Dominant defense and strong special teams have been trademarks of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure in San Francisco. However, against the Giants on Sunday, special-teams miscues robbed the Niners of momentum, as David Akers missed two field goals in the first half that could have made it a one-point game entering the half.
Instead of trailing 10-9, they came out of the half down a touchdown and Brad Seely’s typically strong coverage unit allowed David Wilson to return the opening second-half kickoff deep into Niners territory. The 66-yard return led to a touchdown that put the Giants up 17-3 and was only the beginning of a very ugly third quarter by QB Alex Smith.
Prior to Harbaugh’s arrival, Smith had a tendency to drift in the pocket, get flustered and make poor decisions with the ball. In the second half against New York, he reverted to his early career form, pressing too much. When he does not trigger quickly and take what the defense gives him, he panics, and in the third quarter, he held on to the ball too long and was too indecisive making reads through a forest tree defensive line.
Instead of taking the checkdown to an open Frank Gore on 3rd-and-6 on the Niners’ opening second-half drive, Smith tried fitting the ball into tight zone coverage to Mario Manningham, blanketed by three defenders. Giants FS Antrel Rolle sat on Manningham's route and picked off Smith's pass, setting up Eli Manning inside the 20 for a field goal that made it 20-3. The very next series, with Rolle sitting in the very same place, Smith tried to force the ball on 3rd-and-16 from the Niners' 15 to a triple-covered Michael Crabtree and Rolle easily intercepted the pass. Once again, Smith chose to throw into an overcrowded, short side of the field instead of delivering it to a wide-open Vernon Davis underneath.
The Niners used a mistake-free, power-running approach last season to win ugly. Despite allowing Ahmad Bradshaw to rush for 100-plus yards — a rare feat against one of the stingiest, most physical defenses in the league — Vic Fangio’s defense fared well given the poor field position they continually were forced to defend.
Even without OLT Joe Staley, who left the game with a concussion, Harbaugh has one of the strongest offensive lines in football. For the Niners to beat the Giants, Packers or Falcons — NFC foes with elite quarterbacks — Smith must play mistake-free football and not force the defense to continually have to bail him out. They might not win as convincingly as they have the past two weeks, when they throttled the Jets and Bills, but they can remain competitive with an average quarterback, which they have shown they cannot do when the offense produces three turnovers as they have done in both losses this season. For the Niners' season to be super, their quarterback must play within his limitations. To wit: the Niners have committed only two turnovers in their four wins this season.
• For the Jets to remain competitive in 2012, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano needs to stick to the ground-and-pound approach that worked very well against a soft Colts defense vulnerable to the run. Expect the Patriots, Dolphins and each future opponent to stack the box to shut down Shonn Greene and make Mark Sanchez throw for more than 82 yards for the Jets to win.
• The absence of Patriots rookie LB Dont'a Hightower (hamstring) has subtracted much-needed playmaking ability from New England’s defense. Give the Seahawks credit for attacking rookie safeties Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner down the middle of the field at the end of the game. The Patriots held a 13-point with less than 10 minutes to play and were crushed most by the two big plays they gave up down the middle of the field — the first targeting Sterling Moore and Devin McCourty. Without their most explosive linebacker supplementing a light pass rush, the Patriots' secondary has been more vulnerable on the back end.
• One false step is all it takes for an offensive lineman to be embarrassed by Texans DLE J.J. Watt. He possesses rare explosion and quickness for an inside rusher, where he is picking up most of his sack production, and was no match for an overwhelmed T.J. Lang on Watt's second sack in a losing effort to Green Bay on Sunday night. The loss of Brian Cushing proved to be too much for the Texans to overcome this week, as the Packers targeted Glover Quin in the box on the backside where Cushing so often cleaned up with his excellent effort and energy. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who brought Dom Capers to Green Bay to run a very similar defensive scheme to the Texans, did an excellent job exploiting the matchup and staying one step ahead of a frustrated Wade Phillips.
• The Ravens might have escaped with a victory Sunday, but they might have lost a war with their top cover man Lardarius Webb and emotional heartbeat Ray Lewis potentially being lost for the season. Expect Gary Kubiak, one of the NFL’s finest matchup coaches, to attack replacements Dannell Ellerbe and a weakened secondary when the Texans play host to the hobbled Ravens in Week Seven.
• If the Cardinals are going to leave turnstyle Bobbie Massie at right tackle, they need to find a way to give him more chip help. He stood no chance against the power of Mario Williams, who racked up two sacks and has had a field day with underpowered rookies this season, also feasting on Browns rookie ORT Mitchell Schwartz for 1½ sacks.
• In the Chiefs’ disappointing slow start, OLB Justin Houston (six sacks in six games) has been one of the few bright spots, with the combination of mass, power and quickness to leverage the corner.
• The Browns' use of a second-round pick on Baylor WR Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft drew widespread criticism around the league from evaluators given his off-field concerns. However, Gordon (three TD catches the past two weeks — spanning 62, 20 and 71 yards) is turning out to be the impact playmaker that GM Tom Heckert expected him to be.
• Unsung in the Vikings’ fast start has been the aggressive play of CBs Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, who both show up very strong in run support. Seeing the 5-9, 180-pound Winfield shuck 6-1, 235-pound H-back Niles Paul off his feet with a powerful punch speaks to the tenacity of what has long been one of the NFL’s most feisty cornerbacks. The Vikings are one of the best all-around tackling teams in football, but even they could not secure the ultra-fast Robert Griffin III from escaping the pocket. With the way Griffin has energized the Redskins, he is proving to be worth the haul of picks Mike Shanahan sent to St. Louis.
• Concerns about durability and character pushed Rams rookie RB Darryl Richardson to the seventh round in last year’s draft, but the Abilene Christian runner is turning out to be an Ahmad Bradshaw-like steal because of his stellar run instincts and tempo. He intuitively feels pressure as he works downhill, reads his blocks and accelerates to and through the hole. He has made a much bigger impact than second-rounder Isaiah Pead in a short span and is the type of late-round pick, like CB Cortland Finnegan, TE Bo Scaife and DE Carlos Hall, that made the Titans competitive every year under Jeff Fisher.
• Even though he was ruled out of bounds and it did not count, Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald might have made the most remarkably excellent catch of the season when, while contorting his body in the air, he snagged the ball with one hand while falling backward, cradling the tip of the ball like it was a sponge and never needing to bring it back into his body to secure it. His rare hand strength, in-air concentration and body control make him special.