Wait, Why Am I Worried About The Jaguars?

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The 49ers are facing the worst team in football this weekend, and I am worried. How can this be? The Niners are on a hot streak, every aspect of the team is improving and the supposed injuries to Eric Reid and Donte Whitner turned out to be nothing. Yet I keep considering the possibility of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and how that would feel. I have a bad habit of torturing myself with hypotheticals, but that doesn’t mean this concern is totally illegitimate. Ugh.

The Jaguars have almost nothing that should worry me. They have the worst run defense in the league, and will be going up against the NFL’s 3rd best rushing team. Their points scored/points allowed over the last few games are almost perfect opposites of the 49ers’ (SF: 33/12.75 JAX: 12/32.5). The Jaguars have had a really tough schedule, but haven’t really shown any signs of life. However, it isn’t really the Jaguars that concern me.

Sunday’s game will be played in London, which levels the playing field to some extent. The 49ers will be preparing for the game far from home, dealing with jet lag and all the distractions of being in another country. The Jaguars are in the same position, but that isn’t reassuring. The 49ers are also coming into this game knowing the Jaguars’ reputation and record. My stupid brain is convincing me that these factors will come into effect as the week goes on, and the 49ers will be way less prepared for this game than any other game this season.

Harbaugh and Co. will also be facing an old nemesis. Jacksonville’s coach, Gus Bradley, was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2012. His record against the 49ers while in Seattle was 3-5, but he had a major hand in crafting the defense that shut down the Niners last year in week 16 and this year in week 2. The Jags do not have the defensive talent Bradley commanded in Seattle, but he knows the Niners. The Jaguars are a team of professional football players, and with the right game plan and mindset they can cause problems for San Francisco.

My real problem with this game is how little fun it will be. When the 49ers played the Jets and Bills back to back last year, they outscored them 79-3. It was fun because both the Jets and the Bills had decently talented players, and no one was expecting Alex Smith to destroy those defenses like he did. This Sunday, dominance isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. Anything short of an overpowering effort from the 49ers will be a disappointment. This means the two possible outcomes of the game are the total destruction of the Jaguars or an unwatchable implosion by the 49ers. Neither sounds particularly entertaining.

Fortunately, the 49ers have been training with the same mindset. Hopefully, Frank Gore is way, way too much for the Jags, and the 49ers turn Kendall Hunter loose on them. Hopefully, Vance McDonald has a big day and bowls his way through Jacksonville’s secondary. Hopefully, all that Chad Henne remembers of his trip to England is Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier running directly at him. Until then, I worry like an idiot.

Some Advice for Cardinals Fans

St+Louis+Cardinals+v+Cincinnati+Reds+htYpQ_MBx5QlJoe Robbins/Getty Images

After they eliminated the Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals came under a lot of fire from sports bloggers. It isn’t entirely clear to me where it all started, but the most famous example is a Deadspin polemic posted by Drew Magary. It is worth reading; Magary takes a pretty hard line through the whole post, but I found myself agreeing with the overall sentiment. The most interesting thing about this post and the salvo of anti-Cardinal writing that followed is the response. Cardinals fans have expressed seemingly genuine disbelief at the whole thing. So genuine, in fact, that it only served to prove the points that Magary and other bloggers were making. Like any internet shootout, the whole thing has boiled down to crude comments and irrational anger. Despite this, I am still coming across articles that portray the Cardinals and their fans as victims of some baseless screed.

Why is this still happening? If Cardinals fans want to keep living in the same delusion, fine, but why do they need to impress it upon everyone else? I don’t hate the Cardinals quite as much as Magary and some others do, but I found a lot of the responses to his article pretty offensive. I am putting that aside to offer some advice to the very best fans in baseball:

1. It’s true! You are the best fans in baseball. And so am I, and everyone else that cheers for a team. That’s because ‘the best fans in baseball’ is a group of words imbued with imaginary, insignificant meaning. There isn’t a single shred of evidence you could show me that would prove otherwise. In sports, valuations like ‘best’ and ‘worst’ don’t mean anything other than ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. In my opinion, the Dodgers are the worst team in sports. This has nothing to do with numbers, or who won a particular game, series or division. It is simply a reality for me and other Giants fans. The same can be said for almost anything you feel about the Cardinals or any other team.

