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2011 49ers Week 16: Five observations

12/30/2011

Five things I noticed about the San Francisco 49ers during their most recent game, a 19-17 road victory over the Seattle Seahawks:

  • About that run defense. Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith attracts significant attention from opposing offenses. He's one reason rookie Aldon Smith has collected 14 sacks. I was surprised to see the Seahawks drive Smith four yards off the ball and put him on the ground less than a minute into the game. The Seahawks went at him with left guard Robert Gallery and left tackle Paul McQuistan, but there was probably more to the story. Smith suffered a leg injury on this play and left the game for a bit. The 49ers were already without Pro Bowl inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Subtracting Willis and diminishing Smith hurt San Francisco's efforts to contain Marshawn Lynch. Willis' replacement, Larry Grant, missed a tackle when Lynch ended the 49ers' 15-game streak without allowing a rushing touchdown.

  • Matador along sideline. Not sure what cornerback Tarell Brown was thinking on the Seahawks' touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin early in the game. Seattle receiver Golden Tate blocked Brown well, but Brown disengaged and had a shot at Baldwin along the sideline. Brown stepped away from contact and then sidestepped teammate Dashon Goldson, who was in pursuit. That left Baldwin with room to outrun Grant.

  • Delanie Walker the steamroller. The 49ers' tight end cleared out two Seahawks emphatically to help enable Alex Smith's first-quarter scramble around the left side. Walker caught strong safety Kam Chancellor off-balance and shoved him to the ground. He then sprinted ahead and threw free safety Earl Thomas onto his side. Smith picked up seven yards.

  • The longer passes are coming. Alex Smith's 41-yard strike to Michael Crabtree set up the winning field goal, but it wasn't the only attempts at longer passes. The 49ers got Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis open for passes that traveled about 30 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage. Crabtree and Davis did not make the catches, but these plays were open.

  • Another defining drive on the road. Not just the game-winner, either. The way San Francisco opened the second half showed how far the team has come across many fronts. Trailing 10-3 at halftime and fortunate the deficit was not larger, the 49ers came out aggressively. Smith found Crabtree for a 27-yard gain on the first play. Smith's growing improvisational skills showed up when the snap from Jonathan Goodwin eluded him. Smith gathered the ball off the bounce and scrambled near the first-down marker, a critical gain. The team then trusted Smith on fourth-and-2. Smith rewarded the decision with another improvisational play, this one a rollout and pass to Davis along the sideline. And when the 49ers needed their running game in the red zone, Frank Gore scored behind a right side featuring both offensive tackles, fullback Bruce Miller and even nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.