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September 11, 2011
The boys in blue: Workman-like effort gives Harbaugh inuagural victory

SAN FRANCISCO - Justin Smith emerged from Candlestick Park a little after 5 p.m. looking like he had just repaired the stadium's water heater. The 49ers defensive end was wearing blue jeans, work boots and a blue, short-sleeved collared shirt with "Justin" emblazoned in red letters on the chest.


Smith said the shirt - coach Jim Harbaugh passed them out to every player last week -- happened to be the only one hanging in his locker, but the wardrobe choice couldn't have been more appropriate following San Francisco's 33-17 win over Seattle on Sunday. Harbaugh had wanted a blue-collar-like effort from his still congealing team, and that's exactly what he got on offense and especially defense in his first game as the 49ers head coach.

Leading that workers' revolution was Smith, who along with fellow defensive end Ray McDonald, dominated the Seahawks young offensive line early in the game as San Francisco pulled out to a 16-0 lead at halftime. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is known for his aggressive and creative schemes, and he was expected to swarm quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who was making his first start for Seattle, with an array of exotic blitzes on Sunday.

Instead, Fangio went with a plain-and-simple approach. He hardly blitzed at all, relying on Smith and the other front-line defenders to apply pressure and dropping seven players into coverage. Smith, who led the 49ers in sacks last season, finished with two sacks, three hits on the quarterback and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage. McDonald, starting at left defensive end this season, also added a sack and led the 49ers with six tackles. "Vic put the onus on us to get to the quarterback, and we did," McDonald said.

The defensive effort compensated for an offense that managed 209 total yards and converted only one of their 12 third-down opportunities. Under former head coach Mike Singletary, the 49ers often handicapped themselves with running plays that netted minimal or no gains on first down and which eventually led to third-and-long situations.

Harbaugh's offense was more varied and had far more personnel combinations than those of previous regimes. But negative plays still were commonplace Sunday. Five of tailback Frank Gore's runs were stopped behind the line of scrimmage. In addition, two pass plays went for negative yardage. Gore finished with 59 yards on 22 attempts.

One sequence typified the offensive effort. Leading 16-10 in the fourth quarter, the 49ers drove to the Seattle two-yard line before settling for a 20-yard David Akers field goal, his fourth of the game. The Seahawks, however, drew a penalty for running into Akers, and Harbaugh decided to take points off the board in exchange for a first down at the Seattle 1-yard line.

Instead of diving into the end zone, Gore went backward on his first two carries. In the end Akers trotted back onto the field, this time for a 19-yard attempt. Still, Harbaugh praised the offensive effort, noting that the offensive line didn't give up any sacks and that the offense never turned the ball over. Quarterback Alex Smith, meanwhile, wasn't booed in his 2011 debut and may have endeared himself for being Gore's lead blocker on an early running play and for plunging into the end zone for the offense's only touchdown, a one-yard run with 12 seconds before the half.

Harbaugh said the offense was in a "blue-collar type of mode." "If he doesn't get that in, we're scrambling to clock (the ball) and try to get the field goal before the half - rolling the dice, putting it in his hands and he came up big for us," said Harbaugh, who bear-hugged Smith after the touchdown. "Toughness. Great job getting it into the end zone by Alex."

Asked if the offense's simple nature could be attributed to the lockout and a subsequently short offseason, Harbaugh said, no. Instead, he said the defense and special teams were playing so well, the offense didn't need to take chances. Still, it seems that Justin Smith, McDonald and the rest of the defenders may have to carry the 49ers, especially early in the season.

At least they're dressed for the task. "I didn't bring a shirt and this was the only thing hanging in my locker," Smith said of his duds. "It worked out pretty well for me."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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