2. Being a good team for a long time means people are going to hate you. This isn’t rational either, and has more to do with the attention span of sports fans than anything else. Generally speaking, sports fans want to see different athletes do different things on the playing field. It can be fun to see a dominant team play a sport at the highest level, but this enjoyment diminishes quickly over time. This is particularly true if you are a fan of a team that misses the playoffs a lot. A team like the Cardinals shoving hard-luck franchises like Pittsburgh out of the way to stay in the championship hunt isn’t really fun for anyone but Cardinals fans. It feels like a regression to an increasingly predictable and boring mean.

3. “The Cardinal Way” doesn’t mean anything. Having a good farm system that develops good players isn’t something unique to St. Louis. This is where a lot of the pro-Cardinals articles began to approach the absurd. Claiming ownership of baseball fundamentals, sportsmanship and respect for the sport isn’t just ridiculous, its wrong. In one article, a writer interviews Cardinals fans about the internet vitriol being directed their way, and a fan takes it upon himself to sum up the Cardinals: “Hustling the basepaths, playing good defense, smart base running, intelligent baseball, making contact, doing what it takes to win the game or play competitively, that’s Cardinals baseball.” Nope. That’s just baseball. That’s the fundamentally sound baseball that the Giants beat the Cardinals with last year, and what the Red Sox will hopefully beat the Cardinals with in this World Series. There is no way you can tell me the Cardinals are better sportsmen than other baseball players. If that were true, what the hell was this?

4. The last bit of advice that I would offer is stop the moral grandstanding. Part of the ‘best fans’ claim seems rooted in the idea that Cardinals fans are better people than other fans, and their players are better sportsmen. Again, it’s okay to think this, but keep it to yourself. The Cardinals are, in fact, a sports team, and their fans and players break down roughly the same way as any other sports team.

I would be willing to bet that 60% of Cardinals fans are causal fans who like going to the ballpark and cheering for the team but past that don’t care all that much. 15% are hardcore fans who know the franchise history front to back and would love the team no matter how poorly they played. 25% are young, stupid, and spend their time getting drunk at ballgames and saying dumb, possibly offensive things on Twitter. This is the same as any other sports fan base anywhere in the country. Baseball hasn’t replaced social studies in the Missouri public school system, and Cardinals fans are no more or less steeped in the sport than anyone else.

Get used to it, Cardinals fans. You cheer for a good team, everyone in the baseball world hates you and you are only special in your own mind. Welcome to sports. 

49ers at Titans: The Kaepernicking

KapeTitansFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

The 49ers are 5-2 after grabbing their first ‘pretty’ win of the year. Ever since this season started, the 49ers have been ‘ugly’. The win over Green Bay was kinda pretty, but we knew in the back of our heads Anquan Boldin wasn’t going to collect 200 yards in every game. Every game since week 1 has been some kind of ugly. Sure, lots of bruising defense and bruising offense makes for ugly football, but that’s exactly what this team does so well. If there was anything pretty that Alex Smith did, it was because it materialized in a sea of ‘Frank Gore up the middle, Frank Gore up the middle, David Akers field goal, defense forces three-and-out, repeat.’ What we saw against the Titans was legitimately pretty, a ‘good all-around game’ by San Francisco. While it may not be the style the 49ers should use against contending teams, it was nice to see them switch things up a bit.

What I saw on Sunday:

The Good Things

Zone Read Plays: There was a lot of complaining about the lack of zone read plays being called early in the season. This complaint is valid, but I am pleased to see them using Kaepernick carefully. It is clear that they want the threat posed by Kaep’s legs to be present in every game, but they also want to be judicious when putting him in a position to take big hits. Against an aggressive defense like Arizona’s, the read option would be unwise, but it was clear that the Titans were caught totally unaware. Perhaps the best thing about Kaep’s running is the effect it has on the rest of the team. The offense seemed to flow better after his first touchdown; they played with a confidence that we hadn’t seen since week 1.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep still has plenty to learn, but his solid effort against the Titans was sign that he is benefitting from Greg Roman’s simplified play calling. He made plenty of mistakes, but looked strong in the pocket and made some great throws. Any momentum this team builds is centered around Kaep’s ability to take control of games and play with confidence, and we saw both of those things happen on Sunday.

Special Teams: The special teams coverage has been excellent in 2013, and seems to be getting better as the season goes on. It is difficult to parse individual special teams efforts, but it is obvious that they are playing with an aggressiveness that was lacking in 2012. Kassim Osgood’s muffed-punt-recovery-touchdown was the nail in the Titans’ coffin, and was a big moment for a special teams squad that has been quietly dominant all year.

