It seems that Mike Singletary will be able to re-cast the 49ers in his own image after all.
The coach was hard on his team in training camp, both physically and mentally. Time after time, he told the media that practices had fallen short, that players had to work harder. Skeptics dismissed this as mere talk, perhaps because of the memory of Mike Nolan, who talked a good fight but didn’t deliver.
But the players believe in Singletary. They respect him, both as a former player who is in the Hall of Fame and as the man he is today. And that showed up loud and clear in the 49ers’ opener in Arizona.
This was a character win, pure and simple. It wasn’t won on a fluke play, like the Broncos’ last gasp play against Cincinnati. It wasn’t won in spectacular fashion, as Green Bay did on Aaron Rodgers’ 50-yard touchdown pass. It was won by grinding, grinding, grinding. That’s Mike Singletary’s way.
That was especially true of the defense, because good defense always starts with maximum effort. The Niners kept an almost constant pressure on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. And when the defense seemed to tire late in the third quarter, Singletary called a timeout and gave a rallying talk to his players, who responded with their best effort the rest of the way.
The offense was another matter. Arizona’s run blitzes, called by former 49ers assistant Billy Davis, stopped Frank Gore cold for most of the game. Quarterback Shaun Hill was flustered by the Cardinals’ blitzing for most of the game, but he gathered himself to complete nine of 13 passes on the 80-yard drive that put the 49ers ahead to stay in the fourth quarter. Again, character.
The most encouraging aspect of the win is the emergence of a pass rush. In a pre-draft talk with the media last spring, general manager Scot McCloughan had insisted that drafting a pass rusher wasn’t a priority because he thought the Niners had the players to mount an effective pass rush. He specifically named outside linebacker Parys Haralson.
Haralson is an indication of what a crap shoot the draft can be. Manny Lawson, drafted in the first round in 2006, was supposed to be the big pass-rushing linebacker, but Lawson can get tangled up with offensive tackles who are bigger and stronger. Haralson, a fifth-round pick that same year, is about 15 pounds heavier and can get past those tackles. With defensive end Justin Smith, he is leading the pass rush.
An effective pass rush is measured not only in sacks, but in the number of times the rushers force the quarterback to throw early.
That was especially true in the first half when Warner was continually forced to dump the ball off to running back Tim Hightower instead of going downfield to the much more dangerous Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Hightower had a career-high 12 catches, but did no serious damage.
There are still some problem areas for the 49ers. Other teams are going to notice the success the Cardinals had in blitzing, so they’re going to have to counter that.
But for the moment, this is a win to savor. Football is a game of great emotion, and Singletary has his players believing in him and, most important, in themselves.
49ers vs. Seahawks
WHEN: Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
WHERE: Candlestick Park
TV: FOX (KTVU, Ch. 2)
RADIO: KTCT (1050 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)
– Mike Singletary said the 49ers have discussed changing their offer to top draft pick Michael Crabtree. Whether the franchise has reached out to Crabtree formally, Singletary wasn’t sure.
– Receiver Brandon Jones, sidelined with a broken shoulder, is scheduled to return to practice and could be ready by Sunday.