SAN FRANCISCO – Here are my Week 8 grades for the 6-1 49ers.
Alex Smith: B. He finished the game with no turnovers and 98.8 QB rating, which is good. He also finished the game with 177 passing yards and one touchdown, which is ordinary. When he’s off he seems to overthrow Michael Crabtree and underthrow everyone else. I don’t understand this pattern. I counted three times today that Alex Smith overthrew an open Crabtree streaking deep down the field. Who knew Smith had the extra arm strength?
Offensive line: A. They allowed just one sack, and they blocked for 174 49er rushing yards. Joe Staley even caught a pass. When the season started this unit played like the weakest on the team. Now they’re playing like one of the strongest units on the offense.
Wide receivers: A-. Crabtree got himself open on deep routes frequently, which is encouraging for the 49ers offense, since he’s supposed to be slow. Today, he was the team’s speedy deep threat. On the other side, Braylon Edwards dominated on short slants. He just boxes out the cornerback. That play will definitely become a go-to for this offense as the season moves forward. They seem to go to it when they need a first down. The only bad play by this group today came from Edwards when he caught a pass with his heel on the sideline.
Tight ends: B. Vernon Davis caught three passes, Justin Peelle caught one, and Delanie Walker caught none. They all blocked well today, though. It seemed like Roman’s trick of the day was to use his tight ends as blockers and his lineman as receivers, and that strategy worked but then again, what strategy wouldn’t work against the Browns?
Defensive line: B+. They held the Cleveland run game to 66 yards total, and Isaac Sopoaga caught a game-sealing catch. Ray McDonald didn’t play in the second half because of a hamstring injury, but Ricky Jean Francois stepped in for him and played well.
Linebackers: A+. NaVorro Bowman finished the game with 11 tackles and Patrick Willis finished with seven. Aldon Smith finished with one sack and Ahmad Brooks finished with two. Brooks was the defensive MVP today. The Browns could not block him, and it seemed like he was constantly in Colt McCoy’s face.
Secondary: B-. McCoy picked on Tarell Brown in the second half. This was the first game an opposing has team really gone after Brown, which is surprising considering he’s obviously the weakest link of all the Niners cornerbacks. Dashon Goldson made a beautiful interception in the end zone, but he also committed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty when he hit a Browns receiver in the head. The play looked like one Ronnie Lott would have made a couple decades ago, but in today’s NFL that hit is a penalty and probably a fine, too. Goldson needs to adjust to the new rules. All in all, allowing 274 yards passing to Colt McCoy and the Browns is not good. Cleveland’s no-huddle offense in particular seemed to give the Niners secondary problems.
Special Teams: A-. David Akers made both his field goal attempts, Andy Lee averaged 53.6 yards per punt, and Josh Cribbs didn’t return any touchdowns. Ginn Jr. had one poor kick return when he tried to bounce the run out to the right and got tackled at the SF 9-yard line.
Coaching: C+. It seemed like Harbaugh and his staff coached not to lose in the second half, and that almost made the 49ers lose. This was Harbaugh and Roman and Fangio’s worst coaching effort of the season, but it was still good enough to beat the Browns. I expected a blowout win for the Niners, an exhibition of greatness against a bad team, but I was wrong. They’re not at that level yet. They’ve improved from a team that mostly loses ugly games to a team that mostly wins them, and that’s an important improvement. I still expect the Niners to improve past that point and to win at least 13 games this season.