When Mike Singletary first took over as 49ers head coach, he instituted something he called his Formula for Success. The formula consisted of 5 specific keys to victory. Singletary felt that if the team could successfully achieve these keys, the team could win some ballgames. Obviously other things can get in the way of victory, but in general, meet those goals = win. The keys to victory are:
1. Total Ball Security
3. Dominate the trenches
4. Create great field position
Each morning following a 49ers game, I'll do a rundown of each of the five keys. We have plenty of game analysis, but using these five keys will probably allow us to flesh out exactly what helped the 49ers win, or cost them a victory. I provided grades last year, but I'm they really seemed rather arbitrary. So, I'm moving away from grades this year, unless there is a groundswell of support for them. As always, if you disagree with my take, let us know why.
Total Ball Security
The 49ers had one turnover (Hill's fumble), while the Cardinals had two turnovers (Warner interceptions). Of course that doesn't quite tell the whole story in a rather sloppy game. Hill's fumble could have been devastating, but the 49ers defense stepped up in a bend but don't break field goal. Had that turned into a touchdown, the Cardinals would have had significantly more momentum heading into the half.
Warner's interceptions occurred in the first half and led to a grand total of 3 points. Warner eventually settled down, although he had to deal with a tough pass rush all game. In looking at takeaways, the # of takeaways is certainly important, but the team has to take advantage and turn them into points. At the same time, the pass rush gets credit for one of those interceptions, so even though they technically recovered no fumbles, they came close enough, all things considered.
As has been mentioned in the past, "execute" is a bit of a nebulous term that could mean a lot of different things, depending on what you're looking at. For yesterday's game, one could argue there was great execution at times and there was piss-poor execution at other times. After all, the pass rush clearly brought it's A-game, while the offensive line was abysmal. Shaun Hill was awful for most of the game, but then "executed" late in the game when the 49ers needed it most. However, in looking back at yesterday's game, I definitely think offensive execution needs to improve tremendously if this team is going to make any kind of season-long run.
After the jump we look at the final three factors...
Dominate the Trenches
This would definitely qualify as a performance that averaged out in the end. The defensive line was dominant, the offensive line...not so much. Let's get the negative out of the way first and look at the offensive line. They couldn't get any kind of push to open up running lanes, that's for sure. The 49ers rushing stats are laughable: 25 carries for 21 yards. The best run came on Gore's touchdown run following the big Bruce play. Other than that he got nothing going. In the passing game, Shaun Hill was sacked 4 times and hit another 5 times (if ESPN's #s are accurate). I will say that there were several times when the offensive line did pick up the blitz. However, it was not enough to counter the many struggles they had.
Fortunately, the defensive line came up with a performance that not many people expected. If nothing else, Justin Smith was an absolute monster on the line. His stats don't reflect his contribution. Aside from Smith, the rest of the line was taking care of business. The defensive line in a 3-4 defense can often be overshadowed by the statistics and video of the outside linebackers. Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson were swarming the QB and that can be thanked in part to the defensive line occupying the offensive linemen. This dominance continued with the running game, as Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower were shut down in the running game (15 carries, 44 yards combined). We'll see how they carry this over to Week 2.
Create great field position
The return game was held in check for the most part. Rossum had a couple solid punt returns, but in general he was not able to get anything going. Throw in an ill-fated first quarter return lateral to Clements and it was more or less a non-descript performance in the return game. One could argue the turnovers set them up in solid field position, including setting up the first points of the game. On the other side of the ball, Andy Lee got off to a solid 2009 start with a 49.1 average. He finished 2008 at 47.8. If this offense continues to struggle, he will prove to be an important key to victory. Not exactly the best thing in the world, but at least the 49ers have one of the best punters in the game.
If one thing could define Shaun Hill yesterday, it would be "Finish." He struggled most of the game, but finished strong with the go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. It wasn't a pretty sight, but he took care of business when necessary. At the same time one could make the argument that the 49ers didn't "finish" well because they couldn't run out the clock on their last two possessions. Good offenses will make those late plays to win the game and they didn't. The team won this time, but the offense is definitely going to need to find ways to finish off teams.
Which leads us to the 49ers defense. Throughout the game, the team was finishing drives strong. The Cardinals were getting points on the board, but the bend but don't break philosophy at times seemed to take care of business. The defense showed aggressive tendencies, but they still mixed in some safer play from the secondary. Late in the game, though, when it came time to finish off the Cardinals, the defense stepped up and did their job. After tying up the game, the Cardinals forced a 3 and out to get the ball back late in the third quarter. The Cardinals moved the ball up the field, but were held to a field goal to take a 16-13 lead. After the 49ers took the lead on the next possession, the 49ers defense stepped up to force a quick Cardinals punt. Twice after that the 49ers offense went three and out, the defense stepped up and kept the Cardinals out of the end zone, punctuating it with Justin Smith's sack to end the game.
It may have been an ugly performance, but the team took care of its business in the end. There will be games where the team hits all five keys and still ends up losing due to other factors. And there will be games when they can barely put one foot in front of the other, and they'll somehow pull it out. We'd prefer to avoid the latter, but there are no bad wins.