Rookie Josh Morgan had been relatively quiet since stealing the stage early in the preseason, but the sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech proved to be one of the few highlights in Sunday's 29-17 loss to the New York Giants.
Morgan led the 49ers with five catches for 86 yards, and a 17.2 average, not to mention his first ever NFL career touchdown on a 30-yard strike from JT O'Sullivan early in the second quarter.
"It was on a double move, and JT put the ball right there," said Morgan. "All I had to do was catch it. Of course it was great for me to get my first touchdown and to get more opportunities, but I still feel like there are so many things I could have done better to help my team get the win," said Morgan.
On the drive following his touchdown reception, Morgan was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty when he attempted to make a downfield block on a short pass play to Frank Gore.
"It was surprising," said Morgan. "I just saw Frank cutting back and I thought he might break it open, knowing Frank, so I tried to get a block on the DB. I didn't hear the whistle at all, so I was very surprised, but that was a mistake that helped attribute to the loss. I can't do things like that to hurt my team."
Another play that will trouble Morgan when he recalls the game included his dropped pass on a deep ball that would have set the 49ers up inside of the red zone in the fourth quarter.
"I just didn't stay with the ball the whole time," said Morgan. "I saw the DB slash his arm right in there and I didn't look it all the way in. I've got to do better."
The rookie made a heads up play in the final quarter, illegally kicking a ball that was in the end zone out of bounds for a safety. Even if Morgan had landed on the ball in the end zone, it would have still been a safety, so at least he saved a potential touchdown had the Giants recovered.
Although the 49ers started out in a package with only one receiver in Isaac Bruce, Morgan was used as a starter on Sunday, ahead of Bryant Johnson. Nolan indicated it was partly due to a groin injury that Johnson has been nursing, but also because Morgan had been playing well, and working hard.
According to Morgan, working hard has been a collective effort among the 49ers offensive players.
"I feel as though we are all tired of losing," said Morgan. "We've had extra meetings, we're staying after, and we're all doing the little things to improve. We just have to come out on gameday and put it all together finally."
Other Gamers/Big Plays
In his return to action off a hamstring injury, linebacker Manny Lawson blocked a 35-yard field goal by kicker John Carney, marking the second blocked kick in the last two weeks. Nate Clements got to the ball first and was off to the races for a 74-yard score.
"Tully Banta-Cain pointed out that all we had to do was jump over the middle. So he told Coach Al (Everest) and Coach Al brought me over to the sidelines and gave me the play and that's what happened. I jumped across the middle, and the ball hit me in the face-mask. I had a little imprint of the ball on the front of my shield."
With the 49ers scoring last week on a Ray McDonald blocked field goal that was returned by Donald Strickland, San Francisco became the first team in NFL history to ever accomplish back to back blocked field goals for TD's.
Frank Gore, Isaac Bruce and Arnaz Battle all enjoyed explosive pass plays over 20 yards. Gore grabbed a 26-yard pass in the first quarter, while Bruce enjoyed a 28-yard reception in the second quarter. Battle had a pair of 21-yard receptions to complete a pair of 3rd and long downs. In fact, Battle's first catch, which occurred on the 49ers second possession of the third quarter was the first third down conversion of the game. The 49ers were 0/5 up to that point on third downs.
On defense, cornerback Walt Harris stood out on a three and out drive in the second quarter. Harris first stopped Jacobs for a 3-yard loss, and then immediately got him down after the back made a 6-yard catch on the next play, setting up a 3rd and 7. Joe Staley batted Manning's pass down to complete the series. Harris would later break up another 3rd and 7 throw to Burress on the Giants first possession of the third quarter.
Willis finished the game with the most stops on defense, notching 8 solo tackles and 1 assist. The Pro Bowl linebacker also had a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hurry, and three passes defensed.
Cornerback Nate Clements lost his cool and shoved tight end Michael Matthews, who put on an Oscar winning performance with a dramatic backwards fall to the ground. Clements got charged with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Two snaps later, the veteran corner was flagged for a pass interference call while in coverage on a deep ball to Plaxico Burress.
"Of course I didn't feel like it should have been a PI, but I'm probably biased," said Clements. "He was trying to push off me, and I was just trying to stay with him. But, you've got to just put that behind you."
The infraction cost the 49ers 31 yards and led to a Brandon Jacobs' second touchdown run of the day, but Clements didn't let it ruin his afternoon. In fact, Burress eventually got flagged for pushing off in the second quarter.
"As everyone saw, sometimes it can go either way," said Clements.
Mostly responsible for Burress, Clements held the dynamic receiver to just three catches for 24 yards – a job well done said head coach Mike Nolan.
"They threw down deep to him a few times, he was in good position. When the game was all said and done, I thought Nate did a pretty good job on him," said Nolan. "I don't know what the numbers are but not every time was he Nate's guy, but a good bit of it."
Clements prevented a score before the half on a fade throw to Burress in the end zone, and although it wasn't his coverage responsibility on Burress' 6-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter, the 49ers corner did his best to try to get there and help out.
"I was just going at it, trying to prevent him from catching the ball," said Clements.
Clements got a score in of his own, returning Manny Lawson's blocked field goal 74 yards for a touchdown.