Ball Distribution: This was one of the more balanced offensive efforts we’ve seen all year. Of course, this just means a more equal distribution of passes between Boldin and Vernon Davis, but it was still good to see Kaep spreading the ball around. Gore even grabbed some receiving yards, and we saw a glimpse of Vance McDonald’s pass catching ability with a big 20 yard reception that set up a touchdown.

The Bad Thing

Safety Depth: Late in the game, Donte Whitner and Eric Reid both suffered minor leg injuries and were pulled from the field. They were replaced by special teamers C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl, and on the very next play Titans running back Chris Johnson turned a short pass into a 66 yard touchdown run. Johnson’s speed and skill had a lot to do with this run, but it was Dahl and Spillman’s inability to make a tackle that allowed him to break through the secondary. There haven’t been any major reports of what happened to Reid (who reentered the game soon after) and Whitner (who was seen walking without a limp soon after leaving the field), but it is clear that the 49ers lack depth at the safety position. The 49ers have already been hit hard by injuries, and losing either safety would be bad news for a secondary that has played well thus far.

Other Things

Turnovers: Technically speaking, the 49ers won the turnover battle. However, anyone who watched this game would know this wasn’t the case. Kaep threw what would have been two interceptions if not for a penalty call and a misplay by Titans cornerback Jason McCourty. Kyle Williams also fumbled the ball, but the referees called it an incomplete pass. These mistakes went the 49ers way, but they show that Kaep is still very prone to mental errors. The way the defense was playing, the turnovers might not have mattered, but it remains something to be concerned about.

Kyle Williams: I do not know know what to make of Mr. Williams; despite possessing some return skill, he has called for a league-high 16 fair catches. This hasn’t hurt the 49ers, but it hasn’t helped much either. Any player able to run the ball back, even if just a little, would be a step up from Williams. As I mentioned above, his one reception of the day resulted in a fumble that was miscalled, but was something that could have actively hurt the team. I applaud Williams for being a team player, but he is a total non-factor at this point. He has shown almost nothing thus far in 2013, and as such I cannot think of a way for the 49ers to use him that benefits the team in any way.

Tim Lincecum’s Contract and Muhammad Ali

MUHAMMAD ALI CONTRE BRIAN LONDON EN 1966

A few hours ago I got a push notification telling me that the Giants were planning to sign Tim Lincecum for two years. A little later another notification told me contract was confirmed at $35 million. Like everyone else following the Giants, it took a little while for me to process. I was overjoyed to hear he’d be back, and, given what is available on the free agent market, I wasn’t as appalled as everyone else by the price. That said, it wasn’t the easiest thing to understand. It was decisive and risky, and no doubt motivated by a certain amount of sentiment. It got me thinking about Lincecum’s career as a whole; lifelong success followed by a sudden, breathless drop in velocity and effectiveness. In the second half of 2013, we saw him pull something together and not look totally incompetent, but it wasn’t anything close to 2009-2011.

Putting aside the fact that Lincecum remains one of the most beloved athletes in the Bay Area and that this no doubt influenced the Giants’ decision, I considered what the front office was counting on with this contract. They are hoping that Lincecum, by virtue of his competitiveness and athletic intelligence, can work out a way to be consistently productive. They are asking him to come up with a way to put aside something that worked for most of his career and develop a new way to have the same results.

I hate to compare athletes across sports, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Muhammad Ali. Bear with me. In 1970, Ali returned to boxing after being banned for draft evasion. Along with the political implications of his return, questions were raised about his ability. Four years out of boxing had taken its toll, and it was unclear whether or not he could move and fight as well as he could when he was 25. This controversy continued until the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. Leading up to the fight, the aging Ali did not train with any urgency. His trainers were nervous; the tools he had relied on for his entire career –speed and deception– were gone, and he was making no effort to recover them.

In my mind this is where we stand. In my mind, George Foreman is Yasiel Puig, a young, talented and powerful adversary, and Lincecum is Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle is considered the greatest fight in history because Ali was able to manipulate Foreman’s expectations and outsmart him at every turn. Ali became a different athlete, and used unheard-of techniques to win. It is also considered the greatest fight because of how rarely this kind of paradigm shift is achieved. Stories of athletes who have a transcendent career, fall hard and make a comeback are prized for their rarity.

Ignore how little this analogy makes sense; the Giants are banking on the same thing happening to Lincecum. If he manages to make himself great again, it will be a sports miracle, deserving of a movie which I will never watch. Right now, it seems like a really pricey risk. It is good to know that whatever happens to Timmy, it will happen in the best uniform. Past that, it will be on him and Dave Righetti to figure out something that has eluded them for two years.

