Here are my Week 14 grades for the 10-3 Niners, who lost 21-19 today in Arizona against the 6-7 Cardinals.
Quarterback: C-. Alex Smith muffed what should have been the signature play of his career. On fourth down – the last play of the game – he rolled right, searching for a receiver. He looked like Joe Montana before he made the throw that led to the “The Catch,” except he didn’t throw it. He spun to his left to buy more time, and then he spun back to his right. At this point he was 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Then he sprinted forward, pointed at Kendall Hunter, stopped running, set his feet and overthrew a simple 20-yard pass to the rookie tailback who was crossing the field towards the right sideline. Hunter dove just to get his fingertips on the ball. Smith has to make that throw – has to. He didn’t, and the Niners lost. Here are his stats: 18 for 37, 175 yards, 62.3 rating. His completion percentage wouldn’t have been as low as it was (49%) if his receivers hadn’t dropped so many passes, but he still didn’t play well enough to win.
Offensive line: D. They gave up five sacks, four in the first half. Again they struggled to pick up blitzes, both the ones up the middle and the ones against the right side of the line. This group also had too many costly false start calls. On the positive side, Alex Boone filled in well for Joe Staley, who left the game with a concussion in the first quarter.
Running backs: D+. Kendall Hunter couldn’t get much going on the ground – he gained 20 yards on eight carries. Frank Gore played well – gaining 72 yards on ten carries, including a 37-yard touchdown run, but he didn’t play nearly enough.
Wide receivers: C-. Michael Crabtree played well against Patrick Peterson, a tough matchup, catching seven passes for 63 yards. He also made the key block downfield on Gore’s touchdown run. Kyle Williams played well the few times he got the ball. Braylon Edwards was slow to get out of his breaks all afternoon, and he missed both passes thrown his way. Ginn Jr. egregiously missed a touchdown pass, never even seeing the ball in the air. Kyle Williams needs to start and get more targets, period. Ginn Jr. should be used on the fly sweep and Edwards should not play.
Tight ends: F+. Delanie Walker had an atrocious game – losing six yards by trying to reverse field on a bubble screen, and then dropping a pass when he was wide open. Vernon Davis made a great run after the catch on a 32 yard play, but that was only one of three targets he got on the day. That’s not enough. On the last drive, he got flagged for a terrible false start on second and five. Harbaugh whipped his face in disgust after that one.
Defensive line: A. They helped shut down the Cardinals run game, holding Beanie Wells to 27 yards on 15 carries. Justin Smith had four tackles, and Aldon Smith had four tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Linebackers: A. Larry Grant led the team with 11 total tackles. He had an outstanding game. Ahmad Brooks played a very good game as well, recording two tackles for losses.
Secondary: D. Tarell Brown, who is not the weak link of the defense, matched up with Larry Fitzgerald for most of the game and held his own. He also intercepted a pass off of a deflection. Dashon Goldson picked off a pass as well, but he gave up a big touchdown to Fitzgerald. He tried to intercept it instead of tackling, and Fitzgerald boxed him out and sprinted to the end zone for an easy score. Whitner missed a tackle downfield as well, his on Early Doucet’s long touchdown run. Carlos Rogers gave Andre Roberts too big of a cushion on the goal line and gave up a quick and easy touchdown reception. Overall this unit played poorly.
Special Teams: A. David Akers made four field goals, missed one fifty yarder and that was the difference in the game. He came in averaging three-and-three-quarters makes per game, today he needed to make five to win. He was perfect on kickoffs, though, making each one a touchback. Andy Lee, who is having a Pro Bowl season as well, averaged 53.1 yards per punt and pinned the Cardinals inside their 20 yard line three times. The coverage unit played excellently as a whole – Blake Constanzo, Larry Grant, Chris Culliver, and even Anthony Dixon made big tackles on Patrick Peterson, limiting him to just 8.8 yards per punt return. C.J. Spillman was the special teamer of the day, tackling Peterson all by himself once, and downing a punt at the one yard line. Ginn Jr. had four punt returns for 93 yards, including a 52-yarder which brought the Niners offense down to Arizona’s four yard line, but they couldn’t score the touchdown.
Coaching: F. Gore averaged 7.2 yards per carry but rushed just ten times in a close game. That’s inexcusable. Clearly Harbaugh and his staff were trying to rest him, but that was the wrong decision because they couldn’t afford to do that today. If it weren’t for Gore, the Niners entire offense would have been David Akers. Harabugh was trying to be too cute, trying to win without his best offensive player. If he tries that against Seattle in two weeks, the Niners will lose that one, too.
The offense struggled to pick up the blitz again today. Can Harbaugh and his staff correct that problem this season? If they haven’t already, the answer is probably no. The Cardinals blitzed all day and the Niners tried to run into it, which didn’t work, and they tried long-developing play action plays, which really didn’t work. Roman called one halfback screen to Hunter and it picked up ten yards. He should have called five of those.
In the red zone his play calling was just as bad. He had Smith throw one-read, designed fades to Edwards and Ginn Jr., both of whom failed to catch the ball, of course. I understand Smith couldn’t throw to Crabtree or Davis in the red zone because the Cardinals were doubling them. But the coaches needed to put Kyle Williams in the game and have Alex Smith throw those fades to him. Williams made the Niners’ best touchdown fade catch of the year back in Week 2 against Dallas. He’s proven he should start and yet he doesn’t. Williams had six targets in the game – he should have had 12.
This is Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh’s fault. They need to figure out something to fix their offense quickly because they’re running out of time.