By: Apurv Baichwal
This game was, quite literally, the definition of a nail-biter. It went deep into overtime, after a closely-matched and hard-fought regulation period. The 49ers eventually ended the game victorious, with a score of 27-24, winning on Phil Dawson’s field goal in overtime. Both teams badly needed this win to maintain their playoff hopes, but the 49ers played just well enough to secure the win.
Following this season’s theme, the 49ers played extremely well in the first half, while falling off in the second half. They came out of the gates strong, scoring fourteen unanswered points. These points were made even better by the fact that they were both rushing touchdowns, as the 49ers went back to what makes them a great team, their rushing offense. As of late, they had attempted to pass the ball too much, and they weren’t allowing Frank Gore to run loose on their opponents. Today, the 49ers emphasized the run game, even though they had an even split with thirty-two pass and rush attempts each, and this rediscovered emphasis carried the Niners to the win. Frank Gore rushed for eighty-one yards and a touchdown on twenty-three carries, looking like the workhorse that 49ers fans were accustomed to seeing. This was a welcome change, as the 49ers have not scored a rushing touchdown in their last five games. Frank Gore had not scored a rushing touchdown since Week 2, and he had not topped 50 yards since Week 5. Essentially, the 49ers rushing offense has been lackluster as of late, and today’s revival on the ground showed that they are a more complete team offensively.
Frank Gore scored the first touchdown of that the game on a four yard run after an interception by veteran safety Antoine Bethea. Bethea picked off the Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees on their first drive, and after snagging the ball at midfield, he ran it back twenty-two yards to the nineteen. Frank Gore then carried the ball three times, scoring on the third play. The defense played really well today, especially through the first half, as they held a usually prolific offense, especially at the Super Dome, somewhat stagnant.
After forcing a punt on the Saint’s next offensive drive, the 49ers took the ball on a long, deep drive for another score. They started at their own 21 yard line then used eight rushing plays and five passing plays to drive the ball down the field and score. The rookie running back Carlos Hyde got the score this time, on a nine-yard run that he took outside to the left, giving him his first touchdown since Week 3. He has been a great complement to Frank Gore, allowing the veteran to take rests liberally, while also providing a more elusive and cut-back heavy style of running. The bruiser Frank Gore and the elusive Carlos Hyde have combined for some great results as they have torn defenses up together, providing two different looks and a strong extra dimension to the 49ers offense. Carlos Hyde is still quite obviously the backup, as Frank Gore always gets a much larger share of the touches than him, but Hyde has been quite efficient with his looks, helping the team wherever he can, as he also serves as the kick returner. Carlos Hyde finished today’s game with only four carries, but he still managed 36 yards and a touchdown, giving him a quite respectable showing for a backup.
After scoring 14 points straight to open up the first quarter, the 49ers regressed slightly as they allowed the Saints to score 10 points in response. Fortunately, the 49ers were able to tack another score onto their total, allowing them to go into the half up 21-10. This score came in the middle of the second quarter, after another long drive from the 49ers’ 20. This drive had a lot more passing involved, as Kaepernick passed for 68 yards on the drive. He also threw for the touchdown, on a beautiful 15 yard touchdown to the right side of the end zone that Anquan Boldin snagged while diving. You can see this great play below, one that showcases Kaepernick and Boldin’s connection:
After this score, both teams were quiet for the rest of the half, in addition to also being extremely sloppy. The 49ers’ defense made a great stop and forced the Saints to punt. The 49ers recovered this punt close to midfield, and with a 1:13 to go in the half, with one timeout, it looked like the 49ers could add onto their score. However, Kaepernick decided to hold onto the ball for too long instead of throwing it away, and he fumbled it as he was sacked. Now, the Saints won back the ball with even better field position. Fortunately for San Francisco, Chris Culliver caught an interception in the end zone, ending the Saints’ drive and preventing them from scoring.
Coming out of halftime, the 49ers looked just a little slower on both sides of the ball, as the Saints appeared to have the edge. The 49ers were held scoreless in the third quarter while the Saints picked up a touchdown, bringing the game to 21-17.
The 49ers have been woefully awful in the fourth quarter this season, and that theme continued today, although they still managed to score. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the 49ers gave up the lead for the first time, as they allowed Drew Brees to connect with this Pro-Bowl tight end, and arguably the best in the league, Jimmy Graham for a two yard touchdown. The 49ers were able to contain him up until this point, but Graham’s superior size and strength was too much for the 49ers cornerbacks on this play as he used his basketball history to box out Chris Culliver and grab the touchdown pass.