49ers vs. Titans: What to Watch For

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The 49ers begin their roadtrip in Tennessee, where they take on the potentially resurgent Titans. Losing Jake Locker for a few weeks stifled any momentum the Titans developed in week 1, but the defense has kept the team afloat. Locker is back, saving the 49ers the pleasure of facing the Sophoclean tragedy that is Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Titans remind me of the Cardinals; they are a team with plenty of potential but still capable of masterful self-destruction. Fortunately, the style of offense the Niners have used in the last three weeks should match up well with Tennessee’s defense. If they are able to brutalize the Titans’ defensive front, we will have reason to slap hands. What I will be watching for:

Feeding Gore: The Tennessee Titans aren’t great against the run. After facing Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, they will have to contend with the 49ers’ brutal ground game. That is, of course, so long as Greg Roman calls the right plays. The 49ers faced another bad run defense in the Colts, but Roman called a pass-heavy offense and the Niners turned over the ball twice. Roman seems to have wised up, but against a defense as turnover-happy as the Titans cute play calling will not be tolerated. If the 49ers can impose a presence on the ground early on, they can open up the playbook a bit.

Red Zone Execution: In 55 red zone plays, the 49ers have scored 9 touchdowns, which is just over 16%. Red zone struggles go back a couple of years (13.8% in 2011, 21.1% in 2012), but it isn’t something that can stand going forward. Despite two interceptions putting them in the red zone last week, the 49ers were only able to score 6 points. If the 49ers are able to rattle Jake Locker and force turnovers, they need to be sure that the offense can take advantage.

Pressure: The Titans offensive line is just okay, and they will be starting rookie center Brian Schwenke over Rob Turner. The 49ers will have to generate a lot of pressure and make Locker uncomfortable early on. He is still working through an injury, and pressuring him will limit the Titans’ passing game. Corey Lemonier and Justin Smith have been playing out of their minds, but the rest of the defensive line is banged up. The amount of pressure they bring will be a big difference maker in this game.

Run Defense: The 49ers are facing another elite running back in Chris Johnson, and will need to limit his big play ability. With Ian Williams out and Glenn Dorsey unlikely, San Francisco will have to rely on Tony Jerrod-Eddie and rookie nose tackle Quinton Dial to spearhead their run-stopping power. The running narrative on Chris Johnson is that he is struggling due to age, but he has faced two great defenses in the last two weeks and probably still has plenty left in the tank. Whether or not the Niners can handle Johnson is my biggest concern going into this game.

Cardinals at 49ers: Rookie Takeover

 

lemonyayBen Margot/AP

For the first time since 2011, the 49ers have won three regular season games in a row. It was a good win, in a lot of respects, but there were some serious low points worth mentioning. The Cardinals are a generally inferior team, but you wouldn’t have known it from yesterday’s game. It felt like a fight; a fight to get to the red zone, a fight to get in, a fight to stop drives and a fight to maintain possession. In that respect, it was a resounding victory. The 49ers offense looked flat for most of the first half, but they got things rolling when it mattered and have a big divisional win to show for it. Looking over the numbers today, it is remarkable how similar this game was to the last time these two teams met. In both games, the 49ers’ offense started slow but got better as the game went on. In both games, a 49ers pass-catcher had a big day and put up gaudy numbers (Michael Crabtree, 8 Receptions for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns, Vernon Davis, 8 receptions for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns). In both games, Colin Kaepernick put up solid numbers, and Frank Gore had a big day. What does this all mean? Plenty of people are searching for signs of life in the 49ers offense, but it is important to remember that divisional match ups have a different feel. I wouldn’t call this game an indictment of the 49ers’ offense; it was a tough win against a division rival and a great way to wrap up the home stand before a big road trip. My thoughts:

The Good Things:

Rookies: The 49ers 2013 draft class has been great, so far. Eric Reid has done an excellent job at safety, and Corey Lemonier looks every bit as scary as he was at Auburn. This is welcome news, as they are replacing Dashon Goldson and Aldon Smith. Reid and Lemonier are responsible for a combined 4 turnovers, 27 tackles, a fumble recovery and a safety. Both rookies made their presence felt against the Cardinals, forcing two turnovers that led to 6 points. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the class fares; Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore headline the remaining inactive 2013 draftees. We can only hope they have the same immediate impact as Reid and Lemonier.

The Turnover Battle: Turnovers were the big story last night. Even though the 49ers failed to fully capitalize on some early interceptions, the forced fumbles by Patrick Willis and Lemonier were back breakers. Kaep’s two turnovers were bad, but they were as much the result of Arizona’s relentless defense as carelessness on his part.

