49ers' victory over Cardinals nearly perfect

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
1:37
AM ET
Michael CrabtreeAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinMichael Crabtree had 72 yards, five receptions and two touchdowns in San Francisco's win.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Joe Staley, the San Francisco 49ers' Pro Bowl left tackle, was watching TV at the team hotel when a "Monday Night Football" preview piqued his interest.

The show featured Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett explaining how he expected the 49ers to emphasize the running game with Frank Gore. Then came comments from a defensive back whose identity Staley could not recall for certain.

"We gotta have the ball in Alex [Smith]'s hands and try to have Alex try to beat us," Staley recalled the defensive back saying.

And?

"And he beat that ass," Staley said Monday night, relishing every word following the 49ers' 24-3 beatdown of the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Reporters awaiting coach Jim Harbaugh's arrival for postgame interviews first heard him shouting affirmations to his team in the nearby visitors locker room. There were no efforts to hide the pleasure San Francisco took in humiliating its division rival even though the 49ers have won six of the past seven in the series.

"Rivalry games," Staley said. "This is a big game for us, especially in the division, going into the bye week with a two-game lead. We're really in control of our destiny."

Staley, standing before his locker, paused briefly before making an announcement.

"Alex is at the podium if anybody needs him," he said.

All Alex Smith did against the Cardinals' defense was set an NFL record for completion percentage among players with at least 15 passes in a game. Smith completed 18 of 19 throws for 232 yards and three touchdowns. The 94.7 completion rate moved Smith to the front of a line featuring Craig Morton (94.4), Fran Tarkenton (94.4), Steve McNair (93.8) and Steve Young (93.8).

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh and Alex Smith
AP Photo/Matt YorkAlex Smith was almost perfect Monday night completing 18 of 19 passes for 204 yards.
Smith had completed only 18 of 37 passes for 175 yards during a 21-19 defeat in this building late last season. That was arguably his worst game of the 2011 regular season and one that gave the Cardinals reason to think their defense could overwhelm him again.

But so much has changed since then.

The Cardinals' offense has broken down, mostly through injuries, but also through continuing shaky quarterback play. Their defense, although still capable, has in recent weeks given up 253 yards to Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline, 165 yards rushing to Buffalo, 153 yards to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and, now, the all-time single-game record for completion percentage to Smith.

The 49ers are trending in the other direction. They're so much better along their offensive line with Alex Boone at right guard and Anthony Davis turning into a dominant force at right tackle. They go four deep at running back with Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James. And in case you missed the 49ers' 45-3 destruction of Buffalo a few weeks ago, these 49ers have talent at wide receiver, too.

Harbaugh turned heads during the offseason by suggesting Michael Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Turns out the fourth-year receiver has legs, too. Crabtree dominated Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson in close quarters and in the open field, before and after the catch.

"You could really tell early that Michael Crabtree was just on fire," Harbaugh said.

Crabtree accounted for 61 of the 49ers' 107 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That 107-yard figure was the second highest for a 49ers team over the past five seasons.

Peterson was blanketing Crabtree on Smith's 3-yard scoring pass for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Smith threw the third-and-goal pass anyway, and Crabtree showed strong hands in fighting to win possession. This was the type of pass Smith completed infrequently last season, when the 49ers regularly settled for field goals. Smith completed only seven of 28 passes in goal-to-go situations last season.

"That was a pretty good throw on the back-shoulder fade," Peterson said. "As receivers, those guys have pretty strong and tough hands, and he's one of those guys that can reel the ball in once it's in his grasp."

The Cardinals had to know they were finished when the ancient Randy Moss faked out Jamell Fleming and Paris Lenon on his way to a 47-yard touchdown featuring 41 yards after the catch. That score staked the 49ers to a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter. By then, Crabtree already had broken Peterson's tackle attempt while gaining 22 yards to set up a field goal. He also had scored on a 9-yard reception after Peterson slipped while trying to change direction.

"I got tangled up with his feet," Peterson said. "We didn't get the call communicated throughout the whole defense, and some guys were playing one defense and the other guys were playing something else, but those guys did a great job putting together a great game plan."

That is increasingly the 49ers' way. The New York Giants out-schemed and out-executed them at Candlestick Park a few weeks back. Otherwise, the 49ers have come out ahead on the coaching side just about every week. Having the better players helps, too.

Smith was one of them Monday night. Harbaugh, asked about recent reports suggesting Smith might have lost some confidence following a couple of less impressive outings, drew laughs when he called such talk "gobble-gobble turkey by jive turkey gobblers."

Smith consistently made the Cardinals pay for their aggression.

This was the first time all season a 49ers opponent had sent five or more pass-rushers on more than half of Smith's drop-backs. Smith completed seven of eight passes for 118 yards and all three touchdowns on those plays. He threw those passes only 5.1 yards past the line of scrimmage on average, his lowest figure of the season against added pressure, but his receivers made the plan work. They gained 82 yards after the catch on those seven completions.

The 107 total yards after the catch marked the 49ers' highest figure in a game since they had 109 against St. Louis in Week 13 last season.

The Rams are next on San Francisco's schedule, fresh off defeats to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Smith won't be mistaken for those quarterbacks, but he couldn't have been much better Monday night.

 

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