Inside linebackers: It's somewhat difficult to identify this as a rising unit, since Patrick Willis is getting NFL Defensive MVP consideration and his sidekick, NaVorro Bowman, is getting a lot of Pro Bowl attention with seven weeks still to go in the season. But last week's performance on a big stage against the New York Giants was simply off the charts, and if there were only a few people calling the Willis/Bowman duo the best tandem of inside linebackers in the league before last week's game, then there's a lot more doing so now. According to team statistics, Bowman and Willis combined for 30 tackles against the Giants, the most by the twosome this season, topping their combined 28 tackles in Week 5 against Tampa Bay. Bowman and Willis were all over the field against the Giants as the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing defense ran its streak to 31 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. The pair also combined for three tackles behind the line of scrimmage against New York and Willis had San Francisco's only sack of quarterback Eli Manning along with another QB hurry. Bowman tied his season and career high with 17 tackles and has reached double-digit tackle totals in seven of San Francisco's nine games this year. Bowman leads the 49ers in tackles this season with 104 and Willis is close behind with 98. According to NFL statistics, Bowman ranks second in the NFL in tackles and Willis ranks ninth. No other team has two linebackers among the league's top 9 in tackles.
QB Alex Smith: The seventh-year veteran's stock has been climbing gradually yet steadily this season, but not at the rate you might expect for a previously-embattled quarterback who ranks seventh in the league in passer rating and has led his team to an 8-1 start. That's because, despite San Francisco's surprising success this season, many still have tagged Smith with the "game manager" label and not given him much credit for the team's winning ways. Smith is getting a lot more credit now after directing the offense to its latest triumph, which wouldn't have been possible without Smith making plays and coolly making the right decisions without the support of star running back Frank Gore to fall back on. With the offensive game plan depending directly on his ability to move the 49ers through the air, Smith completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and also gained 30 yards rushing on three scrambles (he finished with 27 yards rushing because of three kneel-downs in the final seconds, each of which lost a yard), accounting for 88 percent of San Francisco's total offensive yardage. But it wasn't just the numbers of Smith's winning performance that contributed to his rise. It was also the poise, confidence and command he displayed while leading the 49ers to victory – the kind of intangibles that ultimately establish the pedigree of a quarterback.
CB Carlos Rogers: The seventh-year veteran will be the first to tell you that he lost his share of battles last week against speedy Victor Cruz and New York's other capable receivers. But that didn't stop Rogers from taking another step forward in his climb to potential Pro Bowl status after his strong play in September and October. Rogers moved into a tie for the NFL lead in interceptions with the first two-pick game of his career – and his life, Rogers said – and both INTs were huge in the context of the game. His second pick was one of the most pivotal plays of the game, as Rogers jumped on an Eli Manning pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 17 yards to the New York 17-yard line, setting up Kendall Hunter's touchdown run on the next play. Hunter's score proved to be the game-winning touchdown, and it was the only time during the afternoon that the 49ers got into the end zone after reaching the red zone – where Rogers had set up the Niners with his INT. Rogers persevered in coverage the entire afternoon and finished fourth on the team with six tackles. In his first season with the 49ers, the free-agent newcomer is proving himself to be San Francisco's best cover corner since Walt Harris in 2006-2007.
Secondary: Rogers' big plays against the Giants aside, this unit has exhibited its inconsistent tendencies in recent weeks since the 49ers came off their bye week, particularly last week against New York when San Francisco defensive backs had problems keeping up with the Giants' stable of capable and explosive wideouts. Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks combined for 14 receptions for 202 yards , including both of New York's touchdowns in the second half. Chris Culliver had good position on Manningham in the third quarter, but the New York receiver still got a step behind him in the back of the end zone as Manning put the ball in a place no DB could defend. Result: Touchdown, Giants. With New York in comeback mode midway through the fourth quarter, free safety Dashon Goldson blitzed Manning, exposing right cornerback Tarell Brown in his one-on-one matchup with Nicks. Brown also stayed close to the New York receiver, but Nicks got a step on him and that's all it took as nickel safety Reggie Smith arrived way too late and Nicks beat both an a 32-yard scoring play that brought the Giants back within a touchdown. Manningham later beat Culliver deep for what could have been a game-tying TD play, but Manningham couldn't handle a pass Manning placed right on his fingertips near the goal line. Manning finished with 311 yards passing, the first time the Niners have allowed a 300-yard passer since Michael Vick in Week 4. Before Manning, unproven young QBs Colt McCoy and John Beck combined for 495 yards passing against the Niners. It's not that this unit is playing poorly; it's just not playing at the standard it did a month ago, and that represents a step down.
RB Frank Gore: The seventh-year veteran had pushed his way into the MVP conversation during his team-record run of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, a streak that came to a sudden halt against the Giants. Even after gaining zero yards on six carries – the first blanking of Gore's career – Gore still ranks No. 7 today among the NFL's leading rushers with 782 yards on the ground. Gore's stock is teetering not because of his results last week as much as the ankle and knee injuries with which he finished the game. Gore has taken a heavy pounding already in his career and was on pace for a career-high total in carries at midseason before the Niners shut him down at halftime last week after he tweaked his right knee. Gore expects to play this week against the Cardinals, but the 49ers must monitor his health closely and that could affect how much he plays this week and in following weeks. It was almost at this same point last season – Week 12 against Arizona, to be exact – that Gore, on a very productive pace at the time and having a fine season, fractured his right hip against the Cardinals and was lost for the final five games of the season. Gore and the 49ers certainly don't want to see a repeat of anything like that, which could mean a decrease in his workload and production in coming weeks.