The San Francisco 49ers bid farewell to Candlestick, and they added another incredible play to add to the many memories created in that stadium, as NaVorro Bowman’s interception return for a touchdown sealed the 49ers victory. In fact, it saved the 49ers from an upset at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, who were heroically led by Matt Ryan and Roddy White in their upset bid. Bowman atoned for his inability to recover an onside kick, and Tramaine Brock gets plenty of credit for wrestling the ball away from Harry Douglas in order to force that INT. Below are five “stars” from last night’s game.
When Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense struggled to get anything going early on, you knew that this game was going to be a close one and that the Falcons weren’t going to whither and die. But you also had this feeling that a bounce-back would be just around the corner for Kaep and the 49ers, since the Falcons pass defense is one of the worst in the league. After a rough first half that yielded just three points for the Niners, Kaepernick and the passing attack finally started to heat up. His running improve, the blocking improved, and both Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin went off (more on them later)
It’s been incredible watching Kaepernick’s turn-around ever since Crabtree returned to the team, and it just goes to show how much of an impact a No. 1 receiver makes on the entire offense. After it looked like Kaepernick would have a slow game, he got back on track and finished with an excellent average of 9.4 yards per attempt, a 108.6 QB Rating, and no interceptions. He was throwing lasers in the third quarter, and it’s clear that he and Crabtree share an incredible rapport. He also had 51 rushing yards on just six carries, with a 22-yard scamper and an easy four-yard touchdown run (he audibled into that play) being the two memorable runs.
WR Michael Crabtree
I remember reading an NFL preview magazine some years ago, and former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver was described as “silky” in that preview. That’s exactly how I would describe Crabtree and his performance last night, and he was pure silk against a below-average Falcons secondary. The man seemingly got open at will, and he is one of the game’s premier route-runners. Crabtree finished with five receptions for 102 yards on just seven targets, which means that he averaged between 14 and 15 yards per attempt from Kaepernick. It’s obvious that Crabtree makes this 49ers team a whole lot better, and he’s one of the most important pass-catchers in the game to his team’s success.
WR Anquan Boldin
An absolute steal for the 49ers in the offseason, Boldin meshes perfectly with Crabtree and gives the 49ers an excellent wide receiver pairing. Boldin isn’t a true No. 1 receiver at this stage of his career, but he’s as good of a No. 2 receiver as you’ll find and really knows how to move the chains. His six-yard, 72-catch performance yesterday quietly puts him over the 70-catch, 1,000-yard threshold, and it’s been a very successful season for Boldin. His ten-yard touchdown pass to tie things up at ten in the third quarter was the result of a perfectly executed screen pass. We always talk about how running backs and quarterbacks need good vision, but the truth is that every NFL player should have great field vision and awareness; Boldin did a nice job of finding the end zone there and following a great block from Vernon Davis.
When facing a passing attack that is clicking, it’s always important to have your star players on defense step up. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis definitely stepped up, especially in run defense. He filled up the stat sheet once again with 18 tackles (a whopping 15 of them were solo stops) and an excellent three tackles for loss. Willis also defended a pass, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better LB duo in recent memory than Willis and Bowman, who had 11 tackles (nine solo, one for a loss) in addition to his pick six. He put on a show out there, and he definitely deserves to receive more praise.
DE Justin Smith
Smith has been one of the most dominant defensive ends for years now, and he put forth another great display last night against the Falcons. Although his day will be overshadowed by the performances of the linebackers, Smith still played at a high level (once again). He had a really nice seven-yard sack of Matt Ryan, and he was beating the Falcons over-matched offensive line with straight up power. This guy is one of the strongest players in the game, and he showed it with some beautiful (if bull-rushing could ever be described as beautiful) bull-rushing. He added a QB hit in addition to that sack, had five total tackles, and added another tackle for loss (all but one of those tackles were solo). Maybe more importantly, Smith was a constant thorn in the side of the Falcons offense, and consistent pressure like that can slowly chip away at an offense. If Ryan wasn’t so good yesterday, then the 49ers could have easily finished with more than just one sack (five QB hits in total) and could have also caused the Falcons to score less than 24 points. But Matty Ice ruined it a bit, because he made some incredible plays under pressure, including a two-yard TD pass to Tony Gonzalez.