San Francisco 49ers not ready for prime time 

click to enlarge Going nowhere: Alex Smith was sacked six times Sunday. Until the 49ers improve pass protection, don’t expect a lot of big plays. (AP file photo)
  • Going nowhere: Alex Smith was sacked six times Sunday. Until the 49ers improve pass protection, don’t expect a lot of big plays. (AP file photo)

Jim Harbaugh’s media honeymoon is over. Alex Smith’s never started. But the real lesson from Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys is that this is the kind of game good teams win, and until the 49ers can win these games, they’re going nowhere.

Harbaugh’s decision to stick with David Akers’ 55-yard field goal in the fourth quarter instead of accepting a penalty which would have given the 49ers a first down inside the Dallas 30 was criticized by writers who said the 49ers could have run more time off the clock and still kicked the field goal. Sure. They could also have fumbled, thrown an interception or missed the ensuing field goal.

The decision was the right one. Akers’ field goal gave the 49ers a 10-point lead with 11:12 to go. Unfortunately, the defense then gave up a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive and a 48-yard field goal to send the game into overtime — and a 77-yard pass on the first Dallas play in OT, setting up the game-winning field goal.

If you can’t count on your defense protecting a 10-point lead with just over 11 minutes to play, your team isn’t ready for prime time.

Similarly, one writer criticized Smith for not producing a dynamic play or two in the clutch. I guess he missed the perfectly thrown touchdown pass to Kyle Williams in the back corner of the end zone — on third down. And the two times he converted third downs on that drive. Or the 29-yard touchdown he threw to Delanie Walker right after a 49ers interception.

Most of all, he seems to have missed the fact that, out of 30 pass plays, Smith was sacked six times and saved three other possible sacks by running. His pass protection remains shaky, even with tight end Vernon Davis kept in to block. Until the 49ers correct that problem, Smith will have few opportunities to make dynamic plays.

There is another problem that seems to have escaped the attention of writers criticizing Harbaugh and Smith: Frank Gore has lost a little, probably because of the beating he took running against defenses stacked against him in the Mike Singletary era.

Gore won’t lose his starting role because he’s a better pass blocker and receiver than the younger backs behind him, but Harbaugh is going to have to make more use of rookie Kendall Hunter and second-year back Anthony Dixon. In Sunday’s game, Dixon carried once, Hunter not at all, while Gore carried 20 times for 47 yards.

There are some games ahead that are simply unwinnable for the 49ers, particularly road games at Philadelphia and Detroit and a home game against the Steelers.

The good news is that they’re playing in the NFC West. It’s not unreasonable to think that the 49ers can win this pathetic division.

But Sunday’s loss showed that the 49ers are still far from the top level in the NFL. The defense played well most of the time, but gave up far too many big plays. The offense functioned well in the first half, but stuttered in the second. Until the 49ers learn to play well when the game is on the line, they won’t be a premier team.

 

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at glenndickey36@gmail.com.

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Glenn Dickey

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