By Jerrell Richardson
Colin Kaepernick will get a lot of attention this week, but the story after Sunday’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, as it has been for the past year, was the 49ers defense. San Francisco defensively shut down one of the most dynamic offensive attacks in the league and cruised to a 31-21 victory. With back-to-back wins, some may say that Kaepernick has given life to the quarterback controversy, when in fact he just put it to bed. He gives the offensive more that it can do, and an improved offense, along with the best defense in the league, makes San Francisco a tough out in the playoffs.
Colin Kaepernick set the bar pretty high after his first start. Despite playing a Saints defense this week that was ranked towards the bottom of the league, he was going against a zone based defense that would require him to make more reads than in his first start against the man-to-man Chicago defense. Against the Saints Kaepernick had his good moments, a few bad moments, but overall played well, showing that he has the ability to do everything needed to run the offense better then Alex Smith.
Kaepernick made big plays when asked and finished the game with a 90.6 rating. He completed 16 of his 25 attempts for 231 yards and touchdown. He used his legs when flushed from the pocket and scored the games first points on a seven-yard touchdown run. His first half interception can be attributed to a bad snap that kept him from looking down-field, but was still a throw that should not have been made and is something he can learn from. More importantly he bounced back from his interception and his confidence never wavered. With him outplaying Drew Brees in the Superdome, Kaepernick did a lot to answer the concerns about him handling pressure situations. Grade: B+
The 49ers offense played well, but they were going against a defense that was ranked towards the bottom of the NFL. New Orleans played surprisingly well against the run early, but was once again a victim to the San Francisco game plan. With Kendall Hunter leaving the game with an injury, Frank Gore was asked to carry the load and was up to the task finishing with a modest 83 yards on 19 carries. His numbers do not jump off the page, but he found more room to run in the second half, when New Orleans was worn down due to the physical play up front by the offensive line. The line also did a great job in giving Kaepernick time to throw, and the result was a more explosive offense.
With the speed San Francisco has at the skill positions, the threat of a deep ball has always been there, but Kaepernick has shown the confidence in his arm as well as his receivers to take more chances down the field. This in turn has opened up the entire field. The 49ers had five different receivers catch a pass with Delanie Walker and Mario Manningham striking for big plays. Michael Crabtree continued to contribute, and fullback Bruce Miller added three timely receptions. Grade: A-
The 49ers defense stole the show. Drew Brees did have 267 yards passing and three touchdowns, but the numbers are deceiving. One of the touchdowns came after a turnover that gave New Orleans the ball at the San Francisco 11-yard line. Also with 49ers getting up early on the scoreboard, it forced New Orleans to become more aggressive in their passing game, but this eventually played in the favor of the 49ers. With all things considered, the Saints had only two legitimate scoring drives.
San Francisco knew that its only hope to contain the Saints offense was to get pressure on Brees. The first half the two teams battled to a stalemate, but in the second half, once the 49ers knew that the pass was coming, the pressure was turned up. Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks each had 1.5 sacks and Patrick Willis was given credit for a .5 sack. The pressure and 41 passing attempts by Saints resulted in two interceptions that were returned for scores, taking a ton of pressure off Kaepernick. Although the game was never really in doubt, New Orleans had two final gasps that were denied by the 49ers defense, icing the game. Grade: A
It is a good thing that the offense and defense played well, as the special teams did not. Andy Lee was not the problem, with a 46.8 average on four punts, but he was the only bright spot. David Akers continues to struggle, missing two field goals, both well within his range, and the second could have given the team so breathing room. Ted Ginn Jr. also had a game to forget as the team’s return specialist made a questionable decision to return a punt that he muffed, and the turnover led to an easy touchdown for New Orleans. As both Akers and Ginn’s miscues did not cost the team a win, so all is forgiven, but both failed to do what is expected of them, and in a closer game this could have easily been the difference. Grade: C-
Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick?
On Sunday, the defense won another victory over the offense, and the future of the 49ers appears to be heading in a new direction. The team will need to clean up the play of their special teams, but it has the best defense in the league and an offense that could turn into a formidable unit as well. Jim Harbaugh will have another hard decision to make with the St. Louis Rams up next in an always important NFC West showdown — the question of who will be starting at quarterback will be on everyone’s mind.
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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.