GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 11: Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers reacts on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 21-19. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The San Francisco 49ers (10-3) were served their third loss of the 2011 season in arguably their worst overall performance this year. Against the Cardinals in Arizona, the 49ers did not play like the playoff team they
are. Between the peculiar play calling, inability to execute and the luck just not being there for SF, the Niners lost a close one.
Even though it was a heinous display, there was some good to take from it. In this piece, I'd like to separate the good, the bad and the ugly from the match-up by bringing to light some things I took from the game.
1. It's hard to argue that rookie first round choice Aldon Smith hasn't made an impact for this team already. Yesterday he became not only the first double-digit sack artist in San Francisco since 2002 (Andre Carter), but he's the team's youngest player and in his first year learning a new position. His solo achievement was a bright spot on an otherwise dark day for 49ers fans.
2. Even though the 49er offense couldn't move the ball, special teams was very much in the field position game. Ted Ginn Jr. had a big punt return that went for 52-yards and put San Francisco inside the Cardinals 5-yard line - however, the offense couldn't punch the ball in. Andy Lee, Blake Castanzo and C.J. Spillman also continued to be elite special teamers.
3. What the 49ers have been able to do all season is win the turnover battle and it has been responsible for tight wins in close games. 49ers players continue to step up and make plays and this past week it was Dashon Goldson and Tarrel Brown who made some noise. Aldon Smith was also able to force a fumble on a scrambling John Skelton that was recovered by the 49ers.
4. Congratulations to Frank Gore for once again being a 1,000-yard rusher. The tailback has been an essential piece to this offense and continues to be a marquee player for San Francisco. He's been thriving in this new offense for the majority of the season and the team usually wins when he gets his touches.
1. I'm not going to sugarcoat it; I am not okay with Alex Smith throwing 37 times and Frank Gore running 10 times. That's not exactly the play-calling formula that has been winning games for the 49ers. I understand that they are trying to rest Gore for the post-season and that Smith was able to beat the Giants with #21 sidelined but I foresaw him being a bigger part of the offensive gameplan against a division rival. Gore finished the day averaging 7.2 yards per carry that included a 37-yard rip for a touchdown; San Francisco's only one of the day.
2. The 49ers did not execute, and this applies to both the offense and the defense. The defense still had its regular agenda but it didn't seem to have the same ferocity without Patrick Willis in there controlling the tempo. The Cardinals made some plays that might not have been if Willis was healthy and starting. 21 points were let up by a defense that just got exploited by a single dominant receiver. The execution on both sides of the ball seemed clumsy and half-hearted at times. It wasn't pretty.
3. Early on in the game, the 49ers seemed to want to come out and be aggressive and take the reins of the game quick. I believed they were on track to do that before the fake field goal-Whisenhunt challenge situation hinted at a lopsided day for the 49ers. The morale and energy of a team during the game is very important, and that potential TD could've been a game changer - seeing as how the 49ers offense struggled mightily.
1. It starts with protection, plain and simple. Alex Smith rarely looked safe but I can see how that can happen when your offense plays as one-dimensional as the Niners did Sunday. Smith was sacked 5 times and the pressure was coming from all over. And on the plays where the offensive line really needed to buy their quarterback some time, they didn't. But the 49ers might've been able to overcome the offensive line woes if they could've fixed the next two things.
2. I think what really lost the game for the 49ers was the inability to score in the red zone. Whether or not special teams provided them with good field position, if the Niners were in the red zone, they weren't going to score a touchdown. They settled for 3 David Akers field goals instead of 3 possible touchdowns. Early on, it should have been 24-7 instead of 12-7, with the game out of reach enough for the 49ers to play a field position-ball control game after that. This is also linked to the issues with execution and protection.
3. Larry Fitzgerald broke the back of the 49ers with 7 catches for 149 yards and a score - a pretty monstrous day for a wide receiver. The Niners couldn't control Fitzgerald and that hurt the defense big time because they were vulnerable and Arizona knew it. The defense proved it was still able to stop the run but didn't produce sacks and allowed Fitzgerald to make remarkable plays.
San Francisco has to look at this game film and then move on. There is a brighter overall outlook, and I would much rather be a 49er fan than a Cardinal fan this season.
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