Penalties: The 49ers continue their relatively clean play. Just two weeks ago, they were averaging 85 yards lost per game. In the last two games, they have been penalized 7 times for a combined 52 yards. Although it seems small, this is actually one of the more heartening signs I have seen since week 3. The 49ers have worked hard to cultivate a ‘culture of winning’, and the lack of penalties is a sign that they are more focused than they were at the beginning of the season.

Big Plays: You could make the argument that the 49ers offense was struggling last night. Apart from some incredible, perfect throws to Vernon Davis and the 18-play drive in the fourth quarter that ate up 8:20, the 49ers offense did struggle. The Cardinals defense did a commendable job stopping the run early on and keeping the game within reach. However, the game came down to big plays. Despite a discouraging start, Kaepernick stepped up and put the ball where it needed to be. In weeks 2 and 3, Kaep looked shaky and inaccurate. This week, he faced down Arizona’s pass rush and found his man when it counted.

The Bad Things:

Run Defense: For the fourth time this season, 49ers allowed 100+ rushing yards. Most of this came in the second half; Andre Ellington seemed unstoppable up the middle, and gashed the 49ers for 56 yards and a touchdown. The team did a good job containing Rashard Mendenhall, but once nose tackle Glenn Dorsey left the game the defensive line struggled. Whether or not Tony Jerrod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs can step up in Dorsey’s absence, the 49ers will be hard pressed to stop some of the run heavy offenses left on the schedule.

Red Zone Execution: The 49ers’ poor play in the red zone kept this game from being a blowout. The 49ers defense stacked up two turnovers in the first quarter, both within 15 yards of the Cardinals’ end zone, but the offense only managed score 6 points. Again, the Cardinals’ defense did a great job breaking up passes and keeping the 49ers offense at bay, but this kind of incompetence early in the game needs to change. The 49ers have some tough games left, and they will have to take full advantage of the opportunities the defense gives them if they want to keep winning.

The Other Thing:

Secondary: It wouldn’t be fair to say that the secondary was bad against the Cardinals. Carlos Rogers and Eric Reid each had an interception, and Donte w(H)itner had a couple of crucial 3rd down stops. However, they also gave up 298 passing yards, including an embarrassing 75-yard touchdown run from Larry Fitzgerald that could have been easily prevented. Carlos Rogers looked totally outclassed against Fitzgerald; it will be interesting to see how the cornerback depth chart is shaken up when Eric Wright is activated.

Random Stat: The 49ers are 3-2 when the Federal Government is shut down (0-1 in the playoffs).

49ers vs. Cardinals: What to Watch For

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The 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, looking to improve to 4-2 and 2-1 against the NFC West. Although the Cardinals are not considered contenders, they will be a tough team to beat. They match up well with the 49ers; a stingy run defense and a playmaking secondary means the 49ers will have to move the ball carefully. The Cardinals also have a lot of talented receivers, led by the prodigious Larry Fitzgerald. The 49ers secondary has done pretty well thus far, but hasn’t faced a team with great receiving depth since week 1 against Green Bay. This game will be a great test; it is time to prove that the momentum the Niners built against the Rams and Texans can keep them rolling. Here is what I will be paying attention to:

The Turnover Battle:

The 49ers need to have a game similar to last week’s if they want to win. Carson Palmer has been turning over the ball a lot, and the 49ers need to take advantage of his hesitation in the pocket. If they can keep the pressure on Palmer and cause him to make mistakes, the secondary can step up force turnovers. Conversely, the 49ers have to keep the ball secure against the Cardinals’ ballhawking secondary. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have been tormenting offenses with their ability to force fumbles and pick off passes, and the 49ers will need to play conservatively if they want to win.

Run Defense:

One of the keys to this game will be smothering Rashard Mendenhall and Arizona’s ground attack. Arizona has great receivers, but forcing Palmer to throw constantly will give the 49ers plenty of opportunities to exploit his mistakes and stop drives. The 49ers front seven is beat up, with injuries limiting Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, but they will need to step up and attack the ball if they want to succeed.

Moving the Ball through the Air:

The 49ers have been limiting Colin Kapernick’s arm, for good reason, but this may be a good game to return to a more balanced offense. The Cardinals have been good against the run, but they haven’t faced a smashmouth running team like the 49ers yet. If the 49ers can get some big plays out of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, that will help Frank Gore take over on the ground. I will be watching rookie tight end Vance McDonald; he is big, strong and fast, and could be great against the Cardinals’ physical secondary.

