Best defensive play: Smith's strip changed season
Now that the 49ers are ready to dive into the second half of their season Sunday against the New York Giants in a showdown of NFC division leaders, we take a midseason look back at the best, worst and most unconventional of the Niners’ astounding 7-1 start that has left San Francisco on the doorstep of the playoffs with a runaway five-game lead in the NFC West.
Best debut: How else but to start any midseason look at the 49ers than with Jim Harbaugh, the Man of the Hour and certainly the Man of the Half Season so far with the 49ers. As the individual in charge, Harbaugh has not only changed the culture around the 49ers, but also the character of the team that now exudes confidence it can win amid any circumstances with its coach-with-an-attitude leading the way. Harbaugh follows George Seifert and Steve Mariucci as the third rookie coach to lead the 49ers to a 7-1 start. Seifert took over a Super Bowl champion; Mariucci a Super Bowl contender. Harbaugh started over with a team that was 6-10 last year. There’s a distinction there.
Best new record: Adding to his growing list of team records, Frank Gore’s five consecutive games of 100 yards rushing – an ongoing streak entering Sunday’s game against the Giants – is the new 49ers standard, breaking his tie with Garrison Hearst, who had four in a row in 1998. First runnerup: David Akers’ four field goals of 50 yards or more, the most ever in a season by a San Francisco kicker.
Worst ending: Bringing back memories of dozens of fourth-quarter folds over the past decade, the 49ers turned a 10-point lead with 11:12 to play into an overtime home loss to Dallas in Week 2, the sudden sting of defeat being delivered on Dallas’ first play of the extra period when Tony Romo found a reserve receiver behind the San Francisco secondary for a 77-yard catch-and-run that set up the winning field goal on the next play.
Most improved player: You might be able to say that you always believed Alex Smith had this in him, but if you say you expected him to be the NFL’s sixth-rated quarterback at midseason, you’d be a liar. Smith has done more than any other 49ers player this year to pick up his game, and the Niners wouldn’t be where they are today without that happening. First runnerup: Cornerback Tarell Brown.
Best emergence: NaVorro Bowman looked like a promising player last year as a rookie, but a year later he’s an every-down linebacker who is playing like a Pro Bowler and making everybody forget about Takeo … Who?
Defensive MVP: While Bowman has been a smashing hit and ranks second in the NFL in tackles, his partner at inside linebacker, Patrick Willis, remains the driving force and most indispensable player in a rugged, fearsome defensive unit that has been the guiding light in San Francisco’s successful start. For those wondering, Willis has shown this year he can perform in pass coverage just as well as he does in everything else.
Most unlikely final score: San Francisco 13, Cincinnati 8 in Week 3. That was the first time in NFL history a game had ended with that result. First runnerup: San Francisco 19, Washington 11 in Week 9.
Best offensive play: Fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line, the game on the line and no turning back with 1:51 to play. That was the situation the 49ers, trailing by four points, faced at Detroit in Week 6. And Alex Smith came through with the biggest play of his career, hitting a slanting Delanie Walker with a strike, and Walker did the rest, carrying a defender into the end zone and keeping his knee off the ground just long enough to get the football over the goal line before going down. It was the first winning touchdown pass thrown in the final two minutes by Smith in his seven-year career, and it gave the 49ers another defining moment in a season that already has had several.
Worst over-reaction: Maybe Harbaugh was a little over the top with his exuberance during his strong handshake/forceful backslap on his side of the postgame ritual at Detroit, but it was Jim Schwartz’s ridiculous follow-up rantdance that turned the moment into The Event.
Best new development: The 49ers rule in the Eastern time zone, winning all four of their games there this season. They were 2-25 in such road games over the past six seasons.
Best comeback: San Francisco 24, Philadelphia 23. The 49ers trailed 23-3 in the third quarter, but then scored the final 21 points in a game that served as the springboard for the team’s newfound success and identity.
Best team statistic: San Francisco’s defense allows just 70.8 yards per game on the ground, which leads the NFL.
