Well, it wasn't 41-0 at halftime, but tonight's loss to the Bears was almost as ugly as the one last season. The worst part is that the 49ers put a lot of stock into this game. They started game planning on Monday, one day before they would in a regular-season game, and, of course, they played their starters well into the third quarter. This game was going to be a litmus test for a team that looked pretty good in its first two exhibition games. The result of the test:
Defense - Ugh
Offense - Meh
Special teams -- The game began with a kick out of bounds.
In the end, it reminded me a lot of last year's game against Philadelphia. The 49ers went into that game hoping to prove that they could hang with one of the elite teams in the NFC. Instead, they learned that they have a long way to go to reach that level.
I should first mention that I did not make the trip to Chicago due to some budget/money/travel issues at The Bee. This issue is there is no money in the travel budget. So I watched it on TV - reporter notebook and pen handy -- just like everyone else. I will travel for Thursday's game in San Diego and throughout the regular season.
The 49ers obviously couldn't sustain drives, had way too many penalties and gave up too many big plays on defense. Bears receiver Bernard Berrian (who, it always should be noted, was drafted one slot after Derrick Hamilton in 2004) averaged more than 26 yards a pass and the Bears held the ball twice as long as San Francisco in the first half.
The defensive issues are a little puzzling because I though there were some great individual efforts. Issac Sopoaga looked unstoppable at nose tackle for the second straight game, and it should be noted that his main opponent, Chicago center Olin Kreutz, has been to six Pro Bowls. The 49ers must be relieved by Sopoaga's play, and I suspect they might also be contemplating a contract extension for the powerful Samoan.
I thought linebacker Patrick Willis also was outstanding as far as running down tacklers all over the field and making them pay when he knifed in for the tackle. Barring injury, I see him leading the 49ers in tackles at year's end and having a good shot at defensive rookie of the year. Willis led all tacklers for the second straight game.
I also thought that Manny Lawson did a much better job in the running game, although he missed a first-quarter tackle on the sideline that would have prevented a first down. Lawson attempted the tackle with his head on the left side of the ball carrier. It should have been on the downfield side. (Scot McCloughan told me that rule. See, Scot, I'm paying attention).
Once again, however, there was very little pass rush. The only time that Rex Grossman was pressured was when rookie Ray McDonald crashed the pocket in the first quarter and hit his arm while throwing. Other than that, Grossman had plenty of time to pick apart the 49ers' secondary, which, apart from Nate Clements, had a shaky outing.
The 49ers seemed to have a tough time covering tight ends. Rookie Greg Olsen twice caught a pass with nary a 49er within 10 yards of him, and Grossman's touchdown pass to Desmond Clark was ridiculously easy. Clark was lined up opposite Tully Banta-Cain on the plan. Banta-Cain rushed the passer and Brandon Moore followed the fullback out of the backfield. No one covered Clark.
For the third straight game, Moore was in perfect position to make an outstanding play, this time on Adrian Peterson's second-quarter touchdown run. But he could not come up with the tackle.
In the second half, Parys Haralson was very visible, both rushing the passer and in run defense. I thought Joe Cohen looked good on some plays, was shoved around pretty handily on others. Vickiel Vaughn did a nice job filling in for injured Dashon Goldson at safety.
As far as the offense goes, I can't see Kwame Harris holding onto to his starting job any longer. The first half was a microcosm of his career - nearly knocked down by Adewale Ogunleye on the first series, false start on the second series, etc. By contrast, rookie Joe Staley was efficient on his first series, which was extended when the Bears dropped a punt deep in their own territory. I watched Staley closely during the series and this is what he did:
-- On first down, (passing play) he ran his opponent well out of the play.
-- On second down (run left) he knocked Darwin Walker to the ground.
-- Third down was a flubbed snap.
After the 49ers recovered the fumbled punt:
-- On first and second down, he shoved his man out of the play.
-- On third-down, Maurice Hicks followed Staley and a host of other linemen into the end zone. I thought that Justin Smiley had the best block of the play, scooting Dusty Dvoracek out of the spot where Hicks crashed across the goal line.
It was hard to assess Alex Smith because a.) the 49ers chose to run for most of the first half and b.) he didn't have much time to throw. I thought he did show very good pocket awareness, though, especially on his long thrown to Vernon Davis in the third quarter. He took a couple of steps forward to find space to throw and kept his eyes downfield the whole time.
I thought Ashley Lelie had another good game. If he gets cut, it will be a shock.
At the end of the first half, I wrote in my notebook, "return game puts me to sleep". That was before Brandon Williams nearly ripped off a punt return for a touchdown. Williams certainly is more shifty than explosive, and it was nice to finally see him get a big gain.
There were five players under the microscope tonight. Here's how they fared:
1. Kwame Harris. He stood out - for all the wrong reasons - in a game in which he had to play flawlessly in order to hold off Joe Staley. It's very hard to believe that he will be the team's opening-day starter.
2. Bryan Gilmore. His catch on a two-point conversion was his only reception. He also stumbled on what probably would have been a successful reverse to Michael Robinson on a first-quarter kick return.
3. Thomas Clayton. The rookie running back looked good, hitting the hole with better intensity than he did just two weeks ago. Because the starters played so long, he did not get a lot of carries.
4. Colby Bockwoldt. The linebacker is known for his special teams play, but he could not bring down return-man Devin Hester despite having both arms around him. Hester picked up another 11 yards on a punt return after breaking free.
5. Manny Lawson. He certainly wasn't flawless, but he played much better than he did in his two previous outings.
-- Matt Barrows