I've been fairly critical of the 49ers' offense over the last two games, and I'm not the only one. Against the Giants, the offense was completely shut down in defeat. Against the Seahawks on Thursday night, with a short week, the offense did the bare minimum to secure the victory, which is what ultimately matters. Alex Smith played poorly in the two outings and there were questions about his injured finger, his confidence, and his ability to lead the team. With a long layoff in between games, Smith and the coaching staff had ample time to game plan and the result was a ruthlessly efficient display of offense. A look at the four 49ers scoring drives shows how a near-perfect gameplan, beautiful reads by Alex Smith and some poor tackling by the Cardinals turned this game into a rout shortly after halftime.
The first drive of the game saw the 49ers stall after a face mask penalty on Alex Boone negated a first down on a screen pass to Kendall Hunter, forcing the 49ers into a third-and-long they would not convert. The second drive appeared to be headed for the same fate. After picking up a few first downs, one on a beautiful run by Frank Gore in which a formation shift by the offensive line confused the defensive front, causing them to overload the wrong side, a holding penalty pushed the team into long yardage. On second-and-15, Alex Smith found Delanie Walker on a corner route. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, attempting to read the quarterback's eyes, jumped a short route after Smith checked down, leaving a crease for Walker to slide into and Smith threw a perfect ball for a gain of 23 yards. A few plays later, on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, Alex Smith threw a jumpball for Crabtree that he snatched out of the air before Peterson could get his head turned around. Peterson got a hand in between Crabtree's hands and attempted to wrestle the ball loose, but Crabtree had it secured for the score.
Two drives later, after a 35-yard punt return gave the 49ers great field position at the Arizona 45-yard line, the 49ers ran into a familiar problem. Another holding penalty, this one on Mike Iupati, followed by a sack set the Niners up with another third-and-long. On the third down, Alex Smith hit Michael Crabtree who, after faking a crossing route and cutting back toward the sideline, was hit in stride before breaking a few tackles on his way to a 22-yard gain. He came up just shy of the first down, but the second effort put the team back into field goal range and David Akers converted. The extra effort by Crabtree on this play exemplifies the evening for the wide receiver in yards after catch, yards after contact, and poor tackling by Patrick Peterson.
On the next drive, a familiar 49ers gameplan is executed. Frank Gore picked up five on the first down. Alex Smith then hit a wide open Mario Manningham for the first down on an out, a route that was open for him from the word go. On the next play, Delanie Walker made a beautiful catch on a tipped ball. With his back to the sideline, he stopped in his tracks, leapt to get the deflection, and while falling backwards, snuck a glance down at the boundary line just to in time to get both heels in bounds. A short pass to Michael Crabtree and a 25-yard gain to Vernon Davis over the middle put the team back in the red zone. A sack followed by another out to a wide open Manningham set them up for a third-and-9. Alex Smith zipped a pass to Crabtree who had found a hole in the coverage and Patrick Peterson, in a half-slip, half-fail, missed the tackle that he was out of position to make, as Crabtree sprinted into the endzone to put the 49ers comfortably up by 17 points.
The final score came on the 49ers' first drive of the second half. After going nowhere on the first two plays, Alex Smith found Crabtree again on third-and-9. Crabtree, using a similar move from his earlier 22-yard catch, left the defense in his dust, picking up a few blocks downfield, including a bone-crusher from Randy Moss, and got into Cardinals territory with a 30-yard gain. Two runs set up a third-and-8. Smith then hit Moss near the sideline. Moss took the catch darted, weaved, and ran up the sideline against a weak-tackling Arizona secondary to take it in for his second touchdown of the season, a 47-yarder, and the final score of the game for the 49ers.
The four drives saw some themes running throughout them. Frank Gore, who finished the game with a pedestrian 55 yards on 16 carries, and Kendall Hunter were effective at setting up manageable second downs frequently. Costly penalties against the offense, however, worked to create third-and-longs. Michael Crabtree was everywhere, and every time you heard his name called it is was a key play. Every mistake, missed tackle, or misread that the Cardinals made the 49ers took advantage of and the play calling was great throughout the first half.
Overall, the 49ers played a near-flawless game. The penalties could have hurt them, and if not corrected, could come back to haunt them against a more potent team. Delanie Walker's drop in the second quarter was on a pass thrown slightly behind him, but seeing as he was wide open, should have been caught. It turned out to be Alex Smith's only incompletion of the entire game. This has been a problem all year for Walker and, had it not been for his two sensational catches for first downs on scoring drives, he would have been the goat of the game for a team that flirted with perfection. Frank Gore would appear to have been held in check, but he did have plenty of good runs. His numbers were kept down by an Arizona run defense that stuffed a lot of runs or stopped Gore for short gains a number of times. The defense played great, but gave up yardage on some long drives later on, most of which came after the outcome of the game was already decided. The Cardinals are on a downward slide right now and simply weren't able to provide much of a contest for one of the top teams in the league. The 49ers can cruise into their bye week on a high, get some extra rest and prepare for a tough second half of the season with a hard-earned two game lead in the NFC West.