Harbaugh touts Justin Smith as MVP candidate

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Harbaugh touts Justin Smith as MVP candidate

SAN FRANCISCO -- Defensive end Justin Smith has turned into the 49ers' closer.Smith batted down Eli Manning's fourth-down pass from the 49ers 10-yard line with 34 seconds remaining Sunday to preserve a 27-20 victory over the New York Giants at Candlestick Park.And 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made a case for Smith as a candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player.

"He's a great player," Harbaugh said of Smith, who has earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl. "He's having a great year. He should be in the MVP category, conversation. He's having that kind of a year for us."He's got a huge heart. That guy is just a big, strong, mighty man and we had a lot of them today."Smith and teammate Patrick Willis are legitimate candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as the 49ers have forged an 8-1 record with seven games remaining.Smith has 4.5 sacks to go along with his two game-clinching plays this season. In Week 4, he wrapped up a 24-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles when he chased down speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and forced a fumble that ended the Eagles' final threat.On Sunday, Smith rushed against Giants left guard David Diehl on the final play after playing every defensive snap in the game. He knocked down Manning's fourth-down pass with his right arm."No. 1, I was tired," Smith said. "No. 2, they (the coaches) were telling us to get our hands up. They were throwing pretty quick on rhythm. I just put my hand there. Luckily, it was where the ball went. It was just blind luck."Said Willis, "Justin's a consummate team player. I told him on the sidelines, series after series, how much I respect him. I think he'll be one of the best players I'll have ever played with in my life and it's been a pleasure playing with him."Week-in and week-out he comes to play. He practices hard in practice and goes hard on Sundays. He's a tremendous player."Willis isn't too shabby, either.Smith finished with six tackles in the game. NaVorro Bowman led the 49ers with 14 tackles, but Willis has also placed himself into the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis recorded 11 tackles, a sack and two tackles for losses.The 49ers hold a five-game lead in the NFC West. The victory over the Giants might have been their most impressive all-around performance of the season."They're a heck of a team," Justin Smith said. "We were talking about them with our coaches. The schemes they run and the way they attack had me guessing out there. Hats off to them. Keeping an offense of that quality out of the end zone bodes well for us."The 49ers own a two-game lead for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. The top two seed earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. But this victory also sent a message, Willis said."It's a big statement across the board, however you look at it," he said. "There was a bunch of people that doubted us this week, have been doubting us the whole season and will still doubt us.
"They have so many excuses as to why the Giants didn't win this game, whether it'll be, 'Eli wasn't having his day,' or whether it was the receiver wasn't this or the line wasn't this.' They're going to have something to say to try and take away from us winning this game, but at the end of the day we let them say what they want to say. We let the record speak for itself. For us, we're humble but we're still hungry."

Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

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Taking a closer look at Ryan's criticism of Shanahan

There is no shortage of blame to go around for the Atlanta Falcons’ collapse in Super Bowl 51.

The Falcons built a 28-3 lead in the middle of the third quarter and let it slip away, ultimately falling to the New England Patriots, 34-28, in overtime.

Matt Ryan voiced one previously undisclosed factor in the collapse this week in an interview with Pete Prisco of CBS Sports, pointing the finger at the new coach of the 49ers.

Kyle Shanahan has been the focus of a lot of the blame, but critique from the league MVP was a new one.

The Falcons quarterback faulted his former offensive coordinator for taking too much time to relay the play calls. Ryan said he did not have enough time to change any of the plays – presumably checking out of called pass plays to run the ball.

Here’s what Ryan told Prisco:

"Kyle's play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in. As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you're talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, 'There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.' You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

"With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You're not being aggressive not running it there."

The 49ers can point to mismanagement of the clock for their own Super Bowl heartbreak. The 49ers’ offense had the perfect play call at the perfect time against the Baltimore Ravens late in Super Bowl XLVII.

But with the play clock striking :00, coach Jim Harbaugh was forced to call a timeout from the sideline. A split-second later, the ball was snapped and it appeared the quarterback run would have easily ended up with Colin Kaepernick in the end zone.

