2011 49ers Week 17: Five observations

Five things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers' final game of the 2011 regular season, a 34-27 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the Edward Jones Dome:

  • Justin Smith's hidden impact: Parys Haralson stuffed Rams running back Steven Jackson for no gain on St. Louis' first play of the game. What did Smith have to do with the play? Well, the Rams assigned the left side of their offensive line to block Smith on the play. That left Haralson singled up against tight end Stephen Spach, who had lined up in the backfield. Haralson made a nice play. He gets credit for shedding Spach. Smith made Haralson's job a lot easier. Smith also applied the pressure that forced Jerious Norwood into an errant throw on a trick play. Cornerback Tarell Brown picked off the pass.

  • Good trial run for Willis: The fact that Patrick Willis got through this game without aggravating his hamstring injury counts as a victory. Willis was rusty and sometimes not close to his usual self in this game. Better to shake off the rust in Week 17 than in a playoff game. At his sharpest, I suspect Willis would have chased down and punished Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens before Clemens could scramble for an 18-yard touchdown. Clemens was running across the yard-line numbers at the 17 when Willis, also positioned near the numbers, gave chase from the 9. Willis stumbled and fell in pursuit, giving Clemens a path to the end zone.

  • Hat tip to Peelle, Gore: Alex Smith rolled right, cut back hard enough to slip, gathered himself and ran for a touchdown on third-and-goal from the 8. Good play by the quarterback? Yes, and also by his teammates. Tight end Justin Peelle and running back Frank Gore made the play possible. They alertly went into blocking mode and escorted Smith to the end zone. Peelle dove and chopped down James Laurinaitis at the 5. Gore took out linebacker Chris Chamberlain at the knees.

  • Goldson dishing it out: Free safety Dashon Goldson has stood out all season for big hits. On third-and-18 in the third quarter, Goldson raced to the left flat and took out Jackson at the thighs, sending the 245-pound back airborne. This was a play made of mismatches. Willis ducked under fill-in offensive lineman Bryan Mattison at the line of scrimmage and was in Clemens' face too quickly, even for a screen play. The pass was a bit off-target. Goldson then outran Mattison to take out Jackson. Because Jackson was hunched over and reaching for the ball, his arm was vulnerable. Goldson smashed into the arm while making the tackle. Jackson suffered an injury to the arm and did not return.

  • Third-down struggles. The 49ers converted 38 percent of their third-down chances, better than their season average of 29.4, which ranked 31st in the league. But the 49ers averaged only 2.5 yards gained on 15 plays of third-and-3 or longer. NFC playoff teams New Orleans (first), Green Bay (third) and Atlanta (sixth) ranked among the NFL's top six in third-down conversion rate this season. The New York Giants (14th) and Detroit Lions (20th) ranked lower.

All for now.