The Run Game:

As I mentioned above, the Cardinals have had some success against the run. They held Doug Martin and Reggie Bush to 45 and 25 yards, respectively. That said, the Bucs and Lions aren’t built for the run in the same way as the 49ers. If San Francisco can win the battle in the trenches and keep feeding Gore, it will help them wear down Arizona’s defense and open up the passing game. The 49ers don’t need a monster effort from their running backs, but a strong showing from the ‘three headed monster’ of Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James is crucial.

The Trouble With Kaepernick

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The 49ers seem to be missing a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick has been as conservative as we’ve ever seen in his short career. His low passing numbers are well known; what isn’t known is where he and the 49ers go from here. He is one of several young quarterbacks struggling to help their team. Russel Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Kaep have all been inconsistent, showing up to play in some games and getting shut down in others. Kaepernick became a star after taking over last season, and as a result his recent performance is being heavily scrutinized. However, it is too early to tell where he will go. After five games, no one can rightfully say that the league has figured Kaep out, nor can anyone say that he is playing at the level he reached last year. A lot of Kaep’s problems are the result of perception; after his incredible entrance last season, he has been hailed as a potential great, a franchise QB in the making, and an unbeatable athlete with a never before seen skillset. These predictions ignored many of the shortcomings he and the 49ers exhibited last year, and more importantly they ignored his lack of experience. Since he became the starter, we have seen many different sides of Kaep, and he has simply not had enough time to establish any consistency.The 49ers coaching staff believe that he can be every bit as good as the pundits say; it is now a matter of him keeping up. Here are a few of my thoughts on his recent struggles, and why I am not worried about Kaepernick (yet):

Wins:

The 49ers have a winning record. This is a testament to the whole team, from the newly revitalized secondary to a special teams unit that looks vastly improved over last year’s. They have beaten two teams that reached the playoffs in 2012, one with a top-flight offense and the other with a #1 ranked defense. Despite Kaepernick looking totally lost against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers are still very much in contention and will continue to succeed. This point isn’t directly revelatory of Kaepernick, but it is important to keep in mind.

Frank Gore and the Run Game:

Where Kaepernick has fallen short, Gore has thrived. This isn’t a bad thing; Frank Gore is one of the keys to the 49ers’ success. Since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers have a 14-0-1 record when Gore rushes for 80 yards or more (3-1-0 in the playoffs), and a 3-6-0 record when he is held under 50 yards. The 49ers offensive line and running back corp have excellent chemistry and are very difficult to stop once they get rolling. Even after Kaep took over, it was the excellent run blocking and gritty performances from Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James that helped establish the offense. Against the Seahawks and Colts, Greg Roman tried to reduce the ground attack, and as a result the 49ers offense looked lost.

Wide Receivers:

You cannot overstate the lack of receiving talent the 49ers possess. This is not meant as an excuse for Kaep; it is simply a factor in what the 49ers can do against good defenses, and the options they have when trying to move the ball. Other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, no one has stepped up and proven themselves as a threat. Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams have been non-existent, and the highly touted rookie Quinton Patton has been sidelined with an injury. Thus far, the 49ers have been surviving on great defense and the ground attack, and that may be all they have until Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham return. After Crabtree’s injury, I wrote a post about why it wasn’t the end of the world. I cited Kaep’s ability to throw to multiple receivers and creative play calling as good reasons not to worry. Thus far, neither has proven true.

Confidence and Experience:

The game against the Texans was Kaep’s 17th start. He is a very talented, inexperienced quarterback and is playing like one. The offense looked shaky against Seattle and Indianapolis, but this isn’t necessarily surprising. Kaep’s game seems to depend on confidence, both in himself and his team, and he hasn’t exhibited the same never-say-die swagger we saw last season. This does not mean his confidence isn’t there, or that last season was a fluke. After two wins, the 49ers are building up steam and learning what is working early in the season. The 49ers offense isn’t a static thing; it must evolve as Kaepernick improves and exhibits greater awareness. Forcing Kaep to pass against strong defenses didn’t work. The 49ers are facing some weaker teams in the coming weeks, and he will have some great opportunities to move the ball through the air. If you were to look at Andrew Luck or Russel Wilson’s first sixteen games, you would see the same mistakes. What put those quarterbacks in the playoffs was their coaches’ willingness to let them improve slowly and learn the offense. Kaep may be more experienced, but he clearly has plenty to learn and the 49ers need to recognize this.

