Which way does the thumb turn for the 49ers after their 34-0 victory Sunday over the New York Jets,…
49ers report card: Grading the Packers game
Alex Smith's maturation as a legitimate front-line NFL quarterback took a major step forward with his cool and consistent performance on the biggest of season-opening stages. Smith outplayed reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, finally getting some vindication for all those people over the years who have clamored that they wished the Niners had selected Rodgers instead of Smith with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft. Smith played with poise under pressure and with a newfound aura that seemed to pervade his calm and collected performance. He protected the ball well despite being sacked four times and hit on at least six occasions, stretching his string of consecutive passes without an interception to 185 - breaking Hall of Famer Steve Young's previous franchise record of 184 in a row. His pinpoint passing was as good as it has ever been as Smith dissected the Green Bay defense with a short- and medium-range assault that saw him complete 20 of 26 throws for 211 yards while recording a gaudy passer rating of 125.6. And he was on the money on key red-zone touchdown passes to Randy Moss and Vernon Davis, the latter coming on a key third-and-goal play that put the Niners in control to stay midway through the fourth quarter. Just an exceptional all-around performance for a quarterback that took a notable step in his career Sunday.Throw in Colin Kaepernick's long-legged 17-yard sprint up the middle of the field on his only snap, a play that set up David Akers' NFL-record 63-yard field goal, and it just doesn't get much better than this from the QB position.
RUNNING BACKS -- Grade: A-plus
The Niners couldn't have asked for anything more here. It was a vintage performance by veteran Frank Gore, who ran with power and purpose on his way to a game-high 112 yards on 16 carries, averaging 7.0 yards a pop. Gore showed the burst of his prime and ripped off sizeable gains whenever he found a crease. He was not to be denied the end zone on his spinning, gyrating, sideline-riding 23-yard touchdown run that sealed the deal midway through the fourth quarter. Kendall Hunter also made an impact while complementing Gore with 41 yards on nine carries. The Green Bay defense had no answer for either of them. Fullback Bruce Miller led the way with several key blocks and also pulled in a 15-yard reception that helped extend a drive when the 49ers were attempting to run out the clock in the fourth quarter. Nothing short of exceptional from this entire unit.
WIDE RECEIVERS -- Grade: A
Alex Smith targeted Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham on 17 of his 26 passes Sunday. The team's trio of top wideouts combined to catch 15 of them, including all eight intended for newcomers Moss and Manningham. Crabtree continued to emerge as the team's go-to target and made several key receptions to keep drives moving while recording team-high totals of seven receptions for 76 yards. Moss displayed that he hasn't lost anything at age 35 – not to mention respect from opposing defenders – and he was at his best near the goal line, working wide open to catch a 14-yard pass from Smith for the 154th touchdown reception of his career. If first impressions mean anything, there is little question the addition of Moss and Manningham has added firepower to San Francisco's passing attack and will help open up an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL last season.
TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: B
Vernon Davis came up with two of the game's biggest receptions – a 29-yarder that pushed the 49ers to the Green Bay 9-yard line and set up his diving 4-yard catch on third-and-goal three plays later for the touchdown that put the Niners in command to stay at 23-7 midway through the third quarter. Davis' usually stellar blocking also contributed to San Francisco's strong running game. Davis doesn't get style points, however, for getting rejected by the crossbar on his dunk attempt after his TD reception. Delanie Walker didn't fare nearly as well as Davis in the passing game, flat out dropping one pass and missing the other Alex Smith throw that came his way.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: B
This unit gained control of the line of scrimmage early and wore down the Packers to pave the way for a ground game that rushed for 186 yards and averaged 5.8 yards a pop. Alex Boone had an auspicious debut as the starting right guard, and he and tackle Anthony Davis cleared out a lot of room on the right side. Boone also collaborated with center Jonathan Goodwin to make Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji a non-factor. Raji finished with just one assisted tackle and did little to clog the middle as the 49ers ran pretty much wherever they wanted through Green Bay's front wall. The pass blocking wasn't quite as stellar, however, as Alex Smith was dropped four times for sacks and hit hard several other times. Joe Staley did a good job of keeping Clay Matthews off Smith's back early in the game, but he could not maintain that over the course of four quarters. Matthews held the upper hand in that individual battle by the end, finishing with 2.5 sacks, all of the damage coming against Staley on the left side.