Special Teams MVP: Kicker David Akers. With respect and consideration to punter Andy Lee and return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. – who both have been terrific and impact games on a weekly basis – Akers has simply been the money man of San Francisco’s resurgence. The guy has delivered every clutch kick this season, and his deep kickoffs are an overlooked aspect of the Niners’ dominance on special teams. Akers’ 78 points are the most ever for a San Francisco kicker at midseason.
Best late start: After missing the first two games with a knee injury, Dashon Goldson stepped back into his starting slot at free safety and has made a difference in San Francisco’s improving secondary ever since.
Best position switch: For a kid who was a two-time Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year as a college defensive end the past two seasons, you could say that Bruce Miller is doing all right in the NFL as a starting rookie fullback.
Worst disappearing act: Where have you gone Shawntae Spencer? The eighth-year veteran had started 36 consecutive games for the 49ers at cornerback entering the season, but he has slipped to the bottom of the team’s depth chart at the position and has two DNPs (did not play) and one IA (inactive) on San Francisco’s player participation chart over the past four games.
Co-fabulous coordinators: There has to be a special mention made for the resounding impact of offensive coordinator Greg Roman, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and special teams coordinator Brad Seely, who have all been terrific in their roles so far in their first season with the 49ers and – judging strictly by results – have regularly out-coached their counterparts on the opposite sideline.
Best defensive play: Let’s face it. Despite their valiant comeback, the 49ers were going to lose in Philadelphia as Jeremy Maclin scooted down the left sideline, closing in on the San Francisco 30-yard line with the clock closing in on two minutes to play. The Eagles were going to have a first down and would run out the clock before kicking a gimme field goal to win the game. But out of nowhere, hustling 285-pound defensive end Justin Smith – who was rushing the quarterback to begin the play – chased down Maclin from behind and stripped him of the football, with safety Dashon Goldson pouncing on the football to preserve a one-point lead. The San Francisco sideline totally erupted, and the 49ers simply haven’t been the same since.
Best re-signing: The 49ers made all the right moves with their impending free agents, but none better than bringing back defensive end Ray McDonald with a $20 million deal that is already looking like a bargain.
Offensive MVP: Frank Gore. The two-time Pro Bowl running back is finally getting some help, but he remains the engine that is driving the machine that Harbaugh and Co. are assembling on the offensive side of the football.
Best two-way performer: For a guy who’s doing so well in his day job at nose tackle, Isaac Sopoaga also has managed to make an impact moonlighting as a blocking fullback.
Best assistant coach: Having already given each coordinator his due, we must single out defensive line coach Jim Tomsula, who is not only doing a terrific job preparing his unit, but also of motivating San Francisco’s entire fearsome front seven. No wonder the 49ers made this guy head coach for a week last season. First runnerup: RBs coach Tom Rathman. Second runnerup: Secondary coach Ed Donatell.
Worst team statistic: The 49ers are converting just 31 percent of their third-down plays into first downs, which ranks near the bottom of the league.
Best rookie: First-round draft pick Aldon Smith, on impact alone. Smith remains a part-time player, but when a rookie steps in and delivers 6.5 sacks in his first seven NFL games, it’s a tough thing to overlook. First runnerup: RB Kendall Hunter.
Best special teams play: The 49ers had seen a 16-0 halftime lead evaporate into a tenuous 19-17 advantage with four minutes still to play in their season opener against Seattle, which appeared headed toward a potentially horrible ending for the home team. But twelve seconds later, all was well again with the Niners after Ted Ginn returned the ensuing kickoff 102 yards for a clinching touchdown. A minute later, Ginn sealed a 33-17 win with a 55-yard punt return.
Worst injury: Seeing emerging wide receiver Josh Morgan go down for the year with a broken leg late in the fourth quarter of a 48-3 rout over Tampa Bay in Week 5 was one of the sorriest sights of the season.
Best obscure statistic: The 49ers are the first professional team in 91 years to both rush for a touchdown offensively and not allow a touchdown on the ground defensively in the first seven games of a season.
Best streak: The 49ers enter Sunday’s game against the Giants with a six-game winning streak, their best since 1997. As the Niners embark on the second half of their season, there’s no need to slow down now.