It was Jeff Garcia at his best most of the way - making the hot reads and right decisions, maneuvering instinctively in the pocket, spreading the ball to different receivers and pulling it down for timely gains at just the right moments. He also avoided pressure and got rid of the ball as well as he has this season, keeping a few drives alive by waiting until the last possible second to find an open receiver. But what was going to be perhaps his finest performance of this season was marred by an interception late in the fourth quarter that was more a result of a cornerback guessing right than a poor pass. On most days, Garcia's 23-of-39, 275-yard performance - which included 24 rushing yards - would have been good enough for a win. Bottom line: Interception was a killer, but Garcia played well.
Kevan Barlow's fumble changed the complexion of the game. To that point, the Niners were beginning to wear down the Saints with the run game, most of it coming from Garrison Hearst, who had 86 yards rushing on 13 carries through three quarters - including touchdown runs in the both the second and third quarters - and appeared well on his way to his second 100-yard game of the season. But when Barlow fumbled on San Francisco's second offensive play of the final quarter, Hearst carried just one time for one yard the rest of the game. Fullback Fred Beasley converted some first downs and blocked well, as usual. Bottom line: Running game was going great until Barlow's costly fumble.
Tai Streets followed a good game Monday against the Seahawks with an even better game against the Saints. He led the Niners with six receptions for 80 yards, making one wonder why San Francisco doesn't go to him more often even when J.J. Stokes is healthy. Terrell Owens did some damage with four receptions for 61 yards and used his size and strength to make a nice leaping catch in the end zone over cornerback Fakhir Brown for a touchdown to complete San Francisco's opening drive. He had his hands on a few other passes but couldn't make the plays. Cedrick Wilson contributed with an important third-down reception that kept a third-quarter touchdown drive alive. Bottom line: Performance of receivers wasn't why Niners got beat.
This was guard Ron Stone's best game, and he displayed some of his All-Pro ability while leading running plays. The whole unit, as usual, blocked well for the running game as the Niners - who lead the NFL in this department - averaged 5.7 yards a carry. The pass blocking also was solid. The Saints pressured quarterback Jeff Garcia a few times, but he was never sacked. Bottom line: Unit did the job against a good rushing defense.
The pressure occasionally was good on New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks. The Niners got sacks from end Andre Carter and tackle Jim Flanigan, who made his biggest contribution as a Niner. But this unit couldn't prevent Brooks from slipping away at several crucial points in the fourth quarter. Tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young were good at times inside, but the Saints rushed for 179 yards, and this unit must take some of the responsibility. Bottom line: Like most of defense, unit didn't step up in fourth quarter.
Derek Smith had eight tackles. Julian Peterson had seven tackles and knocked down a pass. Jeff Ulbrich had six tackles, including a key stop at the goal line to prevent a two-point conversion. That's the good news for a unit that had its moments. But ultimately, San Francisco's linebackers allowed Deuce McAllister to break loose for 139 yards and left several gaps open in pass coverage. Peterson was out of position on two touchdown passes to Joe Horn in a span of 81 seconds in the fourth quarter that put the Saints in control of the game. Bottom line: Very inconsistent afternoon for a unit that has played much better.
Ahmed Plummer was solid in coverage, knocking down two passes, and Jason Webster also made a few nice plays. But this unit obviously was missing the presence and calm leadership of injured free safety Zack Bronson. His replacement, Ronnie Heard, made five tackles but struggled in coverage and took some bad angles in pursuit. Tony Parrish (seven tackles) was active and tough against the run. Nickel back Mike Rumph struggled to make plays. The Saints converted 10 of 14 third-down opportunities, and that usually means a secondary isn't making plays. Bottom line: Saints found lots of open holes here, particularly in pivotal fourth quarter.
The Niners helped the Saints stay close in the first half by allowing kickoff returns of 51 and 38 yards. Those plays hurt the 49ers. Jose Cortez drilled a 41-yard field goal attempt, but he was terribly short on his kickoffs in the second half - in a domed stadium. In his first NFL action, Jamal Robertson displayed some talent returning kickoffs - including a 30-yarder - and the Niners might want to give him a longer look in that department. Bottom line: Usually strong kickoff coverage had worst game of season.
Shotgun formations on first downs, crossing up the New Orleans defense by using fullback Fred Beasley, getting everybody involved in the attack - the Niners really had it going on offense in this one. And then it all fell apart. The defense looked out of place and confused during the Saints' dramatic rally for 22 fourth-quarter points and never really stopped New Orleans all day. That defense needed some help from the coaching staff to put a plug in that late rally, and it didn't get it. But that said, it wasn't coaches that lost this game. It was the players. Bottom line: Great start, rotten finish. Coaches could only do so much to prevent the latter.