snap. That was a legal shift, refs, and the 49ers had to settle for a field goal after driving deep into Washington territory.
Thumbs up: Washington's longest offensive play of the afternoon came after the 49ers' defense actually made a fine play with Ricky Jean Francois deflecting the ball at the line of scrimmage. That sequence, which resulted in a 17-yard reception, illustrated not only how difficult it was for the Redskins to get yardage in chunks, but also how the Niners are making plays and making things happen on defense even on plays that go in favor of the opponent.
Thumbs up: San Francisco's opportunistic defense continues to get its hands all over the football. The 49ers had six more passes defensed Sunday, raising their season total to 60, which is nine more than any other NFL team. That's also the most in franchise history at midseason since passes defensed started getting tracked as a defensive statistic in 1992.
Thumbs up: That was a nice flop by Justin Smith to draw a 15-yard penalty after a late hit by Washington tackle Trent Williams, ultimately thwarting a Washington drive that had reached midfield in the second quarter. It was a valid penalty, but the 49ers might not have got the call without Smith's follow-through after being hit, and it also could be an indication of the growing respect the Pro Bowl defensive end is starting to get from officials around the league.
Thumbs down: One thing San Francisco's offense definitely needs to get better at to get deep into January is converting third downs, where the 49ers bombed again Sunday. San Francisco was 0 for 5 converting third downs in the first half and finished the game a weak 3 for 12 in those situations.
Thumbs up: But the first-place 49ers should have plenty of time to work on that deficiency, because they added yet another game to their runaway lead in the NFC West after second-place Seattle lost in Dallas. The 49ers are 7-1 at midseason with a six-game winning streak, and you can go ahead and crown them division champions. But after another routine road win in a reputedly tough venue, these 49ers can start thinking about bigger and better things over the second half of the season.