National Football League News
49ers' new-look defense passes first test
By Michael Rushton Sep 11, 2007, 22:28 GMT
- Sometimes it is best to stay in the shadows and out of the spotlight. That way, nobody will see you coming.
The San Francisco 49ers' offense struggled mightily in Monday night's 20-17 win over the Cardinals. But while Alex Smith and Arnaz Battle will get their praises sung and highlight reels shown from the comeback victory, both know deep inside they owe it all to the team's defense.
San Francisco managed just 79 yards in the first half, including 48 on the ground. However, Arizona moved the ball just 133 yards through the first two quarters.
By game's end, the Cardinals actually outgained the 49ers, 261-194. But to understand the impact made by San Francisco's defense, one has to dive a bit deeper into the numbers.
First, consider that the 49ers' had six new starters on defense, including a rookie in linebacker Patrick Willis. Then, mix in that lack of experience playing together with the fact the Cardinals have arguably the best wide receiving duo in the NFC in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, as well as an up-and-coming quarterback in Matt Leinart.
The sum of that equation would usually equal big numbers nine out of 10 times, but the 49ers secondary held that dangerous trio to just 100 net passing yards.
'Defensively, to put it in perspective, the last four times we played Arizona, they've averaged 326.8 yards per game,' said 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. 'Today they got 100 or 102 total passing yards, so that's a compliment to our secondary.'
Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris intercepted Leinart on the Cardinals' first offensive play of the game to set the tone early. The veteran is going to get a lot of opportunities to make plays this year lining up opposite free-agent acquisition Nate Clements.
'I thought that Nate did an outstanding job and Walt as well,' Nolan said. 'Obviously Walt had the interception, but both of them played well. I'm very pleased.'
Clements joined strong safety Michael Lewis as first-time starters in the San Francisco secondary, while Willis led the team with 11 total tackles. Lewis chipped in three total tackles, while Clements had two and a pass defensed.
'Our defense really jelled tonight and came together,' said Harris, who had a team and career-high eight interceptions last season. 'We tried to really pressure them all game and tried to make them hurry on offense.'
While it is true that the 49ers' offense struggled, it did save its best performance for last.
Faced with a 4th-and-1 late in the final quarter, Smith scrambled for 25 yards down to the Arizona 20-yard line to keep things alive. Not really known for his elusiveness, Smith's run showed a maturing sense of sensing pocket pressure.
'I knew (the defense) broke down,' Smith said. 'I felt I could make something happen with my feet and just get to the chains to get another set of downs. I saw a lane over to the side and took it and the guys up front gave me some great blocks.'
Two plays later, Smith and Battle connected for a 22-yard pass that Battle fumbled into the end zone. San Francisco recovered with just 26 seconds left in the end zone, but because a team can't advance a fumble in the final two minutes of a game, the ball was placed at the one-yard line.
After a timeout, Battle made up for his mistake by easily scoring from one yard out on an end-around.
It was a rare occurrence that Battle put the ball on the ground, seeing as he has excellent hands, rarely drops passes thrown his way, and makes a living on hauling in third-down passes.
The Notre Dame product was just happy to make up for his miscue.
'Coach just called on me to make a play and I was able to do it,' Battle said of his scoring run. 'The most important part is getting the victory and winning the game. It was a collective effort in this win.'
BETTER STARTS, FINISH STRONG
One thing that hindered the 49ers last year was falling behind early and having to dig themselves out of holes.
The club kept that trend going this year on a small scale, falling behind 10-7 in the second quarter before evening the game at 10-10 by the half.
On the other side of the coin, San Francisco made a living finishing games strong last year, another thing they kept going in 2007.
'We are a team that is about finishing and it obviously showed (Monday), said Nolan. 'We play games to the very end. Last year, four out of our seven wins came when we came back after halftime being down. It was one of those types of games today, so I was pleased with that.'
ROOKIE AND OTHER DEBUTS
For the second straight season, the 49ers had a pair of first-round picks and for a second consecutive year, both started on opening day. In addition to 11th overall pick Willis, Joe Staley, who was grabbed 28th overall, started at right tackle.
'It was really great to be out there in a regular season game,' Willis said. 'Our guys played really great out there and proved that we can really make some plays on defense.'
Last year's first-round picks, tight end Vernon Davis and linebacker Manny Lawson, both started last season for San Francisco and were on the field as well on Monday. Davis made two catches for just four yards against Arizona, while Lawson had five tackles out of his outside linebacker spot.
In addition to the new faces on defense, the 49ers showed off their prized pickup on offense as well. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson, acquired from Seattle in a draft-day trade, made four catches for 36 yards. He also dropped a pass late in the fourth quarter, but recovered Battle's fumble in the end zone as well.
NEXT UP: HOW THE WEST WAS WON
The 49ers play their second straight division game and first on the road this year on Sunday, when they travel to St. Louis to take on the Rams.
St. Louis leads the all-time series 59-54-2, though San Francisco has won the last three of the last four meetings.
The 49ers defeated the Rams 20-13 at home on September 17 of last season for their third straight win over the club. Smith threw for 233 yards and a touchdown, while running back Frank Gore rushed for 127 yards and a score in the win.
However, the Rams got their revenge in St. Louis on November 26. Gore erupted for 165 total yards and a score in San Francisco's 20-17 loss.
© 2007 The Sports Network