Before I get into my Week 16 grades for the 12-3 Niners, I want to put this win in perspective. It was the best one of the year for Jim Harbaugh’s team. It was a short week, they didn’t have Patrick Willis, they only had one wide receiver (Crabtree) they trusted, and they had to come from behind to win. They gave themselves a great chance to get the No. 2 seed, a first-round Bye and a home game in the playoffs. If they have to play the New Orleans Saints, they’ve proven over these last two weeks they can win that game – they can win any game. They’re that good.
Ok, now here are my grades.
Alex Smith: A-. The 41-yard bomb to Michael Crabtree was the best throw of Alex Smith’s career, hands down. He struggles the most throwing an accurate deep ball down the sidelines, and he threw a perfect one when the team absolutely needed it. The rest of his stat line was unspectacular – 14 of 26 for 179 yards. He failed to complete a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in the second quarter, but other than that he made big plays when the play caller, Greg Roman, gave him a chance. His stats would look better if Davis and Crabtree had held on to first half passes, and if Greg Roman had called some more pass plays in the Seahawks territory. Like most weeks, Smith needed to not turn the ball over and make one big throw to win. Due to a couple drops, he made needed to make a few big throws, and he did. On top of that, he made a few key scrambles to keep drives alive. It’s hard to imagine Smith playing any better this season.
Offensive Line: B+. They controlled the line of scrimmage most of the day. They only gave up two sacks, and both were coverage sacks where Alex Smith held onto to the ball because he had nowhere to throw. They also created running room for Gore and Hunter all game despite a stacked box. Also, they get most of the credit for Gore’s four-yard TD run.
Running backs: B. Gore ran tough up the middle all game (23 carries for 83 yards), and Hunter was terrific running around the edges (12 carries for 73 yards). Gore finally caught the ball out of the backfield and made some nice plays as a receiver.
Wide receivers: C-. Braylon Edwards is a loss. He got called for a horrible holding penalty in the red zone. It seems like the Niners are better off without him on the field, but they don’t have anyone else to play – Kyle Williams got hurt late. But Michael Crabtree had an outstanding game. He couldn’t get open in the first half, and he had a drop on third down in the first half, but he stepped up for the offense in the second half. He’s proving he is a No. 1 receiver in this league.
Tight ends: C-. Vernon Davis had a terrible drop in the first half – he juggled an easy catch by the sideline. But he redeemed himself later with big catches when the team needed them. Once again Davis led the team in targets (he had eights). Roman needs to continue to feed Davis in the passing game the rest of the season, despite the occasional drop. Delanie Walker got kneed in the jaw, and if it’s broken he will most likely miss the rest of the season.
Defensive line: B+. They gave up 107 yards to Marshawn Lynch on five carries (5.1 yards per carry average) – they’re worst performance of the season, but they were still very good. Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga each had seven tackles, and Justin Smith had five. McDonald also had a sack, and J. Smith hit Tarvaris Jackson twice. Aldon Smith had two QB hits and a sack.
Linebackers: B+. Larry Grant missed tackling Lynch in the backfield on his fourth quarter touchdown run, but he made the play of the game at the end, stripping the ball out of Jackson’s hand from behind. Grant had ten other tackles making 11 total, one fewer than team-leader NaVorro Bowman, who had 12.
Secondary: B. Carlos Rogers gave up a 44-yard pass early. Chris Culliver got picked on throughout the first half for soft coverage. And Tarell Brown got called for a 27-yard pass interference penalty. Dashon Goldson got easily juked by Baldwin on the first quarter touchdown pass. That’s about the extent of this group’s transgressions. Rogers locked down Baldwin for most of the game, and the two safeties made key first-down saving tackles.
Special teams: B. Kyle Williams had a great game a returner before he was brutally crunched in the fourth quarter. David Akers made four of five field goals and set the NFL record for most FGs in a single season with 42. Andy Lee crushed both his punts, and the coverage team routinely tackled Leon Washington behind the 20 yard line. However, they did give up a blocked punt that led directly to a touchdown.
Coaching: A. If the Niners had lost, you could have gone after Greg Roman’s play calling. The Niners went conservative on offense – running and running and running some more in the red zone even after Alex Smith had been a perfect 4-4 on second half touchdown drive. It was obvious they wanted to put the game in the hands of their defense. Harbaugh trusted them to stop the Seahawks at the end from driving 45 yards and field goal, and he was right to trust them. It seems like the formula for the Niners to win on the road is to score just one touchdown on offense and then David Akers will make three or four field goals. If that’s all they have to accomplish, they’re always going to be very difficult to beat.