By Jerrell Richardson
The fight for NFC West supremacy Monday night was a complete mismatch. The San Francisco 49ers defense was again the key to the game; the Arizona Cardinals had no chance, as they couldn’t score. With the San Francisco defense setting the tone, the offense and special teams did their parts, and the team cruised to a 24-3 win. If Arizona is the next best team in the NFC West, then San Francisco is a mile ahead of their division and are now in the driver’s seat for their path to the playoffs.
Alex Smith did what was asked of him. He made quick reads, accurate throws and executed the game plan perfectly. He did a good job of spreading the ball around, but was really just taking what was given to him. He finished the game with a single incomplete pass on 19 attempts for 232 yards, three touchdowns, and again looked like the player who lead the team to new heights last year, rather than the player who in recent weeks has looked very uncomfortable in the pocket.
Given his record-setting performance, maybe Smith’s Week Five finger injury might have been more of a problem then let on. He was up against a defense that was ranked 4th in the league against the pass and picked them apart, finishing with his highest completion percentage this season. Part of his high completion rate, though, was his inability to get rid of the ball when under pressure. Smith was sacked four times and each time he sat in the pocket and waited and waited until the rush closed in on him. He didn’t make the big mistake, but he must get better at field management, as he continues to take unneeded sacks which can prove costly in a closer contest. But at the end of the day, his team won, and won going away. Grade: A-
This game demonstrated why the Seattle Seahawks defense resorted to mugging the 49ers receivers in Week Seven, as the San Francisco receivers finally showed their big play ability against Arizona. With the passing game leading the charge for once, Michael Crabtree dominated Arizona star cornerback Patrick Peterson. Crabtree showcased his ability to run after the catch and his great hands. He continues to show signs of improvement as he had five catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Not to be outdone was Randy Moss, who was inspired by the Monday Night lights to turn a simple out route into a 47-yard touchdown, showing that the 49ers now have multiple weapons at their disposal.
Frank Gore and the running game was called on in the second half to ice the game, which they were able to do. As a team, San Francisco finished with a respectable 112 yards on the ground split mostly between Gore and Kendall Hunter. It was a nice changefor a team that has relied so heavily on the running game to let the aerial attack lead the way. Gore’s injured ribs were not tested and both backs had a relatively easy night. This game showed the balance of San Francisco, as it was able to use the pass to jump out to the early lead, and then turn to the run to wear down their opponent and control the clock. Grade: A
In giving up only three points, the San Francisco defense was back to its usual self. The weakness on the Arizona offense is their linemen and San Francisco exploited it. The 49ers matched Arizona with four sacks but more importantly, they hit or pressured Arizona quarterback John Skelton every time he dropped back to pass. With no time to set his feet, Skelton was unable to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, who may have hurt himself early in the game, and the rest of the Cardinal receivers. Fitzgerald did return to the game almost immediately, but did not appear himself the rest of the game. Credit the San Francisco defense, but with Fitzgerald less than 100%, the Cardinals offense were fighting a losing battle.
The defense was aided by the offense racing out to the 17-0 halftime lead. Arizona completely abandoned the run in the second half and finished the night with seven rushing yards. Due to the high volume of passes (52), Skelton did finish with 290 yards, but most came well after the outcome was decided. Grade: A
The usual contribution in the special teams again helped out in the victory. Andy Lee punted the ball to one of the most dangerous returners in the game and did a good job of angling his kicks to limit the seams for Patrick Peterson. The cover team did an excellent job of getting down field to smother Peterson and not allow the Cardinals to get a short field. David Akers kicked a 43-yard field goal and three extra points, and did not allow a single kickoff return. In a battle of two teams with arguably the best two return men in the game, it was San Francisco’s Ted Ginn Jr. who won the match up finishing with 90 all purpose return yards and several electrifying returns, swinging the field position battle in his team’s favor. Grade: A
NFC West Is San Francisco’s To Lose
The Cardinals did not play as well as they did earlier in the year. They have now lost four games in a row. San Francisco still has room to improve, as penalties again cost them points early in the game. One problem that the 49ers have shown is difficulty playing from behind, so this must be fixed moving forward, but they once again have turned in a complete team performance in a dominating win. With a two-game lead over the Cardinals and Seahawks, and a bye week up next to rest, San Francisco will hope to gain some more breathing room while they are idle, making their path to the playoffs less bumpy. After their bye, the team will return to action against another NFC West foe, the St. Louis Rams.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.