The 49ers didn’t exactly need this game. Their lead in the NFC West is practically insurmountable, they had two built-in excuses before the game (an excessive number of east coast trips this season and a short week to fall back on), and the team’s strength — its defense — didn’t fail them.
Since Jim Harbaugh and his staff will undoubtedly use last night’s 16-6 loss to John Harbaugh and his Ravens as a learning experience, here are five things us couch-ridden gluttons can focus on during the upcoming long week between Niners games.
1. The 49ers’ offensive line takes the biggest hit when preparation time is cut short. This was how they looked in their loss to Dallas. Ravens linebackers were running into the pocket untouched and the 49ers couldn’t get anything going on the ground. Early on, after the 49ers had time to look back at their mistakes and make adjustments (including one personnel change, taking Chilo Rachal out and putting Adam Snyder at right guard instead), they did much better at protecting Alex Smith and opening holes for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter during the 8-game win streak which ended in Baltimore.
With only one practice to prepare for the Ravens (only the best defense the 49ers will face all season), the o-line looked completely lost, especially in the second half. And just like in the game against the Cowboys, Rachal was in the game most of the time (Snyder sat with an injured hamstring).
2. The loss of Bruce Miller hurt — a lot. Who would’ve thought that a rookie defensive end would turn out to be such an important player for the 49ers at fullback? Not only did the 49ers fail to get anything going offensively all game, but this was also (not coincidentally) a game where Smith didn’t target Delanie Walker once (Kyle Williams was only targeted once too, but that’s another story).
3. The 49ers’ defense is good, but not perfect. Some of the 49ers’ passing yards allowed this season (241.2 ypg, 21st in the NFL) are because most opponents give up on the run early. But against good teams like the Ravens, Giants and Cowboys, the 49ers have had trouble keeping receivers from getting open on do-or-die downs. Against Baltimore, the 49ers allowed Flacco to convert seven times on 3rd down and at least 4 yards to go. New York was successful on six such occasions against San Francisco, and twice more on 4th down.
The 49ers don’t blitz a lot, probably because they’d rather prevent big plays. They’re comfortable keeping games close, because they’re great in special teams (what a game for Blake Costanzo last night, by the way) and their offense generally avoids turnovers. That may change as the year goes on, if nothing else so the Niners can get opposing quarterbacks out of rhythm in those third/fourth down situations.
4. The Braylon Edwards experiment is looking like a rare failure for San Francisco this season. Edwards looked really off last week against Arizona, to the point where there was genuine sympathy from the fans in terms of his knee injury (when you win, injuries incur sympathy; when you lose, they lead to frustration). Edwards was targeted three times in Baltimore, making 1 catch for 5 yards. But it was the reactions to Smith’s interception in the end zone that could raise eyebrows (from Matt Maiocco’s postgame mailbag, emphasis mine).
Coach Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers were looking for Smith to make a back-shoulder throw to Braylon Edwards against the coverage of Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb. Smith said he saw Edwards take the inside, so he threw it there on purpose. Edwards declined comment after the game.
Said Harbaugh, “We were taking a shot. We were hoping more for a back shoulder. Alex saw Braylon go inside the corner and then threw it and he felt Braylon then went outside. It was an unfortunate play. I don’t know exactly who was right. But Webb made a good play on the play, and it happens. Took a shot and we didn’t get it.”
Smith said, “I really felt I got the safety to move inside and we had the one-on-one with Braylon. And when I went up to throw it — really just a miscommunication. He was stemming inside, and I thought he was taking it inside with the corner out, so I left the ball inside, thinking he was running a ‘go’ route. And as I let it go, he goes outside. And all of a sudden, he’s outside with the DB inside — miscommunication. It cost us. We could’ve tied the game right there.”
It sounds like there was more than a little frustration after that play from multiple parties. Smith clearly feels like Edwards should have gone inside, Harbaugh pretended not to know who screwed up (he knows), and Edwards was so bothered by the whole situation that he didn’t even comment.
It makes you wonder if a reporter asked Edwards to respond to Smith’s thoughts on the play in the locker room and Edwards said “no comment,” or if Edwards made it clear from the start that he wasn’t talking about anything last night. Regardless, Edwards has had his ups and downs from a chemistry standpoint his entire career. He’s been a source of good quotes and unselfish behavior so far, but it seems like things are unraveling a bit for Edwards (and his career) right now.
5. The 49ers gained a much-needed learning experience. The results weren’t pretty, and neither was the game itself, but the 49ers left Baltimore relatively intact. They didn’t suffer any serious injuries, their playoff positioning hasn’t changed and they still put forth a respectable performance. Sure, 9 sacks and an intentional grounding were rough on the eyes (and bloated stomachs) of 49ers fans watching from their living rooms, but San Francisco showed again that they’re one of the top teams in the NFL. They just need to work on offensive execution … which we already knew.
But now the 49ers get a few extra days to rest before facing St. Louis, and the extra dose of humility supplied by the Ravens probably won’t be as useful as all that film of the Ravens exploiting the 49ers’ weaknesses. Better to learn about those problems now than in January.