49ers at Washington: Return of the Smith Brothers

Ricky Carioti

Ricky Carioti

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the 49ers’ game against Washington was the most satisfying of the season thus far. Out-pointing or out-scheming an inferior team is great, but the 49ers utterly dominated Washington. The prevailing narrative before and no doubt after the game is that the 49ers are only capable of beating bad teams, and this isn’t necessarily incorrect. Washington has one of the worst defenses in the league, and it was important to keep this in mind as the dust cleared. They also have several highly functional parts, including the league’s best rushing attack in terms of yards per game, and the 4th best offensive line per Pro Football Focus. The 49ers offense dismantling Washington wasn’t surprising, but simply saying a good team beat a bad team doesn’t tell the whole story. The 49ers showcased several new and exciting changes in each phase of the game, which left me feeling more hopeful about this season than I have in the past. Here is what I saw:

Good Things:

Defense

The 49ers defense seems to get better every week. Aldon Smith had a huge night, but he was just a piece of a smothering defensive effort. Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Donte Whitner, Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and even Carlos Rogers had big days, flattening Washington’s attack and keeping them out of the end zone the whole game. There is no better example of defensive dominance than Washington’s first drive in the second half. After recovering a Vernon Davis fumble, Robert Griffin III took over at the 49ers 49 yard line. The 49ers were only up by four points, and had to keep Washington bottled up. After surrendering 8 yards to Alfred Morris and a short pass to Santana Moss, the defense managed to stop the drive: Roy Helu ran right on 4rd down, but was stuffed for only one yard by Willis and Bowman. The 49ers slim lead was preserved, and the stop allowed the offense to put together a 61 yard scoring drive. The defense was great all day, but particularly in these do-or-die moments. They held Morris to 52 yards rushing, his lowest since week 1, and kept RGIII from making any big plays.

Pass Rush

Yes, pass rush is part of the defense, but it still deserves its own mention. As I mentioned above, the defense was pitted against an excellent offensive line and still found ways to pancake RGIII all night long. Aldon Smith made Pro-Bowl tackle Trent Williams look foolish, finishing the game with 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit 5 hurries on 23 rushing plays, meaning he was able to reach and harass RGIII on 35% of his plays. The Smith brothers have returned to mid-2012 form, complementing what has already become a career-best season for Ahmad Brooks. The pass rush has been good, if inconsistent, for most of the season, but it seems to be clicking at the perfect time. Ray McDonald’s return to the front seven will only make this defense stronger… a scary thought for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.

Offense

It was another slow start, but the 49ers offense looked wholly competent for the first time in weeks. Colin Kaepernick enjoyed great protection the whole game, and made some incredible plays. He wasn’t perfect; one of his passes was nearly picked off thanks to a poor decision to throw into double coverage. All that said, it was an aggressive, dynamic attack that highlighted his accuracy and big play ability. He also spread the ball out more than any other game this season, getting Mario Manningham involved with 4 catches and even hitting a wide open Vance McDonald with a 23 yard pass late in the game.

LaMichael James

The sad truth about the 49ers’ return game is that James could have walked all of his returns and would have gained more yards that Kyle Williams. The coaching staff has smartly given Williams return duties, allowing him to work in the open field and show off his incredible speed. He already looks better than Williams or Ted Ginn Jr. and will only get better with practice. His 125 yard game came against one of the worst coverage units in the league, but is hopefully a sign of great things to come.

Bad Thing:

Run Game

The 49ers finished the game with 76 rushing yards on 33 attempts, averaging 2.3 yards per attempt. Washington followed the blueprint of other teams, stacking the box and forcing the 49ers to throw the ball, which helped contribute to a season-low in rushing yards. Frank Gore was only given 13 touches, but had a great day pass blocking and setting up play-action throws. The run game has all but disappeared over the last three weeks, something that is partially the result of defenses selling out to stop the run and partially pass-heavy play calling. However, it isn’t clear why Greg Roman is holding Gore back. My bet is that he is saving him for the playoffs, but doing so may hamstring the offense against better defensive teams like Arizona and Seattle. There is certainly some logic to keeping Gore rested for the postseason, but with the Wildcard race tightening, the 49ers will need him to be put him in the position to contribute.

Other Thing:

Play Calling

Roman gets a reprieve from accusations of ineptitude this week. The 49ers game plan took a while to take shape, but it attacked Washington’s secondary consistently and kept their defense reeling. His tricky play calling payed major dividends at the end of the 49ers’ final drive of the 3rd quarter. After picking up 20 yards with Gore and Kaepernick runs, Washington lined up on their one yard line, confident that the 49ers would try to drive the ball up the gut with another run. Instead, Kaep floated a pass to a wide open Vernon Davis, who cut away from the line of scrimmage at the last second. The offense looked prepped and ready, and didn’t get in their own way too much. Hopefully, Roman can find a way to integrate the run game in with the offense we saw on Monday. It wasn’t a flawless game for Roman, given his inability to get the ground attack going, but it was a step in the right direction.

