In terms of getting out of the starting gate, the 49ers went from Mr. Ed to Secretariat in a week.
On Aug. 15, the first exhibition game at Indianapolis had begun comically with Michael Robinson’s lost fumble, a miscue that immediately led to a 3-0 deficit. Sunday was a stark contrast. Alex Smith and the first offense coolly marched 70 yards in a 12 plays to begin a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Candlestick Park, finishing the drive on rookie Anthony Dixon’s four-yard touchdown run.
Smith converted three third-down plays along the way, including a third-and-11 that he narrowly rescued with a completion to tight end Delanie Walker that was good by inches. Dixon scored on the following play, beating two Vikings to the left corner of the end zone.
“It was important,” Smith said afterward. “These are preseason games. It’s that fine line. You want to have success and get a rhythm and make some positive plays. After last week, especially the first group, it was nice to come out and get a quick start and finish it with a score.”
Smith felt the tempo was much better this week, with the offense breaking the huddle and getting to the line in time to take advantage of the quarterback’s cadence.
Things slowed down for the 49ers after the first drive as they found it harder to convert third-down plays. But they took a 7-3 lead into the locker room at halftime, and wound up winning 15-10 to run their record to 2-0 in the exhibition season.
Of course, none of it means too much. Quarterback Brett Favre played just one series for Minnesota. Star running back Adrian Peterson and most of the Vikings’ starting defenders played only a couple. Standouts like wide receiver Michael Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis, and running backs Frank Gore and Brian Westbrook didn’t even suit up for the 49ers, making any evaluations precarious.
Still, Smith’s performance was a big step up from the first game. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 88 yards, for a solid passer rating of 88. And the fact that he did it without Crabtree, Davis and Gore says something of his ability to improvise.
Minnesota got on the board with Ryan Longwell’s 40-yard field goal in the second quarter. Joe Nedney answered with a 28-yarder in the third quarter, and added a 31-yarder early in the fourth. San Francisco seemed to be cruising until fourth-string Vikings quarterback Joe Webb shook a tackle and scampered 48 yards for a touchdown to make it 13-10 with 1:54 left.
Jason Hill recovered the ensuing onside kick, and backup defensive end Derek Walker added an exclamation by sacking Webb for a safety as the final clock expired.
Gauging the 49ers’ defense is a little tough because of Favre’s minimal snaps. But the pass rush was strong all night. Coordinator Greg Manusky opened the floodgates and blitzed frequently – which may help to explain why the Vikes got Favre out of there so quickly.
The Niners wound up with eight quarterback hits and four sacks, including three by linebackers Patrick Willis (on Favre), Diyral Briggs and Travis LaBoy.
“I just wanted to get a feel for it,” coach Mike Singletary said of the blitzing. “We felt like we wanted to let it go a bit and see how we responded on the back end.”
If Smith proved to be the ironman of starting quarterbacks in this one, it was nothing compared to the efforts of young guys like Dixon, tight end Nate Byham, wide receiver Dominique Zeigler and offensive linemen Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, all of whom played deep into the second half.
Iupati and Davis are already penciled in as starters. But this was further proof that Dixon, Byham and Zeigler have a chance to play sizable roles in the offense this year. Zeigler caught three passes for 33 yards, including a pair of third-down conversions. Byham caught three for 28 yards and frequently blocked from an H-back position. Dixon had some stumbles – he dropped a pass and blew a blocking assignment on third down – but rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries and showed some toughness.
Singletary said his only major disappointment was his team’s inability to run consistently. The 49ers totaled 80 yards on 31 attempts, a 2.6-yard average.
“I told our young guys when we played this game that we were playing against the No. 1-ranked team against the run in maybe the past four or five years,” the coach said. “I’m sure they take my word after playing this game.”
All in all, there were positive signs on both sides of the ball. In games that count for nothing and feature long stretches by players who might not even be on the roster in September, that’s about the most you can ask for in August.