49ers’ hot start leads to conservative finish

The way the San Francisco 49ers started on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Niners fans everywhere had visions of Tampa Bay in their heads. 48-3? Sure, why not? The Browns are worse than the Bucs, the Niners are getting better as the year goes on and just look at these plays:

 

If you want to know when Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman, Vic Fangio and Brad Seely put their Grade-A gameplans away and went into lead-protect mode, it was probably with 12:44 remaining in the 1st quarter.

The Niners didn’t overextend themselves, and if several things would have gone the other way (the four times the Browns recovered their own fumble; Frank Gore’s two near-touchdowns on the goal line; twice where Michael Crabtree had an almost sure TD and was overthrown by Alex Smith; multiple mistakes on the same play by Tarell Brown and Dashon Goldson on the Browns’ lone TD by Joshua Cribbs; one or two near-interceptions by the 49ers), the score would’ve been a lot closer to 48-3.

Winning with style, especially this season (when the lack of strong defenses among the decent-to-good teams has been startling) is very overrated. Many poked fun at Harbaugh after the blowout win over Tampa Bay, joking that he must not realize that in the NFL there aren’t any polls where the voters might be swayed by margin of victory. And his postgame interactions with the head coach of the Detroit Lions didn’t exactly convince otherwise those suspecting part of Harbaugh’s coaching identity was still rooted in the land of coeds and beer bongs lecture notes and midterms.

Restraint

Harbaugh didn’t seem interested in proving any points on Sunday against Cleveland. The Browns came into this game with a top-2 pass defense in terms of yards per game. And while the Niners took a few shots here and there, they didn’t care about challenging Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown and the rest of Cleveland’s secondary.

And why would they? That’s the great thing about playing against teams that can’t move the ball. You suddenly find yourself in situations where you’re up two touchdowns at the beginning of the fourth quarter, where two offensive first downs in the entire quarter will lead to an easy win (even if you give up a long touchdown to Cribbs, the only big-play threat on the Browns).

The 49ers’ coaching staff knew before the opening play of the game — Hardesty’s carry for one yard — they were the better team. Ahmad Brooks’ helmetless sack of Colt McCoy while forcing him to fumble convinced the defense. A few Gore runs turning into a touchdown convinced the offense. The win wasn’t pretty, and there are plenty of things they’ll need to work on before heading back east to Washington, D.C. However, there’s something to be said for the 49ers being in the position where they could either step on the gas and go for a statement-making rout, or slide into third gear and cruise to relatively stress-free win.

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Bay Area Sports Guy

BASG (Steve Berman) and his wife started Bay Area Sports Guy in 2008, and now it's the No. 1 independent website covering Bay Area sports. You can follow him @BASportsGuy and on Facebook.

7 comments
topraman
topraman

Is there a running stat on injuries teams incur after playing the niners? I swear every team loses a few players on offense after playing the niners defense. They are literally bringing the pain!

SGL
SGL

Hopefully they're not getting into the habit of playing down to the team they're up against.

Stan
Stan

No doubt the stop on 4th down snapped Haurbaugh out of feeling his oats. From that point he was in a prevent defense mind set. And,against Colt McCoy that was good enough.

BASG's Dad
BASG's Dad

At playoff time nobody remembers the scores or how decisive your wins were. Just make the playoffs and stay healthy. Edwards will be a weapon. His first catch today...awesome. Alex is good enough to win it all with the tremendous defense. Especially up the middle. Alex has stopped with the panic. He knows the D can give him back the ball. Wow... 4 games up. Who wudda thought?

MoragaJohn
MoragaJohn

Interesting perspective BASG. I personally would never have thought Harbaugh was holding back or that he ever would. Interested to know what makes you feel so??? While it would be great to think they are that good, that might be giving him and the 49er's way too much credit.

BASG
BASG

I agree with what Dwight Clark said after the game: Harbaugh would never say so, but if he respected the Browns he probably wouldn't have gone for it on 4th down at the goal line. He would have taken the points. Your strategy can't be to just feed Gore and rest on your awesome run defense against good teams. They weren't incredibly creative (save for the two passes to linemen) in any phase of the game. The Browns aren't just less talented than the Niners, they also came in w/out their best RB and WR.

MoragaJohn
MoragaJohn

Thanks... didn't hear Clark's comment. It's a perspective on that decision that didn't cross my mind or now, strike me as a representation of in-game strategy. Could it possibly be just a bit too early for that much chutzpah? I'm just asking?