San Francisco 49ers  

 

San Francisco 49ers look like NFL's best team in early goings

SAN FRANCISCO -- His chance for redemption occurred only four plays into San Francisco's first drive Sunday, a prime opportunity for 49ers tight end Vernon Davis to prove he'd learned his lesson.

Davis just caught a 21-yard touchdown pass in stride, circled toward the goalpost and looked as if he might try once more to dunk the football over the cross bar -- a sequence last week in Green Bay that resulted in an embarrassing rejection when he failed to jump high enough.

"I think my vertical is leaving me gradually," Davis joked after his team's 27-19 win over the Detroit Lions.

So this time, Davis didn't go for the dunk. He stepped back and shot a successful fade-away jumper, thus proving one week after a tone-setting win against the Packers that, yes, even these 49ers had areas in which they could improve.

OK, so now what? Where else does this team need to improve?

The 49ers, less than a year removed from a turnaround that ended with an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, look like they've managed to pick up where they left off without any evidence of the offseason between then and now.

At the very least, even if nothing more than a premature proclamation that carries little weight two weeks into the season, San Francisco looks like the NFL's best team.

"You know what?" Davis told me on the field after Sunday's game. "I don't think we're really missing anything. We just need to keep our focus. Once you lose your focus, you lose everything.

"If we can continue to keep our focus and clear mind, anything and everything will happen for us."

It's hard to argue against him. While the league's landscape will surely change drastically in the next four months (see: Giants and Packers in 2011), this San Francisco team seems very capable of very big things. And it actually doesn't even start on Davis' side of the ball at all.

Take a look at this team's defense -- from a stingy defensive line to a ball-hawking secondary to a linebacking corps that will make anyone who comes across the middle pay with pain -- and you'll see a unit designed for success. Niners defenders tackle with discipline. They play smart. They hit hard. And they're inspiring the rest of this team.

Before Sunday's game, wide receiver Michael Crabtree sent a message to all of the players on offense: Match the defense. Play like them, and this team will be destined for very special places. His teammates listened.

"We know what our defense is going to give us every week," said running back Frank Gore, who rushed for 89 yards on 17 carries. "They play hard. They play together. We need to match them. If we come out and match our defense, we feel like we'll be the most dangerous team in the NFL."

That's all well and good. And it's certainly respectable for the 49ers to aspire to be such a well-rounded team on both sides of the ball, something we saw Sunday as they completely dominated the Lions' hyped defensive front. But San Francisco should also recognize some of the reasons for its current level of dominance -- even if it comes with that pesky reputation of being a conservative, safe group.

Look, quarterback Alex Smith deserves loads of credit for his franchise-record streak of 216 passes without an interception. But it's imperative to also point out that Smith's only pass attempts for 20-plus yards are almost always intended for Davis -- and none of his wide receivers. He's playing it safe, and that's just fine. Everyone is doing their part here, and the result is two wins against two 2011 playoff teams.

"It's a team effort," cornerback Tarell Brown said. "That's the good part about our team. It's not just one guy. We're very well-rounded. We have so much depth, so much competition, so it brings the best out of everybody."

If the 49ers want to open up their offense a little bit at a time this early in the season, nobody is going to complain. It's hard to imagine this team, with this defense, undergoing some type of collapse that keeps it from pushing to the playoffs this season. So go ahead. Explore the possibilities. It's not as if everything needs to go perfect between now and the postseason, and it's not as if this team doesn't have plenty of areas in which it can improve.

"I think there's still things we have to work on -- getting in the huddle quicker, getting set faster," guard Alex Boone said. "But we have a good start, and that's a good thing for us."

It's a great thing. The 49ers are clicking as well as -- if not better than -- any team in the NFL. They are gaining confidence and chemistry and all of the important qualities a team must acquire early in the season.

But as they continue to tweak and toy with the possibilities, it's going to be very important for San Francisco to remember these first two weeks of the season; to recognize what this team can accomplish with a sound offense and a special defense. In other words, it will be critical to never lose sight of this identity, particularly considering the amount of talent and depth that exists from top to bottom.

So go ahead, Vernon: Try a finger roll next week. Or throw up an alley-oop. Do whatever you want. Just don't forget about these first two weeks. Don't forget what happens when you play smart and safe.

You still make the shot -- even if it isn't quite as pretty.

"But just so you know," Davis later joked. "I can still dunk."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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