GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here are my grades for the 49ers, who upset the Packers 30-22 at Lambeau Field in the season opener.
QUARTERBACKS: A. Alex Smith may have played the best game of his life, even better than his comeback win against the Saints in the playoffs. Granted, the Packers secondary was horrendous, but Smith threw 2 TDs and no picks. He averaged a stellar 8.1 yards per attempt. He completed 20 of 26 passes – 77 percent, and his QB rating was 125.6. He outplayed Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field, for crying out loud, and Smith did all this while converting just 2-of-9 third downs. Didn’t matter, because he was deadly on first and second downs. Colin Kaepernick played one snap and ran a brilliantly-designed quarterback draw for 17 yards, to set up a field goal at the end of the first half.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B. They pushed the Packers defensive line around on run plays. On pass plays, most of the offensive line held its own, but Joe Staley really struggled with Clay Matthews, who finished with 2.5 sacks – all against Staley.
RUNNING BACKS: A. Frank Gore struggled when he had to pick up 1 yard on third down, but he was just about unstoppable on first and ten. He averaged 7 yards per carry, and he scored the game-winning points on a 23-yard touchdown run. Kendall Hunter was consistently excellent as well, rushing 9 times for 41 yards.
WIDE RECEIVERS: A. Michael Crabtree was the best 49ers’ receiver on the field, leading all Niners with 7 catches for 76 yards, but it seemed like he was wide open on at least 15 plays, including once in the back of the end zone. Alex Smith didn’t spot him that time. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham each caught four passes. Moss caught a touchdown when the Packers’ defense didn’t rotate properly in the end zone. They were an excellent trio the afternoon.
TIGHT ENDS: C+. Vernon Davis caught just three passes, but they were big gains. He also picked up a key pass interference penalty to convert a third-and-five. Delanie Walker dropped two passes and caught zero.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A. Considering Vic Fangio had them rushing just three at a time for long stretches of the game, they did well getting pressure on Rodgers. Ahmad Brooks jumped offsides on the last drive, but he redeemed himself by hitting Rodgers two plays later and sacking him the play after that. Ray McDonald and Justin Smith shut down the Packers’ running game practically by themselves. Those two made a few remarkable one-armed tackles to stop Cedric Benson at the line of scrimmage. Aldon Smith sacked Rodgers once and chased him out of the pocket all afternoon.
LINEBACKERS: A. The Packers kept running four and five wide receivers on the field, so the Niners had to play a lot of Dime defense, something they hardly did last season. I expected NaVorro Bowman to get pulled for a cornerback, but it was Patrick Willis who got pulled. That ended up being the right call. Bowman made 11 tackles and a key interception in the fourth quarter. He actually might be a better player than Willis right now. Either way, those two are the best inside linebackers in the NFL.
SECONDARY: B+. Carlos Rodgers took Greg Jennings out of the game. Chris Culliver was dominant as well, knocking away the final deep pass and allowing just a few receptions to Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Tarell Brown gave up a few catches in a row to Jones in the fourth quarter, including a touchdown, but Brown played excellently otherwise. Perrish Cox did not play well – he couldn’t keep up with Randall Cobb, who caught a game-high nine passes.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+. David Akers tied the record for kicking the longest field goal ever – 63 yards. Kyle Williams the punt returner made cool-headed decisions, and he set up Akers’ recorder-breaker with a 20-yard return before halftime. Andy Lee kicked five punts for an average of 51.6 yards, and he landed three inside the Packers’ 20 yard line.
COACHES: B. Vic Fangio almost let the Packers back in the game by only rushing three defensive linemen in the fourth quarter, but on the final drive he brought Ahmad Brooks back in, called some blitzes and the pressure paid off. They say you can’t blitz Rodgers, but blitzing him worked better than rushing just three in this game. Greg Roman went ultra-conservative after the Niners took a 16-point lead in the third quarter, and he didn’t call anything special on third down. Harbaugh was very emotional throughout the game, calling two challenges he had very little chance of winning. Those are the negatives. The positive is they thoroughly out coached the Packers. The Niners were much more prepared, much sharper than the Packers who didn’t seem to wake up until the fourth quarter.
REFEREES: F. They correctly called a block-in-the-back penalty on Randall Cobb’s 75-yard TD punt return, but then they inexplicably picked up the flag and let the penalty slide. They called a bogus pass interference on Carlos Rodgers during the Packers’ second-to-last drive. They called a phantom pass interference on Dashon Goldson in the end zone, which set up an easy touchdown for the Packers on the next play. They missed a false start on Joe Staley in the first half. I’m sure I’m missing more of the things they missed, but those for blunders are enough for a failing grade. The NFL needs to replace the replacement refs ASAP.