Mercury News Columnist
NEW ORLEANS -- Quick thoughts on the good and bad for the 49ers' in their 31-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints here Sunday.
MARKUP — All eyes were on Colin Kaepernick for his first NFL road start. He did not disappoint. He was spectacular at various moments and looked very much like a second-year quarterback at other moments. His touchdown run in the first quarter on a read-option was a thing of beauty--although the Saints were ready for it the next few times he attempted the same play. It was a solid all-around effort and will likely keep Alex Smith on the bench a while longer. Before rushing to crown Kaepernick, however, remember that Smith beat the Saints in a playoff game last January while playing with a Saints' bounty on his head. Everyone should probably just relax and enjoy the fact that the 49ers have two start-worthy quarterbacks on the roster. But hey, it's a lot more fun to have a controversy, isn't it? So let's go!
MARKDOWN — The notion of this all being was "proof" that Kaepernick is the biggest difference-maker for the 49ers, now and in the future. The truth is, this victory was largely the result of the 49er defensive effort, which was consistent and powerful. There were two interception returns for touchdowns, lots of sacks and teeth-crunching contact, especially for a short-turnaround week after a Monday Night game. And as a bonus, there were two impressive fourth-down stops in the final six minutes of the game. Kaepernick was not on the field for any of it. Would Smith have been able to win this game? We'll never know. We do know that they wouldn't have won it without the 11 guys on defense.
MARKUP — The least surprising sight in the Superdome was Kaepernick lining up at quarterback for the 49ers' first offensive play. We all knew that was coming. But we did not know how Kaepernick would keep his poise in the Superdome's cauldron of cacophony (alliteration rules!). The early answer: Pretty well. When the 49ers lined up improperly during their second offensive drive, Kaepernick first tried to scream and move around the personnel and then saw the play clock and calmly called timeout.
MARKDOWN — On the other hand, as the noise continued to rain down from the upper deck and one of the center snaps came in too low late in the first half--raising the decibels even more--Kaepernick seemed to become rattled. He quickly grabbed the ball and rushed a decision to throw an out pattern to the left sideline, despite good double coverage there on Kyle Williams. The ball was easily picked off by the Saints' Patrick Robinson. Made you wonder if New Orleans had disguised their coverage initially to lure the kid into that choice. Kaepernick Grade: D minus.
MARKUP — Luckily for Kaepernick, two plays later, Saints' quarterback Drew Brees made just as bad a decision and failed to see 49er linebacker Ahmad Brooks over the middle. Brooks intercepted the ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown to result in the 14-14 halftime score. Along with safety Donte Whitner's interception TD return early in the second half, this was yet another reminder that, for all the Kapernick-Alex Smith quarterbacking hubbub — this can't be repeated enough -- the 49ers' foundation for success is still their top-tier defense.
MARKDOWN — Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis probably have the three most reliable sets of hands on the 49er roster. But on three first-half plays where they needed to make catches, they whiffed. Gore bobbled a short screen pass. Crabtree couldn't squeeze the ball on what would have been a tough-but-makeable reception off an improvised play by Kaepernick. And Davis just flat-out dropped a pass when wide open over the middle.
MARKUP — Gore does so many little things for the 49ers, like picking up blitzers on pass protection and selling fake handoffs, it's always great to see get a touchdown. On the first drive of the second half, Kaepernick rolled right and might have been able to run it in himself but dropped the ball to Gore, who powered his way over the pylon for six points.
MARKDOWN — The position of kick returner is the one position on the field that crowd noise should not affect. So you can't make any excuse for veteran return man Ted Ginn Jr. to muff a punt at his own 11-yard line in the second quarter and essentially hand the Saints their first touchdown. It was Ginn's first-ever fumble as a 49er but it must have made an impression on head coach Jim Harbaugh. Williams was out there for the next punt return. It wasn't a great special-teams day for the 49ers, including a blocked field goal and two missed field goals by David Akers.
MARKUP — Aldon Smith, the 49er pass rusher, continues to impress with his body language. After his third-down takedown of Brees in the third quarter--Smith's 16th sack of the season--he did not excessively celebrate, just kind of nodded and headed to the bench. The off-the-field issues of Smith — he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time -- are just that much more puzzling because of the maturity he shows on the field.
MARKDOWN -- Injuries to Williams (knee) and Kendall Hunter (ankle) on the same play at the end of the third quarter. The 49er roster has good depth. But going into December and the playoff push, you want as many healthy weapons as possible. A victory is a victory, though. And a victory in a road game after a short week of practice following an emotional Monday Night win is one to be savored.