They aren’t dead yet. The 49ers beat the Saints 27-24 in overtime Sunday afternoon, handed Sean Payton his first loss in the Superdome since 2010. Now the 49ers are 5-4. Here are their grades.
KAEPERNICK: B+. It was fourth-and-10 from the Niners’ 22-yard line, one minute and 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Niners’ down by three. Kaepernick had to save the game. He rolled to his right. Nowhere to run. He slowed down, looked back to his left and, 50-yards downfield, he spotted Michael Crabtree who was wide open. The cornerback who had been covering Crabtree forgot about him once Kaepernick started rolling out. Kaepernick found Crabtree and fired him a rocket that traveled 70 yards through the air across the field, setting up the game-tying field goal. Most quarterbacks wouldn’t have nerve or the arm-strength even to attempt that pass. Kaepernick gets a high grade even though his passer rating was 76.3. He completed just 14-of-32 pass attempts, but his receivers dropped five passes. Not his fault. The fumble at the end of the first half and the sack at the beginning of the second half were his fault. He needs to learn when to throw the ball away.
RUNNING BACKS: A-. Frank Gore was the foundation of the offense. He scored a touchdown and gained 56 yards on 10 counter runs – 5.6 yards per counter. Carlos Hyde carried the ball only four times, but he scored a touchdown and gained 36 yards – 9 yards per carry. The Saints had no interest in tackling him. He hurts people. He will be an excellent running back soon. But he gave up a sack today, picked up the wrong guy in pass protection. Pass protection is the hardest thing for a rookie running back to master and Hyde still has not mastered it. That’s why he doesn’t play more.
WIDE RECEIVERS: D. Anquan Boldin dropped five passes, one fewer than he dropped all of last season. He had a sure touchdown catch on third-and-15 halfway through the third quarter. He was open deep and Kaepernick made a perfect pass. Boldin dropped it. Even though he scored a touchdown and caught six passes for 95 yards, this was one of the worst games of his career. Michael Crabtree didn’t play well, either, even though he caught the 50-yard pass to save to the game. Shortly after he made that catch, he almost lost the game in overtime. The Saints brought an all-out blitz on third-and-10 near midfield, brought more rushers than the 49ers could block. It was Crabtree’s job to recognize the blitz and break off his route to the inside or the outside – a slant or a quick out route. That’s called a site adjustment. The quarterback needs a quick safety valve when the defense brings an all-out blitz. The inside receiver – Crabtree – has to recognize the blitz and be that safety valve. Crabtree strolled downfield without any regard for the blitz, like he was unaware it was happening. Unacceptable. I would give this group an F, but Stevie Johnson played well. Kaepernick threw him three passes and he caught all three for 46 yards. This season, Kaepernick’s passer rating when targeting Johnson is 124.3. Doesn’t Johnson deserve more targets?
TIGHT ENDS: D. Vernon Davis sleep-walked through another game, catching just 1 pass for 8 yards. Kaepernick threw deep to Davis once and the pass was a bit off, but Davis made no attempt to catch it. Vance McDonald was a key blocker in the run-game. That’s all he was. Kaepernick didn’t throw him a single pass.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A. Technically, they gave up four sacks. But Kaepernick ran into two of them, Hyde was responsible for one and Crabtree was responsible for the other. In the running game, the offensive line mauled the Saints’ defensive line. Alex Boone played particularly well. He was Gore’s lead blocker on the counter runs.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B. The run defense wasn’t special – the Saints’ running backs average 4.4 yards per carry. The pass rush wasn’t special, either, but Quinton Dial sacked Drew Brees on the second-to-last play of the game. Justin Smith didn’t sack Brees, but he hit him three times.
LINEBACKERS: A-. Last week, Chris Borland had 22 tackles. Today, he had 17. He won this game, along with Ahmad Brooks. Brooks smacked the ball out of Brees’ hand in overtime and Borland recovered, which set up Phil Dawson’s 35-yard field goal. Game over. Brooks and Aaron Lynch both jumped offside on third-and-three during the Saints’ first drive of overtime, but the Saints didn’t end up scoring.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: A-. Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver and Jimmie Ward each gave up one touchdown catch, but the 49ers’ DBs held Brees to an 81.2 passer rating. Culliver picked him off in the end zone before halftime, and Antoine Bethea picked him off on the third play of the game. That play set up the 49ers’ first touchdown.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-. Andy Lee shanked a punt in the second quarter. That set up a five-play, 60-yard touchdown drive for the Saints. But Phil Dawson made two big field goals – one to send the game to overtime, and one to win.
COACHES: B+. Greg Roman made significant strides as a play-caller today. He repeated the 49ers’ best runs, so uncharacteristic of him. Maybe he’s learning he doesn’t have to be Albert Einstein every play. He is not putting a rocket on the moon. No need to complicate things. Just give the ball to the best players and allow them to make the plays their skill-sets allow them to make. For the most part, Roman did that. But the 49ers scored only three points in the second half. Unnecessary sacks and multiple drops killed the first-string offense, which has not scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter all season. Roman cannot allow that to happen.