SAN FRANCISCO — Here are my Week 10 grades for the 8-1 Niners.
Alex Smith: B+. The best game of his season, maybe his life – he proved he’s more than a mere game manager. So, I’ll grade him accordingly. Here are his stats: 19 for 30 passing for 242 yards, one TD, one INT, and a rating of 85.7. The interception wasn’t his fault – it went through Ted Ginn Jr.’s hands and bounced off his face. If he had caught that pass, Smith’s rating would have been closer to 100. So why the B+? Because if he’s really an elite quarterback, he has to make better throws in the red zone. To start the third quarter, Smith drove the offense down to the NY 10-yard line. On first down he missed Michael Crabtree on a fade route in the end zone. On second down he missed Braylon Edwards on a short slant. And on third down he missed Edwards again on a back-shoulder pass in the end zone. If he had completed one of these passes he would have had an elite game, but he didn’t so I call his performance “very good.”
Offensive line: A-. They created running room for the healthy running backs – Kendall Hunter (averaged 6.7 yards per carry) and Anthony Dixon. They also gave Alex Smith time to throw all game long, only surrendering two sacks. The Giants main strength on defense was supposed to be their pass rush, and the O-line mostly neutralized Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Running backs: A-. Gore hurt his knee early and Hunter and Dixon stepped up. Dixon had a nice eight-yard run, and on Hunter’s touchdown zero Giants defenders touched him. If Gore’s injury is serious, the Niners should not hesitate to sit him against Arizona because Hunter is a very good running back.
Wide receivers: B. Crabtree’s best reception, the two-point conversion, doesn’t count in the stat sheet. Edwards caught four passes and Ginn Jr. caught three, but he had one drop that bounced off his face and into the cornerback’s hands for the interception. Kyle Williams made one nice catch-and-run.
Tight ends: A. Delanie Walker was open all afternoon and he led the Niners with seven receptions. Vernon Davis caught three passes, and his 31-yard touchdown run was his best play of the season. I don’t fault Davis for his drop in the first half – Smith hung the ball up in the air, which gave the safety time to run over and bat the pass away.
Defensive line: B+. They allowed 93 rush yards to Brandon Jacobs and D.J. Ware – the Giants backup running backs – and they couldn’t get much pressure on Manning. Justin Smith redeemed this group on the last play of the game – batting down Manning’s pass to the end zone at the line of scrimmage. Harbaugh said after the game that Justin Smith is having an MVP-type season and I agree with him.
Linebackers: B+. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman combined for 25 tackles. Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith were not nearly as productive. Neither guy could touch Manning. But Willis could. He sacked Manning once.
Secondary: B+. With a ton of time to throw, Manning took advantage of these guys many times. Chris Culliver got beat all day long by Mario Manningham. Carlos Rogers got beat almost a dozen times by Victor Cruz. Manning got so confident in Cruz’s ability to win that matchup he started throwing his way recklessly, and Rogers took advantage – picking off two passes. Donte Whitner made a nice pass breakup on a deep ball, as well.
Special teams: A+. David Akers was perfect again, making four of his four field goal attempts today, one from 52 yards. He also kicked a perfect onside kick. He’s the best kicker in football.
Coaching: A+. Everyone expected the Niners to run, so they passed. It was a gutsy, brilliant strategy. Conventional wisdom around the league said if you forced Alex Smith to beat you, you’d beat the Niners. Now everyone knows that’s bogus. There is no sure-fire strategy to beat these Niners, because they have the best roster and the best play callers in the NFL.