The 49ers didn’t need to paint the Mona Lisa to beat the New York Jets on the road Sunday. They just needed to return to the formula that worked so well last season: run the ball, stop the run and win the so-called “turnover battle.”
Tape of this week’s 34-0 blowout win won’t be shipped off to the Louvre any time soon. But it was a textbook example of how coach Jim Harbaugh likes to win football games.
The 49ers outgained the Jets 245-45 on the ground, the offense didn’t commit any turnovers and the defense coaxed Rex Ryan’s club into coughing up the ball four times.
Last week’s loss against the Minnesota Vikings was shocking, in large part, because the game featured the most 49ers turnovers (three) and rushing yards allowed (146) in Harbaugh’s 20-game tenure.
The game also raised concerns about whether the 49ers’ retooled passing attack is as prolific as initially advertised. The worries weren’t exactly mollified by Alex Smith’s 12-of-21, 143-yard performance this week, but the win was a good reminder of how this team became a Super Bowl contender under Harbaugh.
The 49ers won this game on the ground. They stayed committed to running the ball against a Jets team that entered the game ranked 28th in rushing defense.
Harbaugh elected to run on almost two-thirds of his team’s offensive plays (44-of-68) and he picked up 5.6 yards-per-carry doing so.
But it wasn’t a vanilla, run-the-ball-in-between-the-tackles kind of a game plan. The 49ers were creative, inserting backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick for several specially designed running plays (including a 7-yard touchdown run); they also ran options with Smith and executed a tricky end around to wide receiver Mario Manningham for a 28-yard gain.
This strategy, however, is contingent upon stopping the other team early in the game. The 49ers trailed the Vikings before they even touched the ball last week and the deficit was 17-3 at halftime.
Playing catch up, the 49ers only managed to get their running backs 20 touches and they had to send Smith back to pass 35 times.
Smith might be more than a game manager, but when the 49ers ask him to be Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, they’re in trouble because it means the opposition is forcing them out of playing their style of football.
But this wasn’t a concern Sunday because the Jets weren’t able to move the ball like the Vikings did last week.
The 49ers’ run defense looked like the unit that held opponents to an average of 75.4 yards rushing yards per game last year. It didn’t matter if the Jets gave the ball to Shonn Greene, Bilal Powell or Tim Tebow — they got stuffed (their longest run of the day was five yards), forcing Mark Sanchez into perpetual third-and-long situations.
The Jets were 2-of-13 on third down and they gained only 145 total yards all day.
The biggest difference this week, though, was the turnover ratio (4-0). Everything the 49ers do is contingent upon playing mistake-free football.
Last week’s loss in Minnesota might be an aberration or maybe the Vikings are actually a decent team (they are 3-1). Either way, if 49ers can follow the formula to perfection like they did Sunday, they’ll be in the thick of things come January.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PGackle.