Here are my Week 15 grades for the 11-3 Niners.
Alex Smith: A-. His stat line doesn’t blow your mind, but he made a few perfect throws to close out the game. Here’s the stat line: 18 for 31 (57%), 187 yards, 1 TD, 86.4 rating. The defense was playing with such dominance that all Smith had to do was make a few big throws and not turn the ball over. He did that. His passes to Vernon Davis on the third quarter touchdown drive were a couple of the prettiest passes he’s ever thrown – they were accurate and they had touch.
Offensive line: A-. They didn’t give up a single sack, which is outstanding. Granted, the Steelers top pass rusher, James Harrison, didn’t play. Still, zero sacks is an accomplishment for this line. They blocked the blitzes up the middle and overloaded on the right side. They didn’t create much running room (the Niners averaged just 3.3 yards per carry), but they executed their run blocking perfectly on the touchdown run by Frank Gore in the fourth quarter.
Running backs: A-. Neither Gore nor Kendall Hunter rushed for many yards, and Gore did drop a few passes, but both backs had big-time plays. Gore executed a counter run perfectly from the Steelers five-yard line to put the game away. And Kendall Hunter gained 27 yards on a screen on the first touchdown drive in the third quarter. The counter to Gore and the screen to Hunter are two of the best plays in the Niners playbook, and Greg Roman called them at the perfect time on Monday night.
Wide receivers: A-. No drops from this group for a change – they caught every catchable pass thrown their way. Ted Ginn Jr. injured his ankle, and Brett Swain stepped in and caught a pass. Michael Crabtree was solid as usual, and so was Kyle Williams. Williams had a chance to score a touchdown, but he couldn’t get on the same page with Alex Smith when he was wide open in the end zone in the first half. Williams was uncovered and jumping up and down with his hands waving back and forth and Smith didn’t see him, so Williams started running across the back of the end zone to get Smith’s attention. Smith finally saw Williams threw it behind him, thinking he’d stop running.
Tight ends: A. Vernon Davis led the team in targets (10) and receptions (6) for the first time in a long time. The last few weeks Greg Roman had been dialing up “shot plays” for Vernon Davis and he’d dropped the passes. This week Roman went back to Davis and he came through. The two over-the-shoulder catches he made in the third quarter touchdown drive were spectacular catches. The touchdown he caught was easy because he was wide open, but these Niners tight ends have dropped some wide open passes this season. Delanie Walker did not catch any passes, but he blocked well.
Defensive line: A+. Aldon Smith had 2.5 sacks, 2 tackles for losses and 7 QB hurries. The Aldon Smith-Justin Smith stunt – where Justin goes outside and Aldon runs back around inside – might be the most difficult stunt to block in the NFL. The Steelers sure couldn’t stop it. What’s more, this group held the Steelers offense to jut 84 rushing yards.
Linebackers: A+. We know that Patrick Willis’ backup, Larry Grant, can hit hard, but we didn’t know he could cover as well – he had four pass breakups Monday night. NaVorro Bowman led the team in tackles with eight, Ahmad Brooks had seven, and Parys Haralson had three.
Secondary: A+. A lot of people thought the Niners starting cornerbacks, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, weren’t good enough to keep up with the Steelers starting wide receivers, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, for a whole game. That wasn’t true. Ben Roethlisberger challenged them, and twice he got burned. First he threw a slant to Wallace in the end zone and Rogers undercut the route and picked the pass off. Then towards the end of the game Roethlisberger had Wallace one-on-one with Tarell Brown deep and he let it fly thinking he had a good matchup, but Brown played the pass perfectly and picked it off. Both Brown and Rogers played like top-notch cornerbacks. Dashon Goldson played like a top-notch free safety, registering seven tackles and an interception.
Special teams: A+. David Akers was a perfect two-for-two on his field goals, and in the process he broke Jerry Rice’s single-season points record for the franchise. Andy Lee landed four of his six punts inside the Steelers 20 yard line. There’s no doubt that Akers and Lee are two of the Niners most valuable players this season.
Coaching: A+. Vic Fangio finally has his defense – especially the secondary – all on the same page, and now they look like the best defense in football. We already know you simply cannot run against the Niners. But now it’s getting tougher and tougher to pass on them too. Fangio gets pressure and he hardly ever calls blitzes. And it seems like he’s getting exactly what he wants from his three chosen corners – Rogers, Brown and Chris Culliver.
Greg Roman called his best game of the year by far. His first half was unremarkable, but in the third quarter when the Niners had the ball and it was clear that if they scored a touchdown the game would be over, Roman didn’t hold back. He called a seam pass to Vernon Davis that worked. Where has that been all year? Jimmy Raye called that play non-stop in 2009 and it worked like a charm. Roman called it almost never this season, but he called it last night. It’s almost as if he’s been saving it all year for this game. Also, the screen pass to Kendall Hunter. That picked up 27 yards, and he called it only once. You have to think he’s saving that play for the playoffs – it’s too good to only call once a week. And then finally the play action pass to Vernon Davis in the red zone. It’s such an obvious play, we’ve all wondered why he hasn’t called it this year. But by not calling it, the Steelers were genuinely surprised by the play fake, and Davis was wide open in the end zone. Roman, more than anyone, rose to the occasion on Monday night, and now you’ve got to think the Niners offense has much more up its sleeve that it still hasn’t had to show.