Culliver came through in clutch; D did it all day
Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their momentous 30-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers to open the season, including a “miracle” field goal by David Akers, a coltish Frank Gore, a battling but bloodied Joe Staley, Alex Smith on his A game, a vintage defensive performance, Randy Moss in the clear, a Colin Kaepernick cameo, Vernon Davis’ TD rejection and much more? Check inside.
Thumbs up: The first upward thumb of the season appropriately goes to David Akers and his fabulous left foot, which delivered a 63-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, tying the NFL record and sending the 49ers into the locker room at halftime with a nine-point lead to go with the wide smiles on their faces. Akers drilled it with a line-drive trajectory that was just enough to get the ball to the crossbar, which it hit and bounced over for three of the longest points the NFL ever has seen. “I didn’t think I hit it that well, but it just kept going, and it went through,” Akers said. “I think that’s about the biggest miracle I’ve seen in a long time.”
Thumbs down: But when Alex Smith has 11 seconds before halftime to try and hit a couple of quick sideline out patterns to get Akers closer before time runs out, Smith has to do better than throw two uncatchable balls five yards over the head of open receivers.
Thumbs up: But that’s about the only nitpick on Alex during a game in which he actually out-played reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, which has to be some kind of vindication for Smith after so many people over the years have rued the day the Niners picked Smith instead of Rodgers with the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft. Smith was outstanding directing the San Francisco offense throughout the day, completing 20 of 26 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns, finishing with a passer rating of 125.6 and looking as productive and comfortable running the attack as he ever has in his career.
Thumbs up: But perhaps the biggest heroes on a day of many heroes for the 49ers was that bunch of mean dudes who play defense for San Francisco and took the game to the Pack for 60 relentless minutes. Green Bay, coming off one of the most prolific offensive seasons in NFL history, had a scant 208 yards and seven points entering the fourth quarter and was held in check pretty much then entire game. Hats off in addition to thumbs up to Vic Fangio and his crew, who collaborated on a magnificent defensive performance which was much better than the final numbers might suggest. The Niners made the Packers work for everything they got, and what they got wasn’t nearly enough.
Thumbs up: And let’s give it up for Chris Culliver, who made the final play to finish off that performance, staying step for step with – and locking down on – receiver Jordy Nelson in single coverage when the Packers went for the big play on fourth-and-10 near midfield in the final minute. Culliver stuck with the dangerous wideout and remained in position to knock down that pass, sending Lambeau Field into stunned silence, except for all that joyful jumping around on the San Francisco sideline.
Thumbs up: What a wonderful sight it was to see Randy Moss wide open with the ball in his hands the first two times it came his way as a 49er. Moss commanded plenty of respect – and space – from Green Bay defenders on a 20-yard reception where there was nobody around him for his first catch in a San Francisco uniform. That play set up a field goal, and Moss’s next catch went for San Francisco’s first touchdown of the season when the slender 6-foot-4 veteran slanted wide open in the end zone on a 14-yard play on which, again, there were no Green Bay defenders near him.
Thumbs up: And newcomer receivers Moss and Mario Manningham, by the way, caught each of the eight passes Smith threw in their direction Sunday. Welcome to the offense, guys. Glad to have you aboard.
Thumbs down: The crossbar that was so kind to Akers wasn’t nearly as giving to Vernon Davis, who was rejected when he went to dunk the football over that bar after his clutch third-down touchdown reception midway through the third period, drawing the loud ire of Green Bay fans. That’s a dunk big VD rarely misses. Perhaps his legs were a little tired from doing such a job in the trenches all afternoon.
Thumbs down: The 49ers are in total control of the game and dominating the Green Bay offense entering the third quarter, making the Packers work for everything they get … and then they allow Randall Cobb to return a booming 61-yard Andy Lee punt 75 yards for a quick-strike touchdown. Yeah, the officials were dolts again for picking up a penalty flag on an obvious block-in-the-back infraction, but the Niners still can’t allow that kind of return that got the Packers right back in the game after they made the ensuing two-point conversion.
