Here are my Week 17 grades for the 13-3 49ers.
Alex Smith: B+. He made one very nice play in this game – the eight yard touchdown scramble on third and goal in the first quarter. He slipped in the pocket and when he bounced back up it seemed like he wanted to throw the ball away, but he didn’t. Instead he plowed his way into the end zone. He’s got to make more red zone plays like that one in the playoffs.
The other thing Smith did well in this game was to not turn the ball over, but that came with a price. Smith rarely takes a risk on third and long – he often checks down, throws the ball away or just takes a sack – and a result the Niners offense continues to rank among the league’s worst in third down efficiency. Today they converted 6 of 16 third downs – 38 percent. Greg Roman’s conservative play calling gets some of the blame – the runs up the middle on first and second down that he calls usually create the third and longs to begin with. But Smith’s determination not to turn the ball over exacerbates the offense’s third down ineptitude. Both Smith and Roman will have to take more risks to beat a team like the Saints or the Packers in the playoffs.
Offensive line: B. Both the left and right sides of the line struggled to pick up overload blitzes on third and long. As a result they gave up three sacks. They couldn’t get much push up the middle, but they blocked well for Kendall Hunter’s runs around the edges.
Running backs: B. Frank Gore rushed seven times for nine yards. He hasn’t looked healthy since the Redskins game back in the beginning of November, so this Bye week the Niners earned will greatly benefit Gore and the whole offense. Kendall Hunter played very well in his place. He rushed 16 times for 76 yards (4.8 yards per carry), and he was particularly effective running off tackle, often rushing for six or seven yards on those plays. Roman seems to be figuring out how to best use his backup running back. Anthony Dixon ran very well up the middle at the end of the game, and his touchdown turned out to be the game-winner. It was encouraging that Roman has finally figured out not to use Hunter in short yardage situations – that’s what Anthony Dixon is on the team for.
Wide receivers: B+. Joe Hastings didn’t catch any passes, but Smith bounced one to him. Swain caught one, but he was open downfield on a third down late – Smith just chose not to throw him the ball. Michael Crabtree got all production from this group. He caught nine passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns, and he gets all of the credit for the first one. Smith hit him at the line of scrimmage on a bubble screen, and then Crabtree stiff armed a defender and ran 28 yards for the score. When the Rams loaded up the box to stop Gore early, Roman used these screen pass to Crabtree to counteract the defense.
Tight ends: A-. Justin Peelle blocked well and caught zero passes. Vernon Davis also blocked well, but he led the team with 114 receiving yards on eight catches. Davis and Crabtree were really the Niners only two weapons in the pass game today and the Rams still couldn’t stop them. You’d think a playoff team could, which is why the extra week of rest is so crucial for the Niners – they need Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams back for their next game.
Defensive line: B-. Justin Smith got nicked up early and missed a lot of time. Still, he made big plays when he was in the game, finishing with three tackles and a sack. Ricky Jean Francois filled in for Smith and finished with a unit-leading four tackles.
Linebackers: B-. Jim Harbaugh said after the game that Patrick Willis looked rusty. He got blocked out of few plays and only recorded four tackles. It was important that Harbaugh played Willis in this one, though – they couldn’t afford a rusty performance like this in the playoffs. Bowman missed a tackle in the backfield late on a Cadillac Williams one-yard touchdown run, but he led the team in tackles with ten and he also sacked Kellen Clemens once. Ahmad Brooks recorded one sack as well.
Secondary: B. They were largely responsible for allowing the Rams to score 14 points late. Chris Culliver got flagged for unnecessary roughness, and then Tarell Brown got flagged for pass interference in the end zone. Also, Donte Whitner got beaten badly on the Rams last touchdown pass. But besides those blunders, this unit played pretty well. Brown intercepted Clemens twice, and Dashon Goldson knocked Steven Jackson out of the game with a vicious hit to this left arm.
Special Teams: A-. They would have gotten an A if they hadn’t allowed the Rams to recover an onside kick late in the fourth quarter. David Akers and Andy Lee had superb games as usual. Lee punted five times and averaged 56.8 yards per punt. He also stuck one punt at the STL one-yard line. Akers made one of two field goal attempts, but more importantly he threw a big touchdown pass to Crabtree in the third quarter.
Coaching: B-. Jim Harbaugh managed the game well. Vic Fangio called a good game for the defense. Brad Seeley made a brilliant game plan for special teams. But Greg Roman continues to be relentlessly conservative on offense. He rarely gives Smith a chance to make a play in the red zone or in third-and-long situations. Now, you could argue that his conservative approach has been the right approach all season, certainly these last two games against the Seahawks and the Rams. Of course you want to put the game in the defense’s hands against those two offenses, but not against the Saints, not under any circumstances. Roman cannot go to his conservative comfort zone if the Niners play New Orleans in the first round, or else Drew Brees will make the Niners magical season merely a magical regular season.