The Many Faces of Kaep:

We have seen many different Kaepernicks. The Kaep that made plays with his arm against Green Bay in week 1 and picked apart the Patriots last season is different than the Kaep that broke the Packers with the read option in the playoffs, or the Kaep that started slow before he led two comebacks in the playoffs last year. We have also seen Kaep look intimidated and unsure, jerking around in the pocket before throwing an incomplete pass or interception. Most recently, we have seen Kaep the ‘game manager’, a taller, faster Alex Smith impersonator. The good and bad thing about Kaep is that he can be any of these things, but doesn’t seem to have great control of which shows up on any given week. Inconsistency is another rookie tendency, and it will only be really worrisome if it is still a problem next year. He played his heart out in 2012 to earn the starting job, but looks indecisive now that he’s made it. If we start to see a balanced offense that mixes the best of what Kaep can do with a power running game, the 49ers will be in good shape.

Conservative Playcalling and Winning the Turnover Battle:

Kaep has thrown 4 interceptions this season, all of them while Roman was calling a pass-heavy offensive attack. The 49ers defense has done a great job of forcing turnovers, and conservative playcalling has helped the 49ers win the turnover battle. Although it may not be exciting to watch, winning the turnover battle is crucial against contenders like the Colts or Seahawks. If a strong ground attack and an aggressive defense means the 49ers win games, I am all for it.

I guess what I am trying to say is ‘small sample size’. No, this isn’t baseball, and the 49ers have a pretty limited window to let Kaep develop, but it is too early to say anything definitive about him. This season, we have seen Kaep succeed and fail as a passer. It is important that he and the coaches figure out what is working and keep the ball moving. If we are still asking the same questions by week 12, we should start to worry. Until then, let’s keep feeding Frank and building momentum. How Kaep recovers after stumbling the last couple of weeks will be a good test of his leadership. He is the quarterback, and nothing I have seen since he replaced Alex Smith leads me to believe that he will back down from this challenge. Go Niners!

Texans at 49ers: Red and Gold Domination

texans2Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in last week. The 49ers won big, but that fact is refracted through Matt Schaub’s three interceptions. Depending on who you ask, the 49ers dominated or the Texans handed them the game. I do agree that the Texans offense, other than Arian Foster, was off on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean the 49ers had no hand in this one-sided game. Even if Schaub had been solid, this was still a winnable game for San Francisco. They were playing with a ferocity we haven’t seen yet and executing on both sides of the ball. There is a lot of good and a little bad worth mentioning, so without further ado:

The Good Things:

Depth: Depth is important (see: San Francisco Giants 2013 season), and with three defensive starters out of the game, it is important that somebody steps up. Patrick Willis and Nmandi Asomugha were sidelined with injuries, and Tramaine Brock and Michael Wilhoite stepped in. Both were excellent replacements; Brock’s two interceptions were back breakers, and Wilhoite was a beast against the Texans’ powerful run game. After Ray McDonald left the game with a biceps injury, backup defensive tackle Tony Jerrod-Eddie came in and picked off Shaub. We saw flashes of the 49ers’ depth in the preseason; the 49ers defense only allowed two touchdowns in two preseason games. It is good to see that the defense can still function at a high level even after losing a leader like Patrick Willis.

Turnovers: Matt Shaub has been struggling with interceptions lately, but you cannot discount the 49ers’ efforts. Both of Brock’s picks were the result of an excellent read. The 49ers out-schemed the Texans, putting their cornerbacks in position to make plays on the ball. Schaub’s poor decisions helped the 49ers a lot, but Donte (w)Hitner’s strip of Ben Tate in the 4th quarter was the result of a hungry defense trying to keep up the pressure.

Pass Defense: The 49ers did a great job covering the Texans’ big, physical receiving corp. Only Owen Daniels had any marked success against a secondary that looked leaps and bounds ahead of where it left off last year. The pass rush helped to pressure Schaub into overthrowing his receivers, but it was some excellent coverage that kept the Texans from building any momentum in the passing game.

Penalties: The 49ers had their least penalized game of the season, only losing 17 yards on three penalties. The first penalty was a questionable pass interference call on Tarell Brown, and the last was a meaningless 4th quarter delay of game call on Andy Lee. This was great to see; the Niners cleaning up their play after so many disheartening injuries is a sign that they are still working hard to improve.

