There were so many reasons to look forward to watching this game, and Colin Kaepernick’s first start in a harsh road environment topped the list. However, this game was more about the group that went pick-6 twice, sacked Drew Brees five times, and left New Orleans Saints receivers feeling woozy. Perhaps that’s fitting, seeing as the 49ers have allowed at least 20 fewer points than any other team in the NFL.
We’ll get to the defense later, but since the talk is going to be 24/7-Kaepernick for the next week or so we might as well touch on his performance first. Were his reads, decisions and numbers — 16-for-25, 231 yards, 2 TD (1 rushing), 1 INT — good enough to make him the full-time starter?
“We’ll address that at a later date,” Jim Harbaugh said after the game.
Glad that’s settled.
As I predicted this morning, the quarterback controversy will travel to St. Louis, where Harbaugh will again probably wait until the last minute to name Kaepernick the starter. That’s the decision I would advise Harbaugh to make if he would just ask (still waiting for his call, any minute now).
Kaepernick’s TD/INT ratio was pedestrian, his yardage was again what you’d expect to see from Matthew Stafford midway through the third quarter, there were two delay of game penalties, and the Saints’ defense isn’t very good. So why not give Smith, whose numbers were better back when he faced the Saints in the playoffs, one more shot?
1. If it weren’t for drops by Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore, Kaepernick would’ve completed close to 80% of his passes and come close to 300 yards. Not that Smith hasn’t suffered his fair share of drops (Delanie Walker sure seems to like catching balls from Kaepernick more than Smith, at least this year), but if you’re basing Kaepernick’s overall game on numbers it’s something to consider.
2. Kaepernick’s mobility may or may not have led to a couple holding calls on the 49ers’ offensive line (more on that later), but the Saints didn’t sack him once. Smith has been sacked at least twice in every start this season except for the blowout win over Buffalo, and was sacked four times by the Saints in their playoff matchup in January. For what it’s worth, New Orleans came into this game with one more sack as a team than San Francisco.
3. Like on Monday, there were throws Kaepernick made that we’d rarely/never see from Smith. The 25-yarder across the middle to Walker was one, and this pass in the third quarter was another:
4. The extra attention defenses must pay to Kaepernick’s running ability led to increased activity for the running backs in the passing game. Frank Gore had his first receiving TD of the season, and Bruce Miller caught three passes for 37 yards. The 49ers are a more dangerous and diverse offense with Kaepernick in, and not just because he can throw deep.
5. The 49ers converted 6-of-13 (46%) of 3rd downs (failing on each of their last three), with four of those conversions coming on passes or runs by Kaepernick. That’s an improvement both from last week (4-of-12) and their overall 3rd down conversion rate heading into Sunday’s game (35.4%).
Contrary to Jim Trotter’s report, Harbaugh made it sound like the decision to start Kaepernick was due to the concussion Smith suffered two weeks ago against the Rams.
“The injury, and the fact that Alex had symptoms seven days later, eight days later from the concussion and, I’ve just had some bad experiences. Not going to put a guy back out there who had symptoms like he had,” Harbaugh said. “They were serious enough. Now he eventually got cleared. But the thought was to rotate him back into the action but not all the way to the front line. Thought that would give him a chance to get cleared up completely. That was the rationale.”
Smith’s fans — and based on the reactions I got after making a couple jokes about Smith wearing his helmet on the sidelines, there are still many — can cling to Harbaugh’s words in hopes of Smith getting another opportunity … but I’m not buying it. Harbaugh is going to attempt to keep Jeff Fisher off-balance after his Rams forced a tie at Candlestick Park and bludgeoned the Cardinals in Arizona today (guess Steven Jackson’s career isn’t over, after all).
But all the momentum is going Kaepernick’s way. Smith seemed to know it, based on his expressions during Fox’s frequent closeup shots.
When asked whether he thought he should get a chance to reclaim the starting job, Smith said, “I think I should. It’s not my decision.” After Kaepernick played a solid-but-not-great game in New Orleans, maybe there’s a chance Smith can wrest the job away from Kaepernick in practice. But I have a feeling this decision has already been made, and Harbaugh will take delight in watching the media peons dissect his every word during another week of uncertainty.
49ers leave with some Bayou bruises
We know what to expect when the 49ers and Saints clash — exciting offensive plays, vicious hits and a little dirty play mixed in. Unfortunately for the 49ers, a team that has been exceedingly lucky in the area of injury-prevention, they had to deal with this sight:
Kendall Hunter’s ankle injury made him “questionable” for the rest of the game, although he wouldn’t return. Kyle Williams’ knee injury looked serious enough to wonder if he tore knee ligaments. If both players are out next week, we could see LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins make it to the active roster for the first time this season.
After the game, the photos got more gruesome, courtesy of Anthony “Bam” Davis, who tweeted this along with, “How could i hold with a finger broken in half? lol”:
Sorry, maybe that x-ray should’ve come with a warning.
Harbaugh also said Williams replaced Ted Ginn because of a hand/wrist injury, not because he muffed that punt that led to a quick Saints touchdown. Mario Manningham looked incredible early, but was seen flexing his hand in apparent pain on the sideline.
Also, is David Akers hurt? Every one of his kickoffs reached the end zone but he missed a 50-yard field goal attempt wide left and had a 33-yard attempt blocked, although the latter probably wasn’t Akers’ fault.
Time to credit the defense
— It seemed early on that the 49ers would be lucky to surrender 32 points, the same number they gave up to New Orleans in January. Then the pressure, nonexistent in the opening quarter, began in earnest.
— So many 49ers defenders were awarded in some way after the 2011 season with All-Pro nods and Pro Bowl invites, but not Ahmad Brooks. That has to change, as he has been a force all season. Today he had 1.5 sacks, two QB hits, four solo tackles and a pass defensed to go along with that pick-6.
— With the way Aldon Smith is playing, I have a feeling he’ll win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. After 1.5 sacks gave him 16.5 this season, he’s on pace for 24 sacks. If he breaks the all-time record for a season (22.5, held by Michael Strahan), it’s going to be hard for AP voters not to give serious consideration to the biggest star of the league’s best defense — even if Pro Football Focus says guys like Von Miller and J.J. Watt have been much, much better. We’ll revisit this prediction as the year goes on, I’m sure.
— Patrick Willis and Justin Smith also had standout performances, and the safeties were brutal yet again. I have no idea how Dashon Goldson survives the punishment he dishes. He’s a part of those collisions too, right?
— It seems like the 49ers’ corners save their best plays for the end of games — Tarell Brown’s breakup of a 4th down pass to Joe Morgan was the latest example.
Randy Moss picks his spots
He didn’t catch a pass, but he had a key block on Kaepernick’s rushing TD and was treated like the future Hall of Famer he is by the referees when he interfered with a probable interception in the end zone … no call was made.
Think Harbaugh’s stressing this QB thing?
Can’t blame a coach for being happy when the second place team in the division lost to fall three games back in the loss column, and will probably lose Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner for four games after both starting cornerbacks tested positive for Adderall.