NFC West: Jaguars-49ers

Fourth-down decisions pivotal in division

November, 29, 2009
All four NFC West head coaches made critical fourth-down decisions Sunday, with mixed results:


The situation: The Rams faced fourth-and-4 from the Seattle 34 with 1:50 remaining in the first half of a tie game.

The decision: Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo decided to go for it.

Potential reasoning: Josh Brown had already missed a 46-yard field-goal attempt. The Rams had gained 33 yards on a third-and-4 play earlier in the drive. The Rams entered the game 1-9. What did they have to lose?

What happened: Quarterback Kyle Boller threw to receiver Donnie Avery. Seattle cornerback Kelly Jennings made an aggressive play on the ball, batting it away. Seahawks cornerback Josh Wilson picked off the pass and ran 65 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 Seattle lead.

My take: This one is tough to justify because 4 yards is a relatively long way to go. Running the ball isn't much of an option in that situation. The Rams were playing the Seahawks tough to that point. The game got away from them a bit after the interception.


The situation: The 49ers faced fourth-and-1 from the Jacksonville 37 with 1:58 remaining in the second quarter of a game they led, 10-0.

The decision: 49ers coach Mike Singletary decided to go for it.

Potential reasoning: Quarterback Alex Smith was functioning efficiently. The defense was pitching a shutout. Putting the hammer down in this situation could help break open the game.

What happened: Smith threw deep to tight end Vernon Davis for a 30-yard gain. The play sustained a touchdown drive as the 49ers built a 17-0 lead.

My take: Attempting a 55-yard field goal at Candlestick Park wouldn't have been a safe decision, and a punt might have netted only 17 yards on a touchback. Going deep down the field was a gutsy call.


The situation: The Seahawks faced fourth-and-1 from the St. Louis 18 while leading 17-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter.

The decision: Seahawks coach Jim Mora decided to go for it.

Potential reasoning: The running game was functioning effectively and this was a chance to potentially blow open a close game.

What happened: Matt Hasselbeck handed off to Justin Forsett for an 11-yard gain. The Seahawks scored on the drive to take a 24-10 lead, all but putting away the game.

My take: This was a high-risk, high-reward play. Kicking a 35-yard field goal would have produced a two-score differential that the Rams probably would have had a hard time overcoming. The play worked, so Mora comes out OK, but this was a gamble that could have backfired in a big way.


The situation: The Cardinals faced fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 45 with 6:07 remaining in the fourth quarter of a game Arizona was leading, 17-13.

The decision: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt decided to punt.

Potential reasoning: Punter Ben Graham is playing at a high level this season. This was a chance to pin the Titans deep in their territory. Failing on fourth-and-1 would have changed field position in a close, relatively low-scoring game.

What happened: LaRod Stephens-Howling downed Graham's punt at the Tennessee 2. The Cardinals forced a turnover on the ensuing Titans drive.

My take: The Cardinals' ground game has improved, but a failed fourth-and-1 in this situation would have ceded momentum and field position at a critical point in the game. For the Cardinals, taking their chances against Vince Young seemed like the right call at the time.

Wrap-up: 49ers 20, Jaguars 3

November, 29, 2009
The 49ers had the right plan against the Jaguars and Alex Smith executed it well.

Consider it progress for Smith as he tries to answer questions about his long-term viability as a starting quarterback.

Smith played well from the start of the game, a departure from previous weeks. His passing helped stake the 49ers to a 17-3 halftime lead in a game they won 20-3. The 49ers needed to see Smith start strongly and help put away an opponent.

The pass-oriented game plan made sense against Jacksonville because the Jaguars have struggled against the pass this season. Previous Jacksonville opponents had posted a combined 98.3 passer rating. The Jaguars lack dominant pass-rushers, preventing them from exploiting weaknesses on the 49ers' offensive line.

The 49ers will probably need more balance against most opponents. They aren't going to beat every team by handing the ball to Smith and asking him to throw 40-plus passes. That is why the approach Sunday should not necessarily be mistaken for a dramatic philosophical shift by the 49ers as they seek to tailor the offense to Smith.

Smith has vast college experience working within a spread offense. He has functioned most effectively from a spread attack this season, largely because the 49ers were playing from far behind. The 49ers need to keep those things in mind when Smith is their quarterback.

The approach made sense based as much on the opponent as it did based on Smith's presence in the lineup.

The 49ers now head to Seattle with a more confident Smith under center.

Smith steps up with second TD pass

November, 29, 2009
The 49ers have their biggest lead of the season since Alex Smith took over for Shaun Hill at quarterback.

Smith has been a primary reason behind the 17-3 halftime lead over Jacksonville. His second touchdown pass featured a hard scramble to the right sideline, a sudden stop and an accurate pass over coverage to Frank Gore in the end zone. This is what the 49ers need to see from a quarterback who has previously been most effective while trailing by wide margins.

The Jaguars' pass defense had allowed 17 touchdowns and a 93.8 rating to opponents through Week 11. Jacksonville was also horrible in its only previous game on the West Coast this season, falling 41-0 at Seattle in Week 5.

Jacksonville had won three in a row coming into this game, however, and the team's defense had shown improvement, albeit against struggling offenses.

Still, the 49ers must like what they see from Smith. He's playing well enough to win.

Progress for 49ers QB Smith

November, 29, 2009
Alex Smith has thrown a touchdown pass in the first half of a close game.

The 49ers have to love this development.

I'm not sure how the Jaguars could sell out for the run on third-and-goal from the 3, but Smith will take it. His 3-yard scoring pass to an uncovered Vernon Davis has given the 49ers a 10-0 lead in the second quarter.

Smith entered the game with a 104.7 rating in second quarters this season, but most of his production has come while playing from behind in second halves.