A multiple choice test: The game plan for the 49ers’ opener was devised by: A) Tom Walsh; or B) Jim Hostler.
The correct answer, of course, is B, but 49ers fans can be excused for thinking ol’ bed-and-breakfast was upstairs in the box. The 49ers’ offense was as vanilla as anything Walsh produced last year with the Raiders. In fact, the 49ers’ offensive game plan looked like one from the exhibition season, when many plays are held back.
What the 49ers weren’t holding back was the Arizona pass rush. The Cardinals were consistently blitzing up the middle, between Eric Heitmann and Justin Smiley. Mike Nolan has been slow to make changes in the offensive line, but he has to replace Smiley with David Baas.
The primary victim was quarterback Alex Smith, who often looked like the deer-in-the-headlights player he was as a rookie. Smith sprayed his passes all night, until the dramatic closing — and winning — drive. Nolan said this week that Smith didn’t look downfield for receivers long enough, but it’s hard to look downfield when you’ve got a defender right in your face.
There are ways to defeatthe type of blitzing the Cardinals were doing. One method is by using screen passes, but I remember only one poorly executed one. Another is by using draws or misdirection plays, but the Niners ran Frank Gore straight ahead the whole game. The one misdirection play came on the reverse by Arnaz Battle for the winning touchdown. Hostler was praised for that play but my question is, “What took you so long?”
Bill Walsh told me repeatedly that plays like that should be used early in the game because you can never be sure you’ll get the opportunity to use them later. If Hostler had used that when the Niners were struggling, it might have given the offense a jump-start.
You can also have a mobile quarterback such as Smith roll out and throw — or run, if no receiver is open. Even the Raiders have figured that one out.
When Norv Turner took over as the 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 2006, he said he would use Smith’s running ability. Yet, there was nothing designed for Smith on Monday night. The 25-yard run he made on fourth down in the last drive was a scramble to evade a rush.
I did not expect this from Hostler. When I talked to him in the spring, he seemed to know exactly where he was going with the offense. What went wrong?
I suspect there were some first-game jitters and he was uncomfortable being upstairs instead of on the sideline, which would have been his choice.
There were obvious problems with communication, with Smith having to call timeouts because the play didn’t arrive in time.
On the plus side, the 49ers’ defense was very impressive. The decision to sign free-agent cornerback Nate Clements has already paid dividends because the Niners were able to shut down the Cardinals’ receivers, who had terrorized them the last two seasons. The dramatic winning drive showed Smith’s mental strength as he shook off his game-long problems to get his team into the end zone.
But the problems with the offensive game plans have to end right now, or Hostler will join Tom Walsh on the unemployment line as the 49ers sink to the bottom of the standings.