By Jerrell Richardson
The saying that, “On any given Sunday, anything can happen,” rang true this week. Fresh off being anointed the best team in football, San Francisco went to Minnesota and took on a Vikings team that few gave a chance of pulling off the win. Inspired by their home crowd, the Vikings came out and showed not only are they not intimidated by the 49ers, but that San Francisco was going to have a fight on their hands. The 49ers, who had not trailed this year, found themselves staring at a 14-point halftime deficit and never seemed to get control of the game. They tried to fight back in the second half, but Minnesota answered them each time and used a blueprint of physical and smart football to beat San Francisco at their own game, earning the 24-13 upset.
To put it lightly, Alex Smith struggled. For some reason, the offensive attack was more passing orientated to start the game, and with no balance or threat in the running game, Smith was ineffective. In the first half with the game still up in the air, Smith looked bad. He missed Randy Moss, who had clearly beaten his man and was wide open for a touchdown, and had several inaccurate throws that could have extended drives. At times he looked like the same quarterback who had beaten the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, but more times then not Smith looked flustered and unable to get on the same page as his receivers. The highlight of Smith’s day was on back-to-back plays in the 3rd quarter when he hit Vernon Davis on a nice pass, putting the team in scoring position, that he followed with a perfect ball fake that fooled the entire Viking defense leaving Davis open for the team’s sole touchdown. Smith finished his day 24-for-35 and 204 yards, and his consecutive pass streak without throwing an interception was snapped. He did a lot right, but at the end of the day he was unable to move the chains, and scoring 13 points is never going to be a successful day. Grade: C-
As Smith had a bad game, the rest of the offense followed suit, but part of that was the surprising play selection by the coaches. Perhaps it was due to the opening score by the Vikings, but for a team that had yet to trail this season, they seemed unsure of how to play from behind. They went to a pass-happy offense that was completely unable to move the ball consistently and never took the time to establish running back Frank Gore. Gore touched the ball only 12 times and as a team San Francisco only had 20 rushing plays. Gore and Smith both uncharacteristically had turnovers, both at crucial moments when the team was trying to get back in the game. They were unable to sustain any type of flow or rhythm, never showed that they could hurt Minnesota on the ground, and were dominated by a Viking defense that looked more like San Francisco than the 49ers did. What makes their inability to run the ball so surprising is that they were facing a defensive front that was shorthanded and banged up, yet San Francisco clearly lost the battle in the trenches. Grade: D+
The defense played relatively well, but once it became apparent that the offense was not going to be putting up major points, they needed to play much better then they did. The plan going into the game was to contain Adrian Peterson and let Christian Ponder beat them, and Ponder did just that. Ponder showed great athleticism and decision making and found his go-to guy in tight end Kyle Rudolph who seemed open on every play. Minnesota receiver Percy Harvin was also running free for most of the day and had a huge impact on the game. The Vikings were able to score on long, clock-consuming drives and humbled a defensive unit that was suppose to make it very difficult for the Vikings to even move the chains. At the same time, Minnesota had a lot go their way. On every scoring drive they were helped out by some 49er miscue. San Francisco was called for multiple personal fouls and had a field goal blocked that all set up Minnesota with points. Donte Whitner proved that it was just not their day as the usual sure-handed safety dropped an interception late in the 4th in which there was nothing but green and the end zone in front of him. This would have turned the game back into an one possession game, but more importantly would put some doubt in the mind of the young Ponder, and the Vikings coaches would have certainly gone strictly to the run to try and bleed the clock, giving the 49ers a perfect chance to steal the game late. Grade: C-
David Akers saw an important first half field goal blocked, but that appeared due to his blockers being unable to prevent the Vikings penetration, and it was no real fault of his. Wide receiver Kyle Williams appeared to be the only player fired up for this game, as his two second half returns netted 160 yards and helped momentarily swing the momentum back to San Francisco each time. Punter Andy Lee, playing with his injured hand, had some issues holding for Akers’ first field goal attempt, but outside of that was just as solid as Akers. Take out the block and the special teams was clearly the best thing the team had going. Grade: B+
No Need to Panic
The game plan to beat the 49ers, is simple, but very hard to execute. If a team can get up early, they can get San Francisco out of their comfort zone and force Alex Smith and the offense to abandon the run and rely on their unproven passing game. Thanks to San Francisco’s usually stout defense and controlled game plan, very few teams have been unable to pull this off. This week, they shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties and, after digging themselves into an early hole, they were able to make the contest close but were still unable to avoid the “trap game” loss. However, the goal of the team is to make the playoffs, not go 16-0, so this loss is nothing more then a speed bump. The blueprint for the 49ers has been their attention to detail and doing all the little things right. It will be important for the team to use this as a learning experience though and bounce back against a very talented New York Jets team next week.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.