I am going to go out on a limb and say that the 49ers’ game against Washington was the most satisfying of the season thus far. Out-pointing or out-scheming an inferior team is great, but the 49ers utterly dominated Washington. The prevailing narrative before and no doubt after the game is that the 49ers are only capable of beating bad teams, and this isn’t necessarily incorrect. Washington has one of the worst defenses in the league, and it was important to keep this in mind as the dust cleared. They also have several highly functional parts, including the league’s best rushing attack in terms of yards per game, and the 4th best offensive line per Pro Football Focus. The 49ers offense dismantling Washington wasn’t surprising, but simply saying a good team beat a bad team doesn’t tell the whole story. The 49ers showcased several new and exciting changes in each phase of the game, which left me feeling more hopeful about this season than I have in the past. Here is what I saw:
The 49ers defense seems to get better every week. Aldon Smith had a huge night, but he was just a piece of a smothering defensive effort. Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Donte Whitner, Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and even Carlos Rogers had big days, flattening Washington’s attack and keeping them out of the end zone the whole game. There is no better example of defensive dominance than Washington’s first drive in the second half. After recovering a Vernon Davis fumble, Robert Griffin III took over at the 49ers 49 yard line. The 49ers were only up by four points, and had to keep Washington bottled up. After surrendering 8 yards to Alfred Morris and a short pass to Santana Moss, the defense managed to stop the drive: Roy Helu ran right on 4rd down, but was stuffed for only one yard by Willis and Bowman. The 49ers slim lead was preserved, and the stop allowed the offense to put together a 61 yard scoring drive. The defense was great all day, but particularly in these do-or-die moments. They held Morris to 52 yards rushing, his lowest since week 1, and kept RGIII from making any big plays.
Yes, pass rush is part of the defense, but it still deserves its own mention. As I mentioned above, the defense was pitted against an excellent offensive line and still found ways to pancake RGIII all night long. Aldon Smith made Pro-Bowl tackle Trent Williams look foolish, finishing the game with 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit 5 hurries on 23 rushing plays, meaning he was able to reach and harass RGIII on 35% of his plays. The Smith brothers have returned to mid-2012 form, complementing what has already become a career-best season for Ahmad Brooks. The pass rush has been good, if inconsistent, for most of the season, but it seems to be clicking at the perfect time. Ray McDonald’s return to the front seven will only make this defense stronger… a scary thought for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
It was another slow start, but the 49ers offense looked wholly competent for the first time in weeks. Colin Kaepernick enjoyed great protection the whole game, and made some incredible plays. He wasn’t perfect; one of his passes was nearly picked off thanks to a poor decision to throw into double coverage. All that said, it was an aggressive, dynamic attack that highlighted his accuracy and big play ability. He also spread the ball out more than any other game this season, getting Mario Manningham involved with 4 catches and even hitting a wide open Vance McDonald with a 23 yard pass late in the game.
The sad truth about the 49ers’ return game is that James could have walked all of his returns and would have gained more yards that Kyle Williams. The coaching staff has smartly given Williams return duties, allowing him to work in the open field and show off his incredible speed. He already looks better than Williams or Ted Ginn Jr. and will only get better with practice. His 125 yard game came against one of the worst coverage units in the league, but is hopefully a sign of great things to come.
The 49ers finished the game with 76 rushing yards on 33 attempts, averaging 2.3 yards per attempt. Washington followed the blueprint of other teams, stacking the box and forcing the 49ers to throw the ball, which helped contribute to a season-low in rushing yards. Frank Gore was only given 13 touches, but had a great day pass blocking and setting up play-action throws. The run game has all but disappeared over the last three weeks, something that is partially the result of defenses selling out to stop the run and partially pass-heavy play calling. However, it isn’t clear why Greg Roman is holding Gore back. My bet is that he is saving him for the playoffs, but doing so may hamstring the offense against better defensive teams like Arizona and Seattle. There is certainly some logic to keeping Gore rested for the postseason, but with the Wildcard race tightening, the 49ers will need him to be put him in the position to contribute.
Roman gets a reprieve from accusations of ineptitude this week. The 49ers game plan took a while to take shape, but it attacked Washington’s secondary consistently and kept their defense reeling. His tricky play calling payed major dividends at the end of the 49ers’ final drive of the 3rd quarter. After picking up 20 yards with Gore and Kaepernick runs, Washington lined up on their one yard line, confident that the 49ers would try to drive the ball up the gut with another run. Instead, Kaep floated a pass to a wide open Vernon Davis, who cut away from the line of scrimmage at the last second. The offense looked prepped and ready, and didn’t get in their own way too much. Hopefully, Roman can find a way to integrate the run game in with the offense we saw on Monday. It wasn’t a flawless game for Roman, given his inability to get the ground attack going, but it was a step in the right direction.