With a 3-1 record many considered to be the product of a relatively easy opening schedule, a significant coaching upgrade and some luck, the 49ers appeared to be a better team than before, but not that much better. Today’s 48-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also entered this game on an upward trend along with the same number of wins and losses in 2011, showed the 49ers have the ability to mentally and physically dominate an opponent.
And not just some lame NFC West opponent, either.
Once Josh Freeman started the second quarter by following his defense’s recovery of a Frank Gore fumble deep in Tampa territory with a pick-6 to Carlos Rogers, the game seemed like it was already over. The Bucs’ defense was ineffectual. The 49ers’ offensive line, embarrassingly bad in the season’s first couple games, consistently pushed forward and opened holes on running plays, while also allowing Alex Smith plenty of time to do what he does best: toss the ball to Vernon Davis.
Smith made a few other nice passes, including a couple to Joshua Morgan and Michael Crabtree. And it’s almost easy to forget the game’s first TD — a fantastic throw to Delanie Walker made possible by a play call nearly as good. The 49ers lined up Walker directly to Davis’ right. Walker ran straight down the middle of the field. Davis took the same route, then veered to the left, drawing zone coverage away from the seam where Smith threw the ball to Walker. It was the perfect example of how a team can take advantage of having two of the better receiving tight ends in football — exactly the kind of play the 49ers never ran in prior seasons.
If the Niners regressed after their emotional comeback win over the Eagles last week, nobody would’ve blamed them. But instead they took control of the game from the start, applied relentless pressure and never let up — not even in the team’s final TD drive led by Colin Kaepernick and a few nice runs by Kendall Hunter (which included an apparent ankle injury to Joshua Morgan, the only bad thing that happened to the Niners on Sunday).
After the win over the Eagles a week ago, few outside San Francisco focused on the Niners longer than the few seconds it takes to say something nice about a new head coach. It was all about how angry Michael Vick was after somebody dared to ask him how the loss made him feel, and how the mighty Eagles choked. And after the way the 49ers have played over the past several years, they didn’t deserve top billing. Not yet.
Tampa isn’t a bad team, but a 45-point win is a 45-point win. The last time the 49ers had one of those? Try 55-10 against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV. The last win this big during the regular season? 48-0 in the 1987 regular season finale over the Los Angeles Rams. The NFL will be forced to stop talking about the Detroit Lions’ amazing story (for 24 hours) and at least mention the Niners and the apparent rebirth of Alex Smith.
Smith has to be euphoric right now, and nobody would blame him if his thoughts turned to three Mikes at a time like this: Nolan, Martz and Singletary, who all in their own way dispersed some of the blame for their teams’ poor performances on the easiest of all targets: a No. 1 overall pick whose salary far outpaced his producton.
Frank Gore also has to be feeling pretty good even after losing that fumble in the red zone, because after coughing it up he rushed 16 times for 119 yards and a score (Gore had 125 yards total on 20 carries). Gore’s resurgence has coincided with the o-line’s, an amazing story considering that group seemed to be in crisis mode after the Dallas game.
Yeah, yeah, offense Schmoffense…
It takes a stout performance to hold any team to 3 points, and the Bucs — by no means an offensive juggernaut on the level of the Packers, Saints or Patriots, but still a respectable NFL team with a talented QB/RB tandem — almost seemed lucky to score any points in today’s game. How did the Niners, without double-team magnet Isaac Sopoaga (staph infection), keep Tampa out of the end zone?
— You wouldn’t normally assume this about a guy who did a shoe commercial with Kenny Powers, but Patrick Willis’ game seems to have no ego. His tackling form, highlighted in Sports Illustrated before the season, is still close to perfect. LaGarrette Blount isn’t a guy you can just knock down, and Willis wrapped him up by the ankles each time. Tackle numbers can be deceiving at times, but Willis’ game line: 10 solo tackles, 2 assists, 1 fumble recovery and 1 pass deflection, was pretty accurate.
— Then again, sometimes it’s nice to see a guy on the defense whack a guy in the open field, and Dashon Goldson did more than that. The violence of Goldson’s collision with Mike Williams separated Williams from the ball … and was clean at the same time.
— If someone said before the season the 49ers would have a cornerback in the Pro Bowl, or even after the first two games of the season, that person would’ve been laughed out of the room. But Rogers is playing like a Pro Bowl corner right now, especially since he already has 3 interceptions.
— I have to agree with Niners Nation’s Tre Faaborg, who said, “We have to re sign Rogers before free agency.” Why not? At this rate the only reason why he won’t end up with 8 or 9 INT is because other teams are going to stop throwing his way. Rogers also had a great stop on a short pass to Arrelious Benn, picking him up and driving him to the turf for a 3-yard loss.
— Why any team attempts short passes against the Niners is beyond me. Their only weakness at this point are on passes 10 yards or longer. Anything near the line of scrimmage gets stuffed almost immediately.
— A couple more sacks for Aldon Smith, the 49ers’ best young quarterback-attacker in quite some time. I called him the next Charles Haley on Twitter and people got a little upset with me, but in terms of pure pass rushers the 49ers have drafted, he’s the most talented since Haley. Aldon’s more impressive at age 22 than Andre Carter, and Carter’s had a very good career. I’m aware he has a ways to go, but maybe even more encouraging than Aldon’s physical tools might be the way he finishes plays. He seems to keep working and running and twisting no matter what he faces, and that’s led to a couple coverage sacks — including his second one today.
And as always, your requisite ode to Jim Harbaugh
More than any sort of dominance by one group, this game was striking in that every single area of the team played better than the guys they were matched against, and that’s incredible — even against a team coming off a Monday night game on the other side of the country. We haven’t even talked about the 49ers’ special teams yet, which is usually a good sign unless there’s a 55-yard FG or a return for a touchdown or something. Everyone from David Akers to Blake Costanzo (love that guy) to Colin Jones did their jobs extremely well.
It wasn’t just the Bucs’ players that looked looked poorly coached in light of all the penalties they committed (9 for 96 yards, compared to 3 flags for 30 yards against the Niners), their COACH chipped in with an unsportsmanlike penalty, something I’ve never seen before.
The Bucs quit early on in this game, and for a team that came in with a share of the NFC South lead and went 6-2 on the road last season, one has to wonder if they sensed early on that the Niners were the better team. The 49ers seemed to have every answer early, and that continued in the middle of the game and through the very end. Once other teams start believing you’re good, then you’re really going places.
Now the challenge for Harbaugh and his staff is to convince his team (again) that while they’re good, they can still get better. Convince his players that the best teams in the league (and the Lions may be in that group, but like with the Niners it’s way too early to tell) won’t pack it in and start planning which movies they’re going to watch on the flight home as early as the Bucs did today.
The best part of this 49ers season so far has been watching the team improve faster than anyone thought possible, besides maybe Harbaugh himself. Besides a few bad halves here and there (the second half against Dallas and the first halves against the Bengals and Eagles come to mind), the 49ers have surpassed expectations all year. Now an awakened fanbase will tune in at 10 am PST next Sunday to see how they can possibly outdo themselves … again.