It seemed simple. The 49ers rushed for about 100 yards per game in the first three weeks and went 1-2. They ran for 396 yards combined against the Texans and Rams, and everything was right with the world again. But life isn’t always simple, and the 49ers — even with one of the best offensive lines in the game and their best running back in franchise history — can’t expect to win with a predictable gameplan that consists of running, running and running some more.
This is especially true against a team like the Arizona Cardinals, who came into Sunday’s game with one of the best rush defenses in the league. Enter Vernon Davis, who was the star in the 49ers’ 32-20 win over the Cardinals.
Davis had eight catches for 180 yards and two long scores. His first touchdown looked very similar to the 64-yarder he had last week against Houston, when he caught the ball on the move and left everyone in the dust as he sprinted down the left sideline. His second scoring grab was probably even more impressive — it came on a pass he caught over his shoulder on the other side of the same end zone (after a gentle push-off that wasn’t called).
“That ball seemed like it got tipped,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Great concentration making that play.”
The last time Davis had numbers like these was against the Saints in the NFC Divisional Round. He actually had the exact same stats: 180 yards and two touchdowns (one fewer catch today, however). Davis said his hamstring is “close” to 100%, but even a partially injured Davis is the biggest downfield threat on the team … literally.
“He’s fast, big, strong. You can’t put a safety on him. You can’t really put some corners on him. A guy 250 runs a 4.3,” Frank Gore said. “People can’t put guys in the box, because we’ve got deep threats.”
As one would expect, Davis was in a great mood after the game and seemed to relish talking about something that clearly isn’t an issue anymore — chemistry with his quarterback, who Davis repeatedly referred to as “Kappy” after the game (more on that later).
“When you’re in the zone it’s like you’re on a high and you can’t come down. It’s a beautiful thing. He was able to find me several times, we started to click and we were on the same page. Because that’s what it’s about, it’s about being on the same page and having that chemistry with your quarterback,” Davis said.
— It appeared early on that most of the 49ers’ points would come on the defensive end. Eric Reid and Carlos Rogers came up with interceptions early, and the red zone offense following those plays was atrocious. It was comical in the press box when they’d announce what happened afterward.
“Scoring drive: four plays, minus-10 yards, one minute.”
“Scoring drive: four plays, three yards, one minute, 35 seconds.”
The 49ers’ next time in the red zone didn’t even result in a Phil Dawson field goal. Colin Kaepernick rolled to his right and threw a pass intended for Bruce Miller (who was covered in the front of the end zone) that was tipped and picked off.
The point is this: the 49ers won, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement on the offensive end (Kaepernick also lost another fumble). Things got better as the game went on, though.
— “We grinded some meat,” said Harbaugh of the team’s clinching drive, an 18-play smash mouth masterpiece that lasted 9:32 and at one point featured five straight handoffs to Gore. “The line was coming off the ball. Frank was determined. The whole unit was determined to move the football and keep the defense off the field that had played so well in that ballgame.”
That “grinded some meat” phrase predictably led to some questions and guffaws from the media about Harbaugh’s latest Harbaughism. Here’s a clip below, which starts with a question about meat from Lowell Cohn (of course).
— More Harbaugh on Davis: “They committed an extra player in the box and went with man coverage and at times zero coverage. And that gave Vernon a chance to make the big play.”
— The 49ers forced four turnovers, the two previously mentioned INTs of Carson Palmer as well as strips by Corey Lemonier (who also recorded a safety) and Patrick Willis, who made his return after missing two games with a groin injury.
“We do what we call ‘Takeaway Thursday’ and coach (Ed) Donatell gets up and we just go through each player, the guys who have the ball, quarterback, receivers,” said Willis about the play that led to the 49ers’ meat-grinder of a drive.
“We called a stunt, and I ran the stunt, hit the guy,” said Lemonier when I asked him about his strip, which set up the 49ers’ final field goal. “Our goal this week was to strip the ball, get two strips off of them.”
Score one for “Takeaway Thursday.” Actually, score 16 points because that’s how many the 49ers got off their four turnovers.
— “Pass rushers in this game are hard to find. It’s exciting to see him do the job he’s doing. He doesn’t say a whole lot, ever,” said Harbaugh when asked about Lemonier.
— I also asked the soft-spoken Lemonier when he registered his last safety before today: “High school. The thing is, I actually pushed the guy out of the end zone.”
— Here’s proof that Davis calls Kaepernick “Kappy”:
Also in that video were his comments about a certain receiver possibly returning: “That would be amazing if Crab comes back.” Boldin — who only mustered three receptions and 28 yards on eight targets — probably agrees.
— Reid’s interception was great (he once again leads the team in that category with three), but I was just as impressed with his fumble recovery after Willis stripped Larry Fitzgerald. The way Reid flew to the ball and landed on it and maintained possession was one of the best plays of the game, easily.
— Since everyone always bombards Donte Whitner with questions about Reid, I asked him a few about his own play (he had another solid game except for a missed tackle on Larry Fitzgerald’s 75-yard touchdown) and the team.
— Whitner’s probably the best interview subject on the defensive side, although the secondary as a whole is pretty darn good in front of microphones and cameras. On the offense it’s probably Joe Staley who provides the most (and best) quotes. He came through once again after I asked him whether Frank Gore seems to get better as the game goes on if the 49ers keep giving him the rock.
“Yeah, that’s the thing with those early runs, those two-yard runs, those body blows that he throws. As we keep feeding him, those are going to turn into bigger runs for us and that was a great example of it today. He was able to turn out those eight-yard, 10-yard runs as the game went on. He’s a great running back and it’s just unbelievable what he can do back there, how tough he is and all the intangibles he leads for this football team,” Staley said.
You can hear him say that, as well as his answer to my follow-up question about whether the offensive line also gains steam as the game goes on. In true o-lineman fashion, Staley’s answer to that question didn’t contain the same sort of praise he had for Gore.
— “When I get in a rhythm, I feel like I can do whatever I want,” Gore said. In order to get into those rhythms, the 49ers need the offense to stay balanced. While the situation at wide receiver is still relatively bleak at the moment, Davis’ vertical game was all the 49ers needed to tenderize the Cardinals’ defense and let Gore take over in the end. No one thought Gore would have 100 yards in this game after he started out with 20 yards on 10 carries, but there he was: 25 carries, 101 yards. Gore is now on pace for 1,272 yards this season, which would be the most since he went for 1,695 in his second year.
— There’s so much more to talk about, including the special teams and the fans embarrassing themselves by doing “the wave” while medical personnel tended to Calais Campbell during what appeared to be a very serious injury. But that last part probably deserves its own post.