It's only because Alex Smith has been so maddeningly inconsistent this season that the 49ers' starting quarterback received top billing in the postgame assessments of the team's long-awaited first victory of the season over Bay Area rival Oakland. Entering the game with costly mistakes proving to be his early-season m.o., Smith's first turnover-free performance of 2010 definitely deserves to be considered a key factor behind the Niners' 17-9 victory.
"It's big," head coach Mike Singletary said of Smith's mistake-free outing against Oakland. "One of the things that we said going into the game, we wanted to make sure that every possession that we had offensively that we wanted to end with a kick. And I think that's something that we really wanted to stress, and I think Alex got it, and that was big for him today."
Truth to be told, though, just as big a reason for the victory was the greatly improved effort turned in by the Niners' defense, which excelled against both the run and in coverage.
The PFW Spin
Leave it to ILB Patrick Willis, who has had his share of uncharacteristic struggles early this season, to put his team's top-notch defensive effort against Oakland (179 yards allowed, two key interceptions) into perspective.
"It was just a matter of everyone playing together," Willis said. "We didn't have turnovers on offense, and we got turnovers on defense, and that was big. That's what we've been battling the first five games of the season, bad field position and turnovers.
"Today we played good red-zone defense, and even when they drove the ball down the field, we played good red-zone defense and forced them to kick a field goal."
Willis was good, but fellow LBs Manny Lawson and Takeo Spikes, who deserves recognition as the Niners' best linebacker so far this season, were even better. Lawson covered Raiders TE Zach Miller like a blanket and had a key interception. Spikes also had a pick to clinch the game and consistently kept the Raiders from reaching anything close to the second level.
But let's not spin out of control here. Remember, the Raiders are hardly what you'd consider an offensive juggernaut. If the Niners are somehow able to make good on team owner Jed York's recent outlandish prediction that they will win the NFC West, their defense must continue to play like it did Sunday.
It is worth, noting, however, that their remaining schedule does indeed set up nicely for a potential rebound of major proportions, with games against a terrible Carolina team and a very wounded Broncos team (in London) next on the docket.