NEW ORLEANS – Here are my grades for the 49ers’ 23-20 loss to the Saints.
KAEPERNICK: C-. Kaepernick passed the ball well. He was 6-for-15 on third down and 2-for-3 in the red zone. His worst pass was an interception, but it didn’t cost the team anything. Kaepernick ran down the defender and made him dive for the end zone and the defender fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone. Kaepernick’s worst play was his last play, a 16-yard run on third-and-19. He ran out of bounds at the end of the run and stopped the clock with 1:48 left. If he had stayed in bounds, the Saints would have gotten the ball back with around 1:08 left, and the 49ers may have been able to force overtime.
RUNNING BACKS: D-. Frank Gore had one good run – a 24-yarder. Other than that, he was terrible, gaining 24 yards on 12 carries against the worst run defense in the NFL. And he dropped a first-down pass on second-and-9 late in the fourth quarter. Kendall Hunter had one nice five-yard first-down run. Besides that run, Hunter rushed 3 times for -4 yards. LaMichael James rushed twice for 7 yards. And Bruce Miller had 2 catches for just 8 yards.
WIDE RECEIVERS: D+. The Saints single-covered Anquan Boldin most of the game, so he played well – 6 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. The only other wide receiver who caught a pass was Mario Manningham – it was an 8-yard gain. He has not been any better than Kyle Williams was.
TIGHT ENDS: D. Vernon Davis caught a touchdown pass in the third quarter, but he dropped one in the fourth quarter. Vance McDonald caught one pass for 10 yards but dropped a first-down catch on a slant pattern. And Derek Carrier lined up in the wrong spot on one play and forced the Niners to use a timeout.
OFFENSIVE LINE: D. They gave up three sacks and lots of pressure. They didn’t get much push in the run game, either. Mike Iupati left the game with a knee injury. After the game, his knee was in a big brace and he was using crutches to walk.
DEFENSIVE LINE: D. Aldon Smith got pressure on Drew Brees once or twice. Other than those plays, the 49ers’ defensive line did not bother Brees. And they gave up 4 yards per carry and a rushing touchdown. This group missed Ray McDonald big time.
LINEBACKERS: C. NaVorro Bowman had 14 tackles, but Patrick Willis had just six. And together, they did not do a good job stopping the run. Ahmad Brooks intercepted a pass, but he also got flagged 15 yards late in the game for hitting Drew Brees high. That penalty led to a game-tying field goal for the Saints.
SECONDARY: C. Donte Whitner had a couple of nice pass breakups, but this group couldn’t stop anybody in the fourth quarter. The 49ers gave up 144 receiving yards in just that one quarter. Carlos Rogers, Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright all gave up big catches. Tarell Brown left the game with a rib contusion.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Phil Dawson easily made a 55-yard field goal. Andy Lee and Dan Skuta and Kassim Osgood pinned the Saints at their 3-yard line. And Bubba Ventrone recovered a punt the Saints fumbled. But Osgood pretty much lost sealed the defeat for the 49ers at the end when he ran into the Saints’ punt returner, Darren Sproles, after he had made a fair catch. That penalty gave the Saints the ball at their 40 yard line.
COACHING: F. This was a close game because the Saints played poorly. Two Saints’ turnovers gave the 49ers the ball near the red zone. Those were the only times the 49ers scored touchdowns. If the Saints hadn’t been so careless with the ball, the 49ers may have scored no touchdowns for the second week in a row.
I give Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman credit for taking my advice and rolling out Kaepernick in critical situations. It led to a first-down catch by Boldin on a third-and-3, and a touchdown catch by Vernon Davis in the red zone. But the 49ers should have rolled out Kaepernick more often. Rolling him out was working. At the end of the game, the 49ers dropped him straight back twice in a row, and the result was a sack and a throw away that almost was a safety.
Harbaugh and Roman need to give Kaepernick more check down options, too. Kaepernick almost got intercepted in the first quarter when he forced a pass to Boldin. Kaepernick had no eligible receiver underneath to dump the ball to. The Saints had at least three defensive backs in the vicinity of Boldin. A quarterback has no chance with this style of pass offense.
Notice how the vast majority of Brees’ completions were check downs. The 49ers don’t have those check downs built into their offense.
One more thing. Harbaugh did a poor job managing the clock. He used all three of his first-half timeouts and both of his challenges in the first 20 minutes of the game, and both challenges failed. After the game, I asked Harbaugh who he communicates with in the booth to decide whether or not to challenge a play. He said, “Eric.”