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: A
The Packers made an early half-hearted attempt to run on the 49ers, and the NFL's best rushing defense said simply, "No Way." San Francisco played most of the game in a four-man front that didn't feature usual starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, and tackles Ray McDonald and Justin Smith practically stuffed Green Bay's running game by themselves. McDonald finished with four tackles and he and Smith stood up their Green Bay counterparts. The Packers gave up on the run – they tried just three rushing attempts by a running back in the second half – and halfback Cedric Benson was shut down for just 18 yards rushing on nine carries. The Packers finished with just 45 yards on the ground – 27 of them coming on scrambles by Rodgers. Smith and McDonald never got a hand on Rodgers as pass rushers, but the pressure they applied helped open lanes for others.
LINEBACKERS -- Grade: A-plus
It was yet another eye-popping performance by this unit, which just seems to keep getting better and better as it develops into the NFL's best. Aldon Smith had a strong debut as the starter on the right edge, and it seemed he was chasing down Rodgers most of the day before finishing with one sack and three tackles. Smith was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for taking off his helmet after his sack, but it was a bogus call since Rodgers had inadvertently kicked Smith's helmet back on his head when both players fell to the turf. Ahmad Brooks made his presence felt from the left side with three quarterback hits and a key sack of Rodgers that was big in thwarting Green Bay's final offensive drive with the Packers trailing by eight points. Patrick Willis was solid in the middle with six tackles, but the star of this unit clearly was Willis' partner in the middle, NaVorro Bowman. The third-year veteran was perhaps the star of the game, making plays everywhere, leading the 49ers with 11 tackles and two passes defensed, and making an athletic interception deep in Green Bay territory midway through the fourth quarter just after the Packers had gotten back in the game and were gaining momentum. That was the game's only turnover, and it set up Frank Gore's clinching touchdown run on the next play. Once again, this unit played a key role in a key 49ers victory.
SECONDARY -- Grade: A
Considering the opponent, this was a shutdown performance by this unit, which played much better than Green Bay's final passing numbers might suggest. Rodgers completed 30 of 44 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns, but most of the damage came when the Packers were passing from behind after abandoning the run. And when it counted, this unit stepped up to make plays throughout the day, all the way down to Chris Culliver's knockdown of Rodgers' fourth-down pass in the final minute while draping Jordy Nelson in man coverage down the right sideline. Carlos Rogers did a job on Greg Jennings all day and recorded his first career sack, and the lethal Green Bay passing attack hit only two completions beyond 20 yards. Donte Whitner almost got his hands on an interception and Tarell Brown also knocked down a pass. San Francisco DBs were beaten a few times, but that's going to happen against a passing game like Green Bay's. All told, there was sure tackling by this unit and few breakdowns in coverage as the secondary minimized the impact of one of the NFL's best passing games throughout the afternoon.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: A-minus
When the 49ers surrender a 75-yard punt return in the fourth quarter that allows a dominated opponent to vault back into the contest, we usually can't give these units an overall ‘A' grade. But this is an exception, because that play should have been nullified by an obvious blocking-in-the-back penalty that was called and then reversed when officials picked up the flag. Still, the 49ers can't allow that play to happen. But it was basically the only glitch in another standout performance by San Francisco's specialty units, which was highlighted by the amazing David Akers' NFL-record-tying 63-yard field goal. That was one of three Akers field goals from 40 yards or beyond, and he and punter Andy Lee both performed on the big stage like the All-Pros they are. The coverage units were stingy beyond Randall Cobb's TD return, and Kyle Williams had a 20-yard return while displaying sure hands handling punts. Kendall Hunter also broke his only kickoff return for 31 yards.
COACHING -- Grade: A
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio once again dialed up a winning game plan against one of the most difficult offenses to stop in this NFL era. Fangio correctly strategized that the 49ers could stop Green Bay's run from the start with a base four-man front backed by two middle linebackers and five defensive backs, and that set the tone from The Opening series as Rodgers had difficulty working against San Francisco's nickel and dime coverage packages throughout the day. The Niners had outstanding balance on offense and kept the pressure on with a diverse attack until appearing to take the pedal off the gas in the fourth quarter after going comfortably ahead by 16 points. But that offense put up 377 yards and 30 points on a big stage, which shows how far it has come since the season opener last season. Coach Jim Harbaugh threw two challenge flags when he had little chance of getting a reversal either time, but there was no doubt he had his team well prepared and ready to play amid consequential circumstances. And Harbaugh and his staff, without question, out-coached one of the NFL's best staffs across the field that featured offensive guru Mike McCarthy and defensive guru Dom Capers. The Niners were up against the very best here, and they came out convincingly ahead.
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