Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Where's This Been?

It wasn't until Monday morning that it was confirmed, officially, that Alex Smith's concussion from last week's mess of a game against the Rams would keep him out of last night's game against the Chicago Bears. The starting QB, thusly, would be Colin Kaepernick, making his 1st NFL start against the Chicago Bears, they of the 7-2 record and top-ranked defense in the NFL. The Bears had, to this point in the season, been having the kind of year the 49ers had last year, winning games with a strong running game and a stifling defense that forced bushels of turnovers. Their Quarterback, talented headcase Jay Cutler, however, was sidelined with a concussion of his own, leaving them to start their backup Jason Campbell, who was last seen throwing interceptions for the Redskins, or getting sacked for the Raiders. Nonetheless, on a level playing field, Campbell appeared to have an edge, if for no other reason than he was the guy with experience, not the guy making his 1st start against a tough defense. I admired Kaepernick's pluck, particularly when forced into action last week, but I was skeptical as to how well he'd fare against a swarming defense like the Bears. It seemed to me we were in for one of these hideous 13-9 games, where all anyone could do was kick Field Goals or throw interceptions, and running backs would grind out tough yards.

Then, of course, the game started and Colin Kaepernick turned into Steve Young, while Jason Campbell turned into Craig Whelihan.

It wasn't so much that Kaepernick sort of got comfortable and found himself as the game went on. Kaepernick started the game like he was shot out of a cannon and never slowed down. The 49ers zipped right down the field on their first drive. They stalled once they got inside the Bears 20, but David Akers' Field Goal got them an early lead. The Bears responded by going 3 and out, punctuated by the first of 5 Aldon Smith sacks on 3rd down. The 49ers next drive appeared headed nowhere after Frank Gore was stuffed for a 6-yard loss on 2nd down, but on 3rd and long, Kaepernick stood up against a blitz and zipped a deep pass over everyone, perfectly on target to Kyle Williams for a 57-yard gain. One play later, Kapernick zipped another pass in to Vernon Davis for his first career TD pass, and the rout was on.

The tone had already been set. The Bears could not sustain any kind of offense behind Campbell. The 49ers, always tough against the run, didn't allow Matt Forte any kind of meaningful yardage, and the Bears Offensive Line appeared to not have shown up at all, because Campbell was constantly pressured, scrambling, or sacked. Campbell was sacked 6 times, 5.5 of them courtesy of Aldon Smith, the final half to Justin Smith. Twice, Campbell was intercepted, and both times the 49ers converted these turnovers into points.

Defensively, Kaepernick punched the Bears in the face early, and they never made any kind of adjustment. Though it appeared early that the 49ers would keep things simple for Kaepernick, they eventually opened up their offense once they got ahead. Unlike Alex Smith, Kaepernick has the ability to scramble away from a pass rush, which everyone knew, but Kaepernick also has a much stronger throwing arm than Smith. On the 49ers 3rd possession, Kaepernick zipped a pass in to Randy Moss. The pass appeared to be dropped by Moss, but on closer inspection, Moss didn't drop the pass so much as it jammed one of his fingers badly enough that he came out of the game wincing and shaking his hand. Not something you see out of Alex Smith's passes. But, perhaps, Kaepernick's signature moment would come on his final Touchdown pass of the night. The 49ers first drive of the second half started with Frank Gore doing what he'd done all night: rip off a punishing run, this one for 11 of his 78 yards, followed by Kaepernick throwing a short pass to Mario Manningham that ended up going for 37 yards. On 3rd down, Kaepernick was forced to scramble around. His primary receivers covered, Kaepernick began to roll out to his left. Someone would have to break open, or else he'd have to run it himself. Just as 3 Bears began to converge on him, Michael Crabtree broke open towards the back of the end zone. Kaepernick lofted a perfect pass right into Crabtree's hands for the game-icing Touchdown. The rest of the game was mostly academic. The defense continued to step on the Bears throats, and the end result was a dominant 32-7 victory in the kind of effort that the 49ers haven't always displayed, but showed just how good they're capable of being.

After the Tie last week, the 49ers were beginning to lose the luster that they'd built up last season. Their defense, which was great last season, now was merely looked at as "Good, but with great talent." This performance, perhaps, re-elevated them to great status. But it remains to be seen whether or not this will carry over. The 49ers have an excessively tough matchup next week on the road against the New Orleans Saints. Not only is this a test for the Defense, but Kaepernick played so well and the transition to him in the offense was so seamless that, perhaps, there's a bit of a Quarterback controversy. Alex Smith may have found himself Wally Pipped if he returns and is ineffective. Obviously, you don't know how Kaepernick would fare over the long haul, but if he hung in and had an outstanding game against a really tough Bears defense, he certainly seems to be well-equipped for the job. Regardless, having a solid backup QB is a luxury in the  NFL, and the 49ers certainly unleashed theirs in impressive fashion last night.

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