The Niners are 6-1 to start the season. The last time they did that? Well, Jerry and Steve were still in charge, and I was 16. It’s been 13 years since I’ve seen the Niners win this many games this early in the season. This wasn’t a pretty win, but convincing, and while it saw the return of Alex “Aggressively Mediocre” Smith in the second half, the team was never really threatened after a dominant first two quarters. Harbaugh is firing on all cylinders, and even a decision to give the team 6 days off during the bye seems to have worked out. So why are they winning?
Our secondary is still soft in coverage (though they hit like freight trains). Our QB can’t take advantage of some pretty decent talent at wide receiver and some dominant talent at tight end. Our offensive game plan is noticeably hamstrung by a desire to limit the amount of damage Alex Smith can do, and thus has a heavy, heavy emphasis on checkdowns and passes into the flat. And yet we’re winning, and winning handily in several cases, because of absolutely dominant line play on both sides of the ball.
The investments made in the offensive line last year seem to be paying off, especially once we gave up on USC product (and thus understandably unimpressive) Chilo Rachal at right guard. Frank Gore has had 4 straight 100 yard rushing games to move into second place all time on the 49ers rushing list (he just passed Roger Craig; heady company), mostly following the human wall that is a pulling Mike Iupati. Kendall Hunter provides a nice change of pace, but the two backs are getting into the second level consistently because of the way the O-line has decided to start mauling people. The team is 6th in the league in rushing average, and would be higher if not for two horrible games at the very start of the season while things were still getting settled. Furthermore, Smith is rarely getting sacked. Much as I hate to admit it, some of the credit goes to Smith himself, for learning how to move around in the pocket and make better decisions (No, screw it, no credit goes to Alex Smith. The scheme is helping him out. I hate him!) Anthony Davis seems to have settled down nicely, and Joe Staley has picked his game up as well. How well is Staley doing? Well, he pulled out into the flat as an eligible receiver today and took a pass 17 yards for a first down. That’s our left tackle.
The defensive line, on the other hand, has been, in a word, astonishing. Letting Aubrayo Franklin go to the Saints (who just lost to the lowly Rams, of all teams) was a genius move, as Isaac Sopoaga has been even better. The move let Ray McDonald move up to a starting role as defensive end, and he and the relentless Justin Smith have been superb. The Niners rush more than 4 less than any other team in the league, and they still get pressure. Aldon Smith has been a pass-rushing savant, and it’s freed up our linebackers to be the ravening monsters they are. How good has the line been? Isaac Sopoaga, our 330lb nose tackle, caught an 18 yard pass on 3rd and 2 late in the fourth quarter to really seal the game.
That’s right. Alex Smith not only completed two passes (A miracle! It’s a miracle!), he completed two passes to two targets who weigh a combined 645 pounds. It’s good to be a lineman in San Francisco. Those crazy West Coast offense guys will throw balls to just about anybody, won’t they?
It’s a strange position for a fan of a “finesse” team (to use the old pejorative applied to the Montana- and Young-era teams) to enjoy watching brutal, grind-it-out line play. But it’s getting wins, which is more than the “defensive-minded” coaches of the past (Screw you, Mike Nolan. Choke on your own hyperbole and aggravated self-importance, Mike Singletary) could ever say. Harbaugh is getting performance out of what he has. It often isn’t pretty, and it often is hard to watch, but hey, I’ve watched Alex Smith for the past 7 years. I know what it feels like to grind it out.