Thumbs up: But just as the Packers were gaining all the momentum after stopping the San Francisco offense on its next series, NaVorro Bowman stepped up with an athletic, leaping, well-positioned interception of Rodgers on Green Bay’s next offensive play, setting up the clinching 23-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore on the next play after that.
Thumbs up: More on Bowman: The third-year linebacker, quite simply, is becoming a superstar. He again shined brighter than his All-Pro partner in the middle, Patrick Willis, leading the 49ers with 11 tackles, knocking down two passes and making plays all over the field.
Thumbs up: Gore, by the way, was again tremendous, looking at his coltish best as he powered up the middle and broke runs on the edges on his way to a game-high 112 yards rushing on just 16 carries – the team-record 30th 100-yard game of his career. This is why the 49ers don’t play him during the preseason – to keep the eighth-year veteran, their all-time leading career rusher, fresh for the games that really count.
Thumbs up: And while Gore was averaging 7.0 yards a pop, a younger, slightly smaller and faster version of him in Kendall Hunter was complementing Gore with 41 yards on nine carries. This dynamic duo is going to be a fun one-two punch to watch this season.
Thumbs down: The game began with a phantom blocking-in-the-back call on C.J. Spillman – who was running down the field in punt coverage – but the Niners really got the screw job on Green Bay’s first offensive possession. Aldon Smith sniffed out a bootleg by Rodgers on second-and-9, dropping the QB for a 10-yard loss that likely would have stalled the drive. As Smith made a shoestring tackle, Rodgers inadvertently kicked him in the helmet, pushing Smith’s chinstrap up near his forehead. Smith instinctively flipped his helmet the rest of the way off his head as he got up from the ground – and he was immediately flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. What, was Smith supposed to continue playing with his chin strap in his eyes? Those inexperienced replacement officials definitely missed the intention of the rule on that one.
Thumbs up: But the 49ers later on that drive sent a message that nobody knows where it will be coming from on passing downs this season as cornerback Carlos Rogers came blitzing off the edge for a backside sack of Rodgers on third down – the first sack of Rogers’ career – that pushed the Packers back to midfield, forcing a punt and leaving Green Bay with nothing to show for a nine-play drive. The Niners sacked Rodgers three times and hit him at least twice as many times.
Thumbs up: Despite all the new talent the Niners brought in at wide receiver this year, Michael Crabtree continues his emergence as the team’s No. 1 target and go-to guy in the passing game, snagging several key catches among his team-high seven receptions that kept the San Francisco offense moving.
Thumbs down: The first third-and-short of the season and the Niners can’t protect Smith in the pocket well enough for him to even get a pass off? And later, the first time the 49ers tried to run it on a key third-and-1 in the second quarter, with their power package in the game including defensive lineman Will Tukuafu as a blocking fullback, the Niners were stuffed for no gain and had to settle for another Akers field goal. Tukuafu later was called for a false start on second-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Those D-lineman have to do better when they get their shot in the offensive backfield.
Thumbs down: Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley battled like heck all day to hold the left edge, but his bloodied face made it appear he got beat up a little too often by Clay Matthews, who finished with 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits, most of them coming with Staley trying to stay in front of him.
Thumbs up: Really enjoyed the cameo appearance by Colin Kaepernick, who took the field with 18 seconds remaining in the first half and the 49ers at their 38-yard line. Kaepernick, in shotgun formation, pulled the ball down and did what he does best – taking off on a 17-yard sprint up the middle that set up Akers’ record-tying field goal three plays later. The Niners have to get Kap on the field more often.
Thumbs up: Last but not least, the 49ers finally put the Lambeau curse to rest. San Francisco hadn’t won at this historic setting since 1990, and the Niners snapped an eight-game losing streak on the Packers’ home field that included several excruciating defeats – three of the coming in the playoffs. The Niners also ended a nine-game losing streak to the Pack in regular-season games and an eight-game losing skid to Green Bay overall.