Much like after the 49ers’ loss, the Falcons left plenty of room for second-guessing.

Two of Shanahan’s plays calls, which directly led to the collapse, will forever be scrutinized.

The first came with 8:31 remaining in regulation and the Falcons holding a 28-12 lead. On third and 1 from the Atlanta 36, Shanahan did not remain conservative with an expected run play. He swung for the fence.

Receiver Aldrick Robinson, whom the 49ers added this offseason as a free-agent pickup, was breaking free past the Patriots secondary for what could have been a touchdown. But just as Ryan was unloading, New England linebacker Dont’a Hightower hit him and forced the fumble. Running back Devonta Freeman whiffed on blitz pickup, which would have provided Ryan with enough time to target Robinson deep.

Ryan’s explanation does not appear applicable on this play, though. In watching the replay, the Falcons broke the huddle with more than 25 seconds remaining on the play clock and the snap occurred with :15 to spare.

The other questionable sequence came after the Falcons – leading by eight points -- got to the New England 22-yard line with less than five minutes to play. The Falcons lost 1 yard on a run play on first down.

On second down, Ryan was sacked for a 12-yard loss. Before that play, the Falcons broke the huddle with :19 on the play clock. The snap occurred with :04 remaining. The game clock was running, so the Falcons had reason to attempt to burn as much clock as possible.

In the fourth quarter, the Falcons never seemed rushed to get off a play. The closest they came to delay-of-game penalties were when they snapped the ball with :04 on the one play and :03 another time. The majority of their snaps occurred with :10 or more seconds to spare.

If the Falcons were guilty of anything when it came to the play clock, it was that the offense did not waste more time. After New England pulled to within 28-9 late in the third quarter, the Falcons ran only six offensive plays while the game clock was running.

On those six plays, the Falcons snapped the ball with :13, :09, :14, :20, :13 and :04 remaining on the play clock. If they’d snapped the ball with one second remaining each time, they could have shortened the game by 1 minute, 7 seconds. The Patriots scored the game-tying touchdown with :57 remaining in regulation.

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Uh-oh: Is Kyle Shanahan going to be Harbaugh-tastic in his timing?

Until now, Kyle Shanahan’s hiring by the San Fracisco 49ers looked great because of his two-and-a-half predecessors – the last days of Jim Harbaugh, the misplaced concept of Jim Tomsula and the couldn’t-make-chicken-marsala-out-of-old-Kleenex problems surrounding Chip Kelly.

But now, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has told us all that Shanahan has a gift we in the Bay Area know all too well. Specifically, that Shanahan took too long to call plays to the Super Bowl the Falcons vomited up to the New England Patriots.

Now who does that remind you of, over and over again?

Yes, some things are evergreen, and too many options in this overly technological age seems to be one of them. Data in is helpful, but command going out is what bells the cow. Ryan said Shanahan was, well, almost Harbaugh-tastic in his timing.

“Kyle’s play calls -- he would take time to get stuff in,” Ryan told Bleacher Report. “As I was getting it, you're looking at the clock and you’re talking 16 seconds before it cuts out. You don't have a lot of time to say, ‘There's 16 seconds, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. Hey, guys, we're going to line up and run this.’ You're talking about breaking the huddle at seven seconds if you do something along the lines.

“With the way Kyle's system was set up, he took more time to call plays and we shift and motion a lot more than we did with (former coordinator) Dirk (Koetter). You couldn't get out of stuff like that. We talk about being the most aggressive team in football. And I'm all for it. But there's also winning time. You’re not being aggressive not running it there.”

And the reason this matters is because the Atlanta Shanahan had multiple good options on every play. In San Francsco, at least in the short term, he’ll be dealing with minimal options. That could speed up his choices, as in “What the hell, we don’t have Julio Jones.” But it could also mean more delays, as in, “Okay, him . . . no, maybe not . . . no, he just screwed up that play last series . . . oh, damn it, time out!”

In short, it’s growing pains season here, children. On the field, on the sidelines, and maybe even in Kyle Shanahan’s head.