SAN FRANCISCO -- Some things I noted from the 49ers’ Monday night loss to the Saints.
What it means: The 49ers showed significant improvement from Week 1 and restored credibility even though they ultimately made too many mistakes to win the game. They looked like the best team in the NFC West, as expected before the season. The 49ers were not always smart or lucky, but they played tough. They were resilient. They grinded away and didn't seem to get discouraged. Alex Smith came of age in this game, and it still was not enough. That will hurt in the short term, but Smith did his part and that's huge for the 49ers moving forward.
Hero: Smith led the 49ers on an eight-play, 82-yard drive to the tying touchdown late in the game. Smith showed terrific command at the line of scrimmage. He made quick decisions against the blitz. He scrambled to pick up crucial yardage when there was no one open. He looked more like Steve Young than the Alex Smith fans have booed over the years.
First-half goat: Tight end Delanie Walker lost a fumble at the New Orleans 8-yard line to waste an impressive 49ers drive in the second quarter.
Second-half goat: Phillip Adams muffed a punt with 5:36 remaining in the game and the 49ers trailing, 19-14. The Saints recovered.
Big Revelation: Smith can overcome a shaky start on a national stage and hold his own against a championship team -- provided the 49ers have the running game working the way they did Monday night. Frank Gore was brutally effective on the ground, surpassing Joe Perry for the franchise record with his 21st career 100-yard game. For stretches Monday night, it was possible to envision the 49ers winning a playoff game against the right opponent. But Smith isn't going to create his own breaks. Bad breaks always seem around the corner when he's under center.
What I liked: After a shaky start, the 49ers settled down and stayed true to their identity. They went with heavy personnel and rammed Gore into the Saints' defense, time and again. They threw short, safe passes out of run-oriented looks, capitalizing when the Saints had to respect Gore. And when the run was firmly established, the 49ers trusted Smith to exploit favorable matchups for Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.
What I didn't like: The 49ers were not ready early and they were far too careless with the football. A botched snap led to an aborted play to open the 49ers' first possession. What was the deal with that Wildcat formation on the 49ers' second third-down play of the game? I realize San Francisco wasn't too excited about leaning on Smith early in the game, but sending Brian Westbrook up the middle for no gain seemed too cute.
Unsung Hero: Rookie tight end Nate Byham gave the 49ers flexibility as a tight end/fullback. He helped clear holes for Gore and also provided an outlet in the passing game.
What's next: The 49ers visit the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3.