**Numbers to Note
**The Giants completed only 4 of 14 third downs, only 29% as the 49ers showed improvement on third down execution.
Unfortunately, the Giants defense could say the same, and then some. The 49ers offense converted only 2 of 10 third downs for a 20% conversion.
Running back Frank Gore was stopped five times in the backfield for losses, leading to only 11 total yards on 11 carries. O'Sullivan finished the game as the team's leading rusher with four carries for 27 yards.
"It comes down to execution," said Snyder of not getting holes opened up in the run game. "We know our job and what we have to do. We didn't execute as well as we needed to today."
The Giants finished with only 20 more yards of total offense than the 49ers, but the unit was perfect with their ball security, did a better job with their red zone efficiency, possessed the ball nine minutes longer, and quite simply, scored more points.
"I think there were opportunities to make plays, but that's not what sticks with me walking off the field," said O'Sullivan. "I feel like what sticks with me walking off the field as far as offense, we need to score more than 10 points."
The 49ers defense missed out on a few opportunities for turnovers in the loss. Aubrayo Franklin forced a fumble on Brandon Jacobs' first carry of the game, but New York recovered the ball. Linebacker Manny Lawson forced a fumble on a 3rd and 8 play in the fourth quarter, but the Giants also recovered the loose ball.
The 49ers appeared to have a fumble recovery when safety Mark Roman ripped the ball out from Ahmad Bradshaw at the end of a long run in the third quarter. Kentwan Balmer recovered and lateraled it back to Nate Clements, who returned it out to the 22-yardline. An unnecessary roughness penalty would have been tacked on to the end of the play, but the Giants challenged the ruling and the officials overturned the call, saying that Bradshaw was already down before the ball came out.
JT O'Sullivan threw two interceptions at the end of the first half to safety Michael Johnson. The first set the Giants up at the 9-yardline and led to a quick field goal. The second one kept the 49ers from potentially tying the game since Johnson pilfered the pass to Arnaz Battle in the end zone. Fortunately there wasn't enough time for the Giants to do anything after the steal.
O'Sullivan was also credited with four fumbles in the second half.
The first one was an aborted play with Frank Gore never securing O'Sullivan's handoff on a 3rd and 2 play. The loose ball was recovered by New York at the 18-yardline by Mathias Kiwanuka, and a 6-yard touchdown throw from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress capitalized on the turnover.
"I should have clutched it more," said Gore. "I was just trying to make a play and get outside and I moved too fast before I really had the ball."
The other three involved fumbles on plays in which O'Sullivan was sacked. Two of them were recovered by his offensive linemen, but the third was illegally kicked out of the back of the end zone by Josh Morgan, who was trying to prevent a touchdown. The play counted as a safety for the Giants.
The 49ers defense allowed only two plays over 20 yards and both involved the Giants running backs. Brandon Jacobs found a seam in the left side of the 49ers defensive front and then took off for a 26-yard touchdown. Later in the game, Derrick Ward caught a short screen pass, picked up a key downfield block and rolled his way down the field for a 35-yard pickup.
Linebacker Manny Lawson jumped off-sides on a 3rd and 2 play to hand the Giants a first down at the 49ers 46-yardline near the end of the third quarter. The 49ers then got burnt on a 3rd and 9 screen pass to Steve Smith for 10 yards. The defense eventually executed on a 3rd and 5 play, but the Giants had already covered enough ground to set up John Carney for a 48-yard field goal to put the Giants up by ten at the start of the fourth quarter.
The 49ers injury list grew on Sunday with Allen Rossum (groin), Dashon Goldson (knee), Michael Lewis (knee), and Ray McDonald (knee) all forced out of the game. Safety Mark Roman and wide receiver Josh Morgan also suffered groin strains, but finished out the game.
Cornerback Nate Clements had his ribs looked at during halftime, but returned to finish the game.
The 49ers defense never notched a sack on quarterback Eli Manning, marking the second week in a row that they've been unable to get to the quarterback. Linebacker Patrick Willis was credited for the only quarterback hurry of the game, while Justin Smith was held once on what likely could have been a sack. The defense did manage to bat down a few of Manning's passes as last year's Super Bowl MVP completed less than 50% of his passes.
"Everyone was focused and played within the defense," said Clements of the improved play. "When everyone collectively does their job, it all works out."
The 49ers allowed six sacks this week, with the Giants starting fast and finishing strong with their pass rush efforts. New York ended the 49ers first two offensive series with sacks, and then notched three sacks in the final quarter that also led to fumbles. The Giants were also credited for three quarterback hurries.
"We had some mistakes and you have to dig yourself out of it," said guard Adam Snyder. "We have to play as a team. Everybody has to show up, and today, I don't think we did."
Arnaz Battle and Nate Clements fielded the punt returns due to the injury to Rossum, although neither player had a real shot for a return. Delanie Walker handled the kickoff returns, and finished with 3 returns for 62 yards.
Rookie defensive end Kentwan Balmer caught his third kickoff return of the year, and picked up 9 yards on the return.
**Quote to Note
**"I think it gives us more motivation right now. We have to turn this thing around. I think everyone on the team feels it. This isn't the same team that we had last year, this is a different team, this is a much better team. This is a team that should not be two and five. The character on this team, we'll do everything to turn this thing around and it starts right now. It starts this week with Seattle coming up." – center Eric Heitmann