The game looked to be all but lost after this score, as the Saints maintained their 24-21 lead deep into the fourth quarter. Fortunately, after a long and sloppy drive, filled with countless dropped passes, Phil Dawson was able to hit a 45 yard field goal to tie the game. On this drive, the 49ers looked extremely desperate as they started from their 22-yard line then suffered from three dropped passes, the first two from Anquan Boldin, and the last from Michael Crabtree. With these drops, the 49ers were facing a fourth and ten situation where they had to go for the first down if they wanted to win the game. Kaepernick took the snap, rolled out right, waited for a seemingly huge amount of time for a receiver to get open, then eventually rocketed the ball 51 yards to Michael Crabtree, who secured the ball on the ground to extend the drive and put the 49ers in field goal range. You can view this marvelous, game-changing, season-saving play below:
On the subject of drops, all the 49ers receivers seemed to have butterfingers today, as they dropped an immense number of passes, hindering the 49ers offense. Both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are usually sure-handed receivers, but today they had four and two drops respectively. Boldin received 15 targets today, but was only able to catch six of them, a quite pathetic number for him. However, on the bright side, he was able to turn these six catches into 95 yards and a touchdown. Crabtree only caught three of his eight targets, and he finished with 62 yards, including his game-saving catch in the fourth quarter. Stevie Johnson was the only sure-handed receiver today, as he caught all three of his targets for 43 yards.
With Phil Dawson’s field goal, the 49ers tied the game 24-24 and took it into overtime. However, in another exhilarating play, Drew Brees actually completed a 47 yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with the clock winding down. Fortunately for the 49ers’ this play was nullified by an offensive pass interference flag, that saved the 49ers. Since the clock ran out on this play, the game was taken to overtime, with the 49ers barely hanging on to the game.
New Orleans won the toss and chose to possess the ball first, but this decision was to no avail as the 49ers defense was extremely strong and managed to force them to punt. Unfortunately, the Saints’ defense was similarly good, as they returned the favor and forced San Francisco to punt as well. With the new rules to overtime, after the Saints had punted first, any score would win the game, and after the 49ers punt, the Saints could have won the game with any score. In the defensive battle of overtime, the 49ere were able to win on the next drive, however, as they completely stuffed Drew Brees and the Saints. They allowed one first down but then clamped down with a five yard sack to make it 2nd and 15. They then had arguably had the play of the game, as Ahmad Brooks came in for another sack on Drew Brees, in addition to a fumble, as he stripped the ball right out of Brees’ hand. Rookie linebacker Chris Borland, who is filling in for the injured Patrick Willis, fell on this fumble and recovered it giving the 49ers the ball only 17 yards away from the end zone.
Chris Borland is another story of this game, as he has been huge the last two games filling in for Patrick Willis. In today’s game he recorded a whopping 17 tackles in addition to the fumble recovery. Eleven of his tackles were solo tackles, and he also had two tackles for losses as he was all over the field making plays everywhere. He was also stellar in pass defense in an overall amazing day. Borland was drafted just this year out of Wisconsin by the 49ers, with the 77th pick, in the third round. He has proven himself mightily, as he had a stellar outing today, and an equally stellar outing last week against the Rams. Last week, he recorded 18 combined tackles, including 15 solo and three tackles for loss. He has been a great fill in for Patrick Willis, as he plays with the energy of a rookie and the smarts of a veteran.
Back to the game, Ahmad Brooks and Chris Borland earned the 49ers the ball on the 17 yard line with a fumble. The 49ers then decided to play it safe and immediately take a 35 yard field goal for the 27-24 win.
As stated before, this game was tight to the very end, with multiple shifts in the lead. The 49ers played well overall, with the rushing attack looking very strong, and Colin Kaepernick seeming to benefit from its strength. Kaepernick threw for 210 yards and a touchdown while completing 14 of 32 passes. All of these numbers could have been much better as well if his wide receivers had not dropped so many balls. Even with the sloppiness of the usually strong receiving corps, the 49ers still managed to provide enough offense to come away with the win. Going into next week’s away matchup against the middling New York Giants, the 49ers need to tighten up some of the sloppiness on the offensive side. Specifically, Kaepernick needs to continue his growth and realize that it is okay to throw the ball away when he does not have a play, rather than making an errant throw that could be picked off or taking a sack. Also, the receivers need to snap out of whatever funk they were in today, as there were many balls dropped that very clearly should have been caught. Essentially, their drops costed the 49ers about 100 yards of offense and a touchdown. Finally, the 49ers need to continue to use the rushing game like they did today, to allow both Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde to pound defenses and give the defense rest. The strong rushing attack should be the basis of their offense, and it should allow them to gain yards when needed and open up the passing attack for deep throws.
The 49ers move to 5-4 with this win, and they maintain their playoff chances, although they are somewhat slim. They are currently third in the NFC West, behind the Cardinals and the Seahawks. They need to pick up a few more wins to raise themselves in the standings and give themselves a chance to earn a wildcard spot. Although the chances right now are slim, the 49ers looked better this week, and they should be able to use this game as an example and pick up more wins in the future.
Cover Image: By Steve (Chris Borland) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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