49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

August 28, 2012
49ers film review: What went wrong in the first quarter?

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Whenever he's asked about the 49ers' problems in converting third downs, Alex Smith says it has everything to do with first down. That is, the 49ers offense needs to have solid gains on first downs in order to make the third downs more manageable, Smith says.

Case in point: the 49ers' opening drive in Denver. On the first snap, Smith handed off to Frank Gore on a run to the left. The Broncos - crowding the line of scrimmage like every 49ers opponent - overwhelmed that side. Fullback Bruce Miller could not get Von Miller on the ground with a cut block and the outside linebacker stretched out the play and Gore lost five yards. Smith and the careful 49ers offense were not good at (or willing) overcoming those deficits, especially deep in their own zone, last year, and they went three and out on Sunday.

Contrast that with the Broncos' second drive. They, too, lost five yards on first down when Ahmad Brooks took down Willis McGahee in the backfield. Peyton Manning and the Broncos, however, were able to make that up in two plays on their way to a nine-play touchdown drive. That's not a slam on Smith, who showed last year that when he has the license, he is able to convert those types of situations. (See: @ Philadelphia, @ Detroit, vs. New Orleans, etc.) Instead, it shows a difference in philosophy.

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A lot was made of the big hit Manning absorbed from Parys Haralson. Otherwise, he had a very clean pocket throughout the first quarter. And when a quarterback of his caliber has time, he throws perfect passes like he did on touchdowns to Eric Decker and a nice sideline pattern to Demaryius Thomas. That is, a big part of the 49ers' defensive struggles were due to the fact they were playing a very good quarterback. The Broncos also often left six blockers to defend four 49ers pass rushers.

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The other aspect was that the 49ers were missing two starters, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman, and one key backup, Chris Culliver. No, they can't expect to have all 11 starters healthy throughout the season. They couldn't even make it through one quarter of the preseason without one - Smith -- getting injured. But the fact of the matter is that Larry Grant is not as good as Bowman or else Grant would be the starter. Several big plays early came at Grant's expense, including the 38-yard pass from manning to running back Lance Ball. Grant had good, but not great, coverage on the play, and Manning placed the ball perfectly. Does Bowman make that play? Maybe. Maybe not.

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I thought Will Tukuafu may have been the 49ers' MVP on Sunday. He had been slowed by a knee injury in recent weeks, but he was very active on both offense and defense against the Broncos. Tukuafu had a sack from his left defensive end spot and was around the ball all day. It seems very possible that the 49ers keep seven defensive linemen on the active roster for the second straight year.

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Vic Fangio keeps saying that he's waiting for a backup safety to step forward. Rookie Trenton Robinson, however, consistently has been part of the second-team defense alongside C.J. Spillman. That's a good indication that Robinson is leading the competition.

Having said that, it seemed as if Darcel McBath had the stronger game, and it may be a classic ceiling-vs.-floor scenario at the position. That is, the veteran, McBath, is the better player now but that Robinson could be better down the line.

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Ikaika Alama-Francis had a strong game after substituting for injured Eric Bakhtiari, especially since he only started practicing the week before the game. Alama-Francis is big and physical, which is what the 49ers like in their outside linebackers.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW 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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