Here are my week 3 grades for the Niners.
Quarterback: B. Alex Smith continues to play efficiently. Today he completed 20 of 30 passes for 201 yards. He threw no touchdowns or interceptions, and he finished with an 85.6 QB rating. When he had to put together a winning drive t in the fourth quarter, he did it. He was a little skittish in the pocket, and he missed some throws very high and some throws very low, but for the majority of the day he had pass rushers right in his face. Not many quarterbacks could play poised behind the 49ers horrendous offensive line. Smith still needs to work on getting the ball out of his hand quicker, and he needs work on calling audibles. When the defense shows an all-out blitz, he has to audible out of the play-action pass. He failed to do this in the second half, and he took a sack. Still, praise goes to Smith. He won the game.
Offensive line: F+. They get the plus because they gave Alex Smith, Kendall Hunter, and Greg Roman enough time to pull off their fourth quarter comeback drive. Besides that, this game was an embarrassment for Mike Solari and Tim Drevno’s group. They allowed five sacks, and assisted Gore and Hunter to a measly 70 yards rushing on 27 attempts. Joe Staley gave up two sacks and played a terrible game. Anthony Davis gave up one sack but got beaten many more times. Chilo Rachal had two holding penalties, two false starts, he gave up a sack and got benched. He should remain on the bench. Jonathan Goodwin got pushed back into the pocket all day long. Trent Baalke should have made it a higher priority to resign center David Baas, because Goodwin is playing very poorly for the Niners. The only member of this line who’s holding his own right now is Mike Iupati, and he gave up a sack today, too. Both guards are too slow to pull. The unit cannot pick up a blitz. They can’t even set up a screen pass. The Niners would be a much better team if they had drafted offensive lineman more wisely. It’s tough to figure how any NFL team can win games consistently with this offensive line.
Running backs: C+. Gore and Hunter still didn’t have any holes to run through, and these guys still average less than three yards a carry. On the bright side, Bruce Miller looks like a clear upgrade over Moran Norris. He can catch and he can run well in the open field. Kendall Hunter played great at the end of the game, scoring the game-winning touchdown. He’s very good on outside pitch plays, but he struggled just like Gore trying to run inside. Gore’s still a stronger runner on inside draw plays. Gore ran well in the first half when he didn’t face eight-man fronts, but according to Matt Barrows he tweaked his ankle in the second quarter. As a result, he played poorly in the second half. Harbaugh will have to play Hunter at least fifteen snaps a game from now on. Hunter has played so well he’s given Harbaugh no other choice. Gore did seem to have a down day all around. He missed a blitz pickup late and he let a pass bounce off his face. This is uncharacteristic of him, and I’m going to wait before saying he’s done and Kendall Hunter should start. Gore will bounce back, and Harbaugh will need to figure out how to play both of him and Hunter.
Wide Receivers: B-. Like the previous weeks, there wasn’t a lot of production from this group, but they usually made the play when the ball came their way. Crabtree caught three passes for 24 yards and Joshua Morgan caught two passes for 17 yards. Crabtree had a bad drop over the middle on third down, but he made a spectacular catch along the sideline, and he made another spectacular catch in the back of the end zone. The refs called the touchdown back, but this looked like a bad call. Either way, Crabtree made two beautiful leaping catches. Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams caught no passes.
Tight Ends: A-. Vernon Davis had a monster day – eight catches for 114 yards. Delanie Walker also caught a pass, and both tight ends blocked well, especially in the fourth quarter. On Davis’ biggest gain of the day, he motioned out wide like a receiver and caught a ball deep down the right sideline. The Niners should use Davis in the slot and out wide like this more often. They can’t just keep him in to block, no matter how badly the offensive line is playing.
Defensive line: A. Who would have thought this unit would be the team’s best? Sopoaga has more than stepped up in place of Aubrayo Frankling, and Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have been dominant. The Niners are the one 3-4 defense that gets the bulk of its pressure on the quarterback from its 5-technique ends. Quarterbacks cannot stand in the pocket long against the Niners, because McDonald and Smith both consistently push their men back into the QB’s face.
Inside linebackers: A-. Patrick Willis had 8 tackles and NaVorro Bowman had 13. Bowman has been an upgrade over Takeo Spikes. He’s faster and he hits just as hard. These two players devour short checkdown routes as well. They only struggle defending passes over their heads. There is a weakness in the 49ers zone coverage – over the middle of the field between the inside linebackers and the safeties. The Bengals only exploited this on their first and last drives of the game.
Outside linebackers: B+. Ahmad Brooks had a great game. He had 4 tackles and a sack, and he beat right tackle Andre Smith up and down the field all day. Parys Haralson could have had an interception, but he didn’t turn his body around quickly enough. And Aldon Smith got some good pressure on Dalton at least once as a defensive lineman.
Cornerback: A-. These guys gave up a bunch of completions to Andre Caldwell on the first drive of the game, but then Vic Fangio adjusted by putting Carlos Rogers on him. Rogers pretty much made Caldwell a non factor after that. He intercepted Dalton in the fourth quarter when the rookie was looking for Caldwell. On the other side, Shawntae Spencer was matched up with A.J. Green a lot and held him in check. He played him especially well on end-zone fade. Tarell Brown also held his own.
Safety: A-. Donte Whitner got injured on the first drive of the game, but this unit played well without him. Dashon Goldson had 8 tackles in his first game back, and Reggie Smith had the game-clinching interception. Dalton didn’t try to throw to Gresham until the last drive of the game, and he completed the passes. Overall, the secondary benefitted from the front-seven’s pass rush.
Special Teams: B. Andy Lee shanked one punt, and the Bengals out-gained the 49ers on returns. Still, Ted Ginn Jr. had a nice 32 yard kickoff return to start the 49ers big drive in the fourth quarter.
Coaching: B+. Jim Harbaugh managed his team to a victory and he gets credit for that. He also gets credit for benching Chilo Rachal, and for subbing in Kendall Hunter. Vic Fangio adjusted to Andy Dalton and shut him down for pretty much the whole game. My only quibble is the Niners need to stop running up the middle when the defense has eight men in the box. If it didn’t work for the Niners against the Bengals, it’s not going to work against anyone.