The handshakes exchanged by Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz and his counterpart on the San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh, sapped much of the focus on Sunday night’s matchup, an understandable turn since the previous handshake 11 months ago turned into a spectacle.
But what occurred in between the pre- and postgame handshakes — both went off without incident — may have been the real storyline: The 49ers offense did not just lend a hand to its vaunted defense, it once again rammed the ball down an opponent’s throat, and it still has plenty of room to improve.
“The sky is the limit,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis proclaimed after he compiled 73 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the 49ers’ 27-19 win at Candlestick Park. “We can get as good as we want. We’re missing guys. We are missing Brandon Jacobs, Ted Ginn. We’ve got a lot of weapons. We’ve got a lot of great things going on for us. I’m excited about those guys coming back and contributing.”
Niners quarterback Alex Smith appeared primed to blow the Lions out after a four-play, 67-yard drive on his team’s first possession, capped by a 21-yard strike to Davis. The Lions’ secondary, after all, was dinged up with safety Louis Delmas (knee), cornerback Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (concussion) inactive for the game.
It didn’t turn into a one-sided affair, although the Niners’ offense did compile 349 yards and there was not a single instance in which San Francisco went three-and-out all night.
And the Niners churned without their own inactive players on offense — including Ginn (ankle) and Jacobs (knee) — along with two top draft picks, receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James. The latter two are more due to the fact that Harbaugh apparently doesn’t feel they are ready to contribute just yet.
The team did get some help from its offseason additions, like Randy Moss (one catch, 14 yards) and Mario Manningham (29 yards rushing, 28 receiving).
“We are making good strides,” Davis said. “What we have to do is keep our focus and execute on our game plan.”
On Sunday, that meant leaning on San Francisco’s long-standing cast. Smith was 20 for 31 for 226 yards and the pair of scores, Davis led the team in receiving yards and running back Frank Gore had a game-high 89 yards on 17 carries.
All three of those players can trace their 49ers lineage back to the Mike Nolan Era.
“We picked up right where we left off last year,” said Gore, who had 112 yards in a Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers. “We are not learning (anymore). By this point, we already know what we’re doing. That’s why we are looking so good on the offensive side of the ball. Last year at this time, we were still learning.”
There doesn’t seem much time to feel things out in the NFC West. Each team won in Week 2, the second time since realignment in 2002 (and second time in as many years) that the division ran the table. The Arizona Cardinals, who stunned the New England Patriots with a 20-18 victory on Sunday, are tied with the Niners atop the division at 2-0.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Smith said. “We are a continual work in progress. We left a lot of yards out there. We weren’t good until that last drive on third down. So, there is a lot of room to improve, no question.”
During the 49ers’ final drive (not counting Smith’s kneel-downs to ice it), Smith found receiver Michael Crabtree for three third-down receptions to move the chains. The drive consumed 79 yards and more than six minutes, ending with seven points when Smith found Davis for a 23-yard TD reception to give the Niners a 27-12 lead with 3:11 left.
“It’s football,” Crabtree said. “I’m just doing whatever it takes to win. Third down, second down, first down. Whatever it takes to get the ‘W.’”
For the 49ers, that is increasingly anchored by their offense.