SAN FRANCISCO - The 49ers had jumped out to a 5-1 start to the season using an effective but perhaps dry offense that preferred to grind out victories with a punishing ground game. In reaching 6-1, coach Jim Harbaugh showed he could have a little fun as well.
One of the key plays in Sunday's 20-10 win over Cleveland was an 18-yard throw to a 330-pound nose tackle, Isaac Sopoaga, who hadn't caught a pass in a game since he was a high schooler playing fullback in American Samoa.
After racing to a 17-3 lead at halftime behind the running of tailback Frank Gore (134 rushing yards), the 49ers offense sputtered coming out of the locker room. They opened the second half with four straight three-and-out series, and then watched as Cleveland - lifeless for most of the game - suddenly drew within one score with a 45-yard touchdown pass from Colt McCoy to receiver Joshua Cribbs with 6:16 left in the game.
That play served as a slap across the face for the sleepy San Francisco offense. On the ensuing series, the 49ers put together an 11-play drive, the most critical of which came on third and three at the Cleveland 32 yard line. Quarterback Alex Smith took the snap and fired a short pass left to Sopoaga, who has been doubling as a short-yardage fullback throughout the season.
On this play Sopoaga started on the right side of the 49ers offensive line and then began going in motion to the left. Sopoaga has said he prefers rugby - a sport he played extensively in Somoa - to football, and indeed he seemed comfortable with the ball in his hands as he rumbled to the Cleveland 14 yard line. The play set up a 26-yard field goal by David Akers that effectively put the game out of reach for the Browns.
Sopoaga said he didn't lobby coaches to have a ball thrown his way. Instead, he said the coaches had observed him catching passes - sometimes very long passes - with teammates in warmups, and they knew he had the hands for the job. Sopoaga said the 49ers only practiced the play twice in a week. He said the variable in the play call that designated him the pass catcher was "Rhino 6." "I wasn't nervous," he said. "I was like, 'Oh yeah - I've got to make this for my team.'"
On the 49ers sideline, meanwhile, his defensive teammates were hopping up and down like a Super Bowl was on the line. "The one thing we laughed at - why did you run out of bounds?" said Ricky Jean Francois, Sopoaga's understudy at nose tackle. "... If he would have scored, I think we would have been out there (celebrating) for 15 minutes. We probably would have started the Haka dance."
Sopoaga's reception was a yard more than another from an unlikely receiver, left tackle Joe Staley, whose 17-yard catch and run in the first quarter - also to the left side - set up Akers' first field goal of the afternoon.
Staley began his college career at Central Michigan at tight end, switching to left tackle after his freshman season. He said he hasn't caught a pass in a game since then. "I was only about 240 pounds at the time that I played there and they told me I was going to move to tackle," said Staley, who admitted he was initially against the switch. "Almost transferred. It's a good thing I didn't."
Afterward, Harbaugh admitted there were some things he didn't like in the game. In the second quarter, the 49ers had three chances from the Cleveland 2-yard line and closer, but couldn't drive the ball into the end zone. Late in the game, the offense took over at the Cleveland 48-yard line but had to punt after Ted Ginn lost eight yards on a reverse call that Harbaugh regretted.
But in the NFL, Harbaugh noted, no win is easy. His team now has six of them, and more than that, it has a four-game lead in its division. "Hard-fought," Harbaugh said. "That's the way things are. They're competitive. They're bar fights."
-- Matt Barrows