Monday, November 26, 2012

The Great Escape

I suppose, when your defense returns multiple Interceptions for Touchdowns, it doesn't really matter who's playing Quarterback, you probably should win the game. The 49ers defense did this on Sunday, providing the muscle behind the Niners' 4th win in their last 5 games, and Colin Kaepernick's second victory as the starting QB.

That being said, the performance on Sunday in New Orleans wasn't nearly as brilliant as it was against the Bears. Not as brilliant, certainly, but just as effective.

With Alex Smith on the sidelines, helmet on, looking utterly stone-faced, Kaepernick didn't light up the scoreboard like he did against the Bears. Instead, he conducted a game plan that seemed predicated more on the ground than through the air, eschewing several of the deep passes he was able to pull off against Chicago in favor of letting Frank Gore and, before he left with an ankle injury, Kendall Hunter. Or, Kaepernick just ran around and created plays himself. This wasn't the calm, methodical offense that Alex Smith was running, that often seemed content to chew up yards and clock in rather unspectacular fashion. This seemed wild. It looked wild a bit of the time as well. The 49ers used a number of odd formations and weird pre-snap motion plays so often that it appeared that they were outfoxing themselves at times. To wit, the 49ers chalked up 10 penalties, several of which nearly or did kill drives (and also a number that appeared to emphasize a crew of officials with their head buried up the home team's ass).

The result, early on, was that the 49ers only managed one really good drive, their second of the game. Kaepernick's target of choice on this drive was Mario Manningham, who turned a short pass into a 40-yard gain and put the Niners in position for Kaepernick to score on a beautiful read option play that conjured images of Steve Young dashing around. But the Saints responded with a quick Touchdown of their own, something that Drew Brees has made into an art form, and then scored again following a sickening muffed punt from the usually sure-handed Ted Ginn, Jr. This one was just pure disaster. It's hard to tell what happened, but it appeared as though Ginn got distracted by a Saints gunner, and then just gagged. This doesn't happen often to Ginn, but when it does, it's ugly, and two plays later, the Saints had a Touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

Now trailing, with the Saints fans howling and Brees settling in, it was up to Kaepernick to try to rally the 49ers back from behind. This was the same team that Alex Smith carved up twice late in last year's Divisional Playoffs. Kaepernick could not get anything going on the ensuing drive, and trying to rally before halftime ended up throwing a bad interception, an underthrown pass that he seemed ill-prepared to throw. Not good. So, the 49ers could, at best, try to lick their wounds and prevent New Orleans from extending their lead.

This, of course was when the Defense, which has carried this team for the better part of the last two seasons, took over the game. With about half a minute to go in the half, Brees was embarking on another of his methodical two-minute drills. But in the process of zipping off a quick slant to Jimmy Graham, he lost track of Ahmad Brooks, not usually seen dropping back into pass coverage, but fortuitous that he did on this play, because he picked off Brees' throw and cruised 50 yards untouched  for a tying Touchdown that pretty much cut the wind out of the Saints' sails and changed the tune of the game.

Given the ball to start the 3rd Quarter, Kaepernick and the 49ers zipped right down the field, scoring on a Frank Gore Touchdown, and scored again on the ensuing drive when Donte Whitner picked off another Brees pass and ran it back for a score. This one was a beauty. Brees had fired over the middle to Marques Colston. But while jumping for the pass, Colston found himself upended by Dashon Goldson, and the ball glanced off his hands and right to Whitner. Whitner then found himself escorted into the end zone by several blockers, leaping across the goal line while Drew Brees could only scowl and throw his chinstrap.

The game was still far from over, even at 28-14, given the quality of the Saints and what they had done in San Francisco last January. They quickly scored a Touchdown to trim the lead, and after the 49ers couldn't move the ball, had another opportunity. But once again, the 49ers defense rose up, aided by a rare penalty on the Saints and a key sack from Aldon Smith. The Saints were forced to punt and pinned the 49ers back at their own 6 yard line. But Kaepernick, whose scrambling ability allowed him to escape this game without a sack, led a masterful drive that spanned 16 plays and ate 9:28 off the clock, ending with a David Akers Field Goal to extend the lead to 10 and, for all intents and purposes, finish off the Saints.

The Saints were forced to throw and throw some more, and the 49ers dug in and let their defense finish out the job, a steely 31-21 win on the road against a difficult opponent. The win moved the 49ers to 8-2-1, extended their division lead to 2 and a half games over Seattle and once again served notice that the 49ers can win no matter who's taking snaps.

 Jim Harbaugh still seems mum on the subject, as do many of his players. Kaepernick, for right now, appears to be the answer. He has mobility and arm strength that Smith lacks, and it appears that the 49ers can open up their offense more with him at the helm. That's not to denigrate the progress Smith has made to get to this point, but then again, you had to always wonder when Smith's wheels would come off. You worry about this with Kaepernick, too, and how he will handle adversity, but if nothing else, he seems like the kind of player who can Make Things Happen, even in difficult situations. The Smith vs. Kaepernick situation seems as though it won't go away for the remainder of the season, but if the end result is that the 49ers keep winning games, it really doesn't matter who's back there.

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