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Sunday, October 5, 2008
Exciting not good enough for 49ers

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

SAN FRANCISCO -- Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has made the San Francisco 49ers' offense exciting again.

Too exciting for its own good, sometimes.

Martz, as creative and dynamic as any offensive coach in the game, won battles without winning the broader war during a 30-21 defeat to the New England Patriots at Candlestick Park in Week 5.

 
 AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
 J.T. O'Sullivan threw three touchdown passes Sunday, but the 49ers' quarterback also tossed three costly interceptions.

The game turned against the 49ers for good after San Francisco emptied the backfield and went with four receivers on a second-and-2 play midway through the third quarter. The high-risk gambit absolved the Patriots from worrying about their No. 1 priority on defense: stopping Frank Gore on the ground.

Safety Rodney Harrison pounced at the rare opportunity, picking off 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan at the San Francisco 24. The Patriots converted the gift into a touchdown. A tenuous three-point lead became a 10-point cushion, 24-14.

The 49ers hadn't run a play with four wide receivers on the field all game to that point, let alone a play with four receivers and nobody behind O'Sullivan to keep the defense honest.

"I probably tried to squeeze it in there, but that's still a throw I make a lot," O'Sullivan said.

The 49ers ran five offensive plays in the third quarter and none was a called running play. O'Sullivan scrambled twice, completed two passes totaling minus-5 yards, threw incomplete once and offered up the interception.

The Patriots' third-quarter offense featured eight pass attempts, 12 runs, three third-down conversions and more than 12 minutes of possession time. It wasn't pretty -- New England averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in the quarter -- but the result was all that mattered.

The Patriots played keep-away. The 49ers played giveaway.

Also worth noting:

1. The 49ers might want to reevaluate their approach defensively.

They're giving up big plays and losing confidence in the secondary. That's not good for a team that favors putting extra defensive backs on the field even when the other team is running the ball effectively. New England converted eight times on third down.

Randy Moss' 66-yard touchdown reception midway through the first quarter shook the 49ers while giving the Patriots a needed boost following a slow start. Cornerback Walt Harris said he should have provided deeper help for cornerback Nate Clements. I'm not sure anyone could have gotten deep enough to stop Moss on this play. He might not be as sudden off the line these days, but he goes from fast to faster more dramatically than any player in the game.

2. O'Sullivan is a gamer.

The Patriots pressured O'Sullivan relentlessly despite getting only one sack. The reduction in sacks allowed had less to do with pass protection than O'Sullivan's penchant for keeping plays alive.

"It doesn't really matter on protection when you have a quarterback like that," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "I swear, he's like a little rubber band sometimes. Jiggling around back there and when you think you have him, then he's giving ground, and then you think he's running to the line of scrimmage and he goes sideways and he is still able to throw the ball.

"He has a little bit of [Brett] Favre in him as far as always trying to make a play."

Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who picked off an ill-advised desperation deep ball from O'Sullivan to end 49ers' second possession, came away impressed.

"He's a good quarterback," Meriweather said. "He was a lot better than what he looked on film. On film, you knew he was mobile, but you just didn't know how mobile. He can run the ball and throw it deep."

3. Bill Belichick likes a good challenge.

The Patriots' coach successfully challenged the spot to pick up a key first down with 6:57 remaining and New England protecting a 27-21 lead.

Head coaches had challenged Mike Carey successfully only 15 times in 67 attempts since 2003, giving Carey the lowest reversal rate in coach-initiated challenges among any referee with experience predating this season.

The reversal allowed the Patriots to work the clock under 5 minutes before kicking a field goal for insurance.

4. The NFC West is the 49ers' best friend.

Seattle fell to 1-3. The Rams appear finished already. The Cardinals, though ahead of the 49ers in the standings, face Dallas and Carolina in their next two games.

"We can't depend on other teams losing," Clements said. "We control our own destiny and in order to do that, we need to win games."

5. Mike Nolan needs to win soon.

The pressure O'Sullivan faced against the Patriots can't compare to what awaits the 49ers' head coach if the team can't find a way to win over the next two weeks.

Nolan brought a 16-32 record into his fourth season as coach of the team. His margin for error was slim. It's getting slimmer with every defeat.

The 49ers, now 2-3, will find themselves 2-6 at the midpoint if they can't beat the Eagles, Giants or Seattle Seahawks over the next three games.

San Francisco has a bye after playing Seattle.

6. As Gore goes, so go the 49ers.

The 49ers got the ball to Gore seven times in their first 14 plays, building a 14-7 lead in the first quarter. Gore had nine touches the rest of the game.

San Francisco also started sprinkling in more three- and four-receiver packages beginning in the second quarter. The grouping New England feared most?

"Any combination when Gore was in the backfield," Bruschi said.

7. Isaac Bruce can still play.

The rest of the league yawned when the 49ers added aging receiver Isaac Bruce from the St. Louis Rams in free agency. Bruce is proving he has plenty left. He caught three passes for 49 yards and two touchdowns.

8. The 49ers played nice with Tully Banta-Cain.

The former Patriots linebacker hadn't been activ
e all season, a frustrating situation for one of the 49ers' key free-agent additions before last season.

San Francisco made Banta-Cain active in this game, leaving top pass-rusher Roderick Green inactive.

Banta-Cain appeared to make an impact on special teams, at one point clearing out two New England players to help spring a long return.

But it's tough leaving a top pass-rusher inactive. Yes, the 49ers had five sacks, but one or two more wouldn't have hurt in a game that was close much of the way.

9. Patrick Willis is frustrated.

The 49ers' Pro Bowl linebacker refused to speak with reporters who waited at his locker.

10. The 49ers can't stop believing (ooooooh).

There's nothing like some vintage Journey -- is there any other kind? -- to honor a Hall of Fame quarterback during his jersey retirement ceremony.

"Don't stop believing" blared over the speakers at halftime as fans cheered for Steve Young.

It couldn't diminish a special moment.

"The faithful are the reason we're all here," Young told fans. "I'm grateful for all the memories that you've given me and my family every time I've raised my hands. Thank you everybody."

The highlight might have come before kickoff as Young, surrounded by his pregnant wife and their children, held his youngest daughter on his left shoulder as she slept through a festive pregame atmosphere.