It only took the 49ers two weeks to debunk the notion that a relentless aerial attack is needed to win in the new NFL.
Jim Harbaugh’s team didn’t run a no-huddle offense, pass 50 times or routinely bomb it out downfield to Randy Moss en route to a 27-19 win over the Detroit Lions at Candlestick Park on Sunday. Instead, they won the old-fashioned way: with a ball-control offense, a smothering defense and smart all-around play.
The 49ers ran a fairly balanced attack again this week, gaining 148 of 349 total net yards (42 percent) on the ground. Last week, 49 percent of the team’s offense came via the run.
When Harbaugh elected to pass, the 49ers looked like they could move the ball at will against a battered Lions’ secondary that was missing three starters because of injury. With Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham out there, it’s looks like a game of pick your poison for opposing defenses.
The 49ers scored the game’s opening touchdown on a four-play, 1:03 drive that featured three passing plays and one 29-yard reverse to Manningham. On that drive, they looked as explosive as any offense in the league.
But Harbaugh turned to the ground game after that, running the ball on six of the next seven plays, keeping the Lions’ defense honest. And just like last week, running back Frank Gore showed just how effective he is when defenses can’t stack nine men in the box. Gore picked up 89 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, which averages out to 5.2 yards a pop (last year he averaged 4.3).
Despite the 49ers’ sudden offensive prowess, the team’s identity is still centered on the defense and it showed in the way they were able to dictate the type of game the Lions played.
Generally, the Lions like to throw the ball all over the field with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Last season, Stafford became one of only five quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.
But Johnson couldn’t find any air in the 49ers’ secondary and the Lions wound up running an offense that was even more balanced than Harbaugh’s attack on Sunday. The Lions ran the ball 25 times on 58 plays, but last week against the Rams, Stafford threw 48 times on 67 plays.
The 2011 NFL season witnessed four of the six most prolific passing seasons in NFL history. Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Stafford all threw for more than 5,000-passing yards and Eli Manning missed the plateau by only 67 yards.
With the Packers running a no huddle offense on 27 percent of their plays last season, it looked like to old Chuck Noll playbook — run the ball, control the clock, play defense — was about to be thrown in the fire place.
Listen to what Packers’ Coach Mike McCarthy told Sports Illustrated earlier this year: “I believe in attacking. I’m not trying to shorten the game. … I’m not trying to win by three, or win by making fewer mistakes.”
But the 49ers have now defeated two of the league’s best offenses in consecutive weeks by controlling the clock, taking care of ball and playing smash-mouth defense. If the Packers or anyone else wants a trip to New Orleans this winter, they’re going to have to figure out how to beat the Niners at their game.
Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PGackle.