The Run Game: Although Frank Gore led the charge, the 49ers rolled out all five backs and even gave Kyle Williams a few running yards with a nicely executed trick play on the first drive. The 49ers garnered a total of 177 yards rushing, punching through a defensive line that Gore described as the best he has ever faced. It was logical, given the early lead, that the 49ers control the clock and run the ball. It is nice to see how well the ground attack can work when the team commits. We have already heard a lot about how the Texans gave this game away, but the success of San Francisco’s run game played a huge role in the win as well. The 49ers were able to run all over the Texans #1 ranked defense, keeping them off balance the whole game.

Bad Thing:

Run Defense: The 49ers run defense gave up 131 yards to the Texans, coughing up 100+ yards for the third time this season. It didn’t help the Texans win, but it wasn’t good to see either. The 49ers D-line struggled against Foster; he was able to cut past them and into the secondary eight times, gaining five yards or more with each run. The defensive line has taken some hits, and Foster is a remarkably good back, but the 49ers will need to improve against the run if they want to be able to shut down offenses like they have the past few years.

Other Things:

Confidence: This game may not have been the best example of everything the Niners can do, but it was great for the team’s confidence. As Gore said after the game, this was a team effort, and it was nice to see some offensive and defensive synergy after three weeks of confusion. The 49ers haven’t been themselves lately, and this game was a good wake up call. They have weathered one of the toughest early schedules in the league, facing four playoff teams, and came out a game up. The coming weeks will be a little less brutal, but it is important that the team get some confidence back.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep’s journey this year has been an interesting one, despite his struggles, and the 49ers are doing the right thing by simplifying things for him. I saw a lot of good signs on Sunday; he looked more calm and sure of himself, facing the Texans’ nasty pass rush with poise and making the plays that needed to be made. He didn’t have a great passing game, but many incompletions were the result of good coverage by the Texans’ secondary. He looked great on the first 49ers drive, leading a balanced attack to the Texans’ 1 yard line before giving the ball to Gore to seal the deal. Kaep isn’t ready to take over the offense yet; he is playing the role of ‘game manager’, but the 49ers are winning games. Once he gets some more solid experience under his belt and the 49ers get some of their injured receivers back, we may see some more Kaepernick fastballs. Until then, what’s the hurry?

49ers vs. Texans

Candlestick-Park-Upper-Deck-near-the-Players-Entrance-49ers-vs-Giants-San-Francisco-California-2011-11-13

After a long rest, the 49ers return to Candlestick to play the Texans. This will be an interesting matchup; the teams are very similar, with elite defenses and running backs along with quarterbacks who have disappointed as of late. Everyone knows what happened to the Texans last week, but anyone saying Matt Schaub gave that game up isn’t looking at the bigger picture. As much as 49ers fans may hate to admit it, the Seattle Seahawks defense did a great job in the second half, stopping six Texans drives and forcing two turnovers. Schaub made a terrible decision, no doubt, but the whole offense was struggling late in the game. What does that mean for the 49ers? Taking away the run game and forcing Schaub to pass will be crucial. This will be no easy feat; Arian Foster and Ben Tate aren’t pushovers, and it will be a big test for the 49ers depleted D-line. Here is what I will be watching for:

Colin Kaepernick: A lot has been made of Kaep’s ‘regression’ in the last three games. Many claim that this is due to the flukiness of the read option, and that opposing defenses have figured Kaep out. I have not enjoyed Kaep’s work thus far, but I do think it is way too soon to be making any kind of judgement. He has a lot to learn, and needs to calm down in the pocket, but that isn’t surprising considering his lack of experience. The coaching staff has realized that they need to slow things down. Forcing Kaep to throw a lot hasn’t done the team any good. He hasn’t been the only young quarterback struggling; Russel Wilson and Robert Griffin III have also been underwhelming. I am hoping Kaep takes the opportunities the Texans give him. The Texans’ defense struggled to catch Russel Wilson, giving up 77 yards to the diminutive quarterback and allowing him to extend drives, and it would be great to see Kaep do the same.

Penalties: Flags continue to be a problem for the 49ers. They are averaging 85 yards lost per game. It goes without saying that this cannot continue if they want to keep adding to the win column. There has been a lot of noise about Donte (W)hitner’s hit on Chris Givens, but this issue goes beyond the new rules. The 49ers play physical football, and this means penalties will remain an issue to some extent. However, if the 49ers continue to kill drives (or keep their opponents rolling) with penalties, they will be in bad shape when they take on elite teams like the Saints.

Special Teams: Special teams has been much improved this year, and it is important that this continues. The return game is certainly lacking, and Phil Dawson hasn’t been perfect, but the 49ers aren’t giving up great field position to opposing teams. It is crucial that they keep the Texans’ return game under control.