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Harbaugh Era Begins

Posted Aug 12, 2011

NEW ORLEANS – With only a dozen practices under their belts, the visiting 49ers hit the Superdome in their home red uniforms Friday night, looking to set the tone for the upcoming season under new coach Jim Harbaugh.

As much as Harbaugh wanted his team to push the tempo of its exhibition opener, things didn’t come easy for the 49ers in The Big Easy as they fell to the Saints 24-3. But despite the one-sided outcome, Harbaugh felt pleased with some of the developments in his first game as an NFL head coach.

"I didn't expect this," Harbaugh said, "I knew coming in we had a lot of work to do, but tonight some good things transpired. ... We'll have some good film to look at and study and to learn from and get better from."

The slow start began on offense, where the 49ers won the opening coin toss and could not start aggressively like their coach envisioned.

It snowballed from there.

The 49ers first-team offense opened with five consecutive punts to start the game as they were pinned deep inside their own territory on all five of their opening possessions. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up several early blitzes directed at quarterback Alex Smith, who took plenty of big hits.

“First preseason game, you usually don’t expect to see that kind of pressure, but they brought it,” said Smith, who completed 2-of-7 passes for 10 yards.

The Saints racked up six quarterback sacks and six hurries, but Harbaugh didn't use the early barrage of blitzes as an excuse, saying the 49ers could have done a better job of exposing the New Orleans secondary.

"They're allowed to do that, we had some errors in protection," Harbaugh said. "We didn't capitalize, therefore they kept doing it."

In total, the offense picked up five first downs and three points in the first half, playing together in a live game for the first time in eight months.

“We have to get better,” Smith said. “We knew it was going to be a little sloppy, but some things have to get fixed and we will. That’s what these games are for.”

Defensively, however, the 49ers limited New Orleans' potent first-team offensive attack to no points. It was an encouraging sign for a defense still learning the fundamentals of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system.

“We certainly still have a lot of work to do,” said linebacker Patrick Willis, “but overall it wasn’t too bad… It’s certainly something that we’re going to build on.”

Thanks to a crucial drop by Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem on a well-thrown deep ball from quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints’ first-team offense went scoreless in the opening quarter. Brees completed only 1-of-4 passes for 6 yards.

“I think we did good for the first game,” said free agent acquisition Carlos Rogers, who started at left cornerback opposite second-year player Tramaine Brock. “Now that we’re all here together, we’re still working and getting better and better every day.”

On the next possession following Meachem’s drop, Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel entered the game and began making big plays, including a crucial 19-yard third-down gain on the ground. Daniel’s run earned the game’s initial first-down at the 4-minute mark of the first quarter. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman’s 15-yard penalty for a late hit on Daniel put New Orleans in position for a 47-yard field goal from kicker Garrett Hartley to cap a 7-play, 36-yard scoring drive.

To say both teams were a tad rusty would be an understatement. Both teams combined for as many first downs (three) as points in the opening quarter.

The 49ers moved the chains for the first time when Smith completed his first pass of the day to newly-acquired wide receiver Braylon Edwards for a 12-yard gain.  The 49ers were forced to punt on the drive however, kicking the ball back to New Orleans, who scored the game’s first touchdown on a 78-yard punt return for a score by wide receiver Joseph Morgan.

Rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick saw his first snaps early in the second quarter; it came with the first-team offensive line as well. The second-round pick completed a 20-yard pass to wideout Lance Long on third-and-11, but was eventually sacked on three consecutive plays to stall his first drive as a pro quarterback.

Kaepernick was able to make plays with both his arms and legs on the evening. He finished the game completing 9 of 19 passes for 117 yards. He also showed his athleticism, running for 47 yards on six carries. Harbaugh initially planned to play all four quarterbacks in Friday's game, but chose to keep Kaepernick in to finsh out the game.

"I think he played a game he'll be able to learn a lot from," Harbaugh said. "He was lathered up, he was competing ... so I decided to keep him in."

The Saints added to their first-half lead when rookie running back Mark Ingram rushed over right guard for a 14-yard touchdown. Ingram’s run capped an 8-play, 78-yard scoring drive that put New Orleans up 17-0 with 1:06 remaining in the first half.

The 49ers responded when Kaepernick led the 49ers on a one-minute drill that resulted in a 59-yard field goal from David Akers, a 13-year-pro who signed with the team this offseason. The offense needed 7 plays to go 39 yards for their first points of the game, as the team went into the locker room trailing 17-3.

The 49ers defense held the Saints to a three-and-out to start the second half and received good field position thanks to a 23-yard punt return by rookie wide receiver Ronald Johnson. But the offense could not put together any touchdown drives on the night.

In the fourth quarter, former 49ers cornerback Terrail Lambert intercepted Kaepernick on a deep sideline throw. Lambert’s takeaway set up a 4-yard touchdown run by running back Chris Taylor to make the score 24-3. Kaepernick was also intercepted by Saints linebacker Nate Bussey late in the final period.

Although it wasn’t the result they were searching for, the 49ers remain focused on the task at hand.

“We’re going to continue to work,” Willis said. “It’s going to take work every day.”

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