49ers vs. Washington: What to Watch For

Washington+Redskins+v+San+Francisco+49ers+5I_lhECta9HlThe 49ers take on Washington tomorrow on Monday Nigh Football. This game will be interesting for a number of reasons; the NFC West now plays host to three contenders, and the 49ers need to get their offense going if they want to make it to the playoffs. Arizona’s bizarre rise makes the next slate of games very interesting. The if the 49ers can get hot in the next few weeks, they have an outside shot at overtaking Seattle in the division. Given their poor play recently, it seems very unlikely, but it is still too soon to rule anything out. Here is what to watch for tomorrow:

Run Defense: Washington is 3-7 thanks to their poor defense and some inconsistent play from Robert Griffin III. However, they have had tremendous success running the ball, averaging 155 yards per game. The 49ers run defense hasn’t been as staunch as it has in the past, but they have improved against the pass. Vic Fangio has used a more balanced approach this season, but this would be an excellent game to stack the box and keep Alfred Morris at bay. Forcing Washington’s offense to stay one dimensional will allow the 49ers’ secondary to make plays and force turnovers.

Offensive Line: The o-line has been inconsistent, performing well at times but generally not rising to the challenge over the last two weeks. This may have to do with the reduced emphasis on the run, which has left the whole offense out of synch. Additionally, Mike Iupati was ruled out and will be replaced by backup guard Adam Snyder. This will be a great chance for the o-line to bounce back, but whether or not that happens will hinge on Greg Roman and the offensive strategy the 49ers bring.

Offense: Much like week 4 against the Texans, the 49ers will have a good shot at dispelling what has been plaguing them over the last couple of weeks. Washington’s glaring weakness is their defense which is ranked 31st in the league in points per game. A calm, conservative and efficient game from Colin Kaepernick and a strong day from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter should be enough for the 49ers to come away with a big road win. Look for Vernon Davis to play a major role as well; Washington’s secondary will be hard pressed to stop him in the red zone.

LaMichael James: Washington has arguably the worst special teams coverage in the league, and it will be interesting to see how James fares. He has already outperformed the hapless Kyle Williams in return duties, and will no doubt be given plenty of chances to break out tomorrow. If the 49ers’ offense struggles to get off the ground early in the game, field position will play a major role in setting the tone. James can prove the doubters wrong by exposing the cracks in Washington’s coverage unit.

On the Seahawks, Comebacks and Luck

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I habitually read the comment threads on sports posts, whether they be blogs or NFL.com listicles. Besides being an absolutely awful way to spend my time, this allows me to check the pulse of the average internet-using 49ers fans. One of the more compelling trends in comments and tweets relate to the Seahawks and their recent success. After some ugly wins against the Rams and Buccaneers, 49ers fans popped up in droves, claiming that the Seahawks had been ‘exposed’, and that their luck was running out. It is unwise to take these kind of claims too seriously. They are mostly just wishful thinking that is as much the result of watching the 49ers struggle as anything else. Nonetheless, I think it is a viewpoint worth addressing.

The problem with ugly wins is simple: they are wins. It is easy to look at the ways Seattle failed to contain Zac Stacy and Mike Glennon as indicative of some kind of struggle, but ugliness doesn’t factor in the win column. The Seahawks are winning ugly and they are also dominating teams, and currently sit at the top of the NFC. They are a beatable team, on the road or at home, and all it takes is the right gameplan. However, as long as they keep winning games, nothing is really being ‘exposed’.

The question of luck isn’t as simple. Again, what is luck from a 49ers’ fan perspective looks like good football from a Seattle fan’s perspective. The 49ers have had a lot of bad luck this year. They have been hit hard by injuries, losing starters on both sides of the ball and hoping that second and third string players can fill the gaps. Seattle hasn’t been hit as hard by injuries; the offensive line was banged up early on, but they have kept all of their key offensive and defensive role-players in every game. Two of Seattle’s closest wins have been the result of late turnovers; DeAngelo Williams’ fumble late in week 1 and Matt Schaub’s pick-six in week 4 both came up in Seattle’s favor. The 49ers were in a similar position when they faced the Panthers: the Niners’ defense forced two fumbles on Carolina’s final drive, but neither was recovered. If you look at a fumble as a roughly 50% opportunity for the defense to recover, Seattle’s drive stopping recovery was fortunate, while the 49ers’ missed chance was not. On Carolina’s first fumble, the ball bounced in and out of Donte Whitner’s hands. Anyone seeing that would call it bad luck. Luck is semi-perceptible, and the annoying fact is that it keeps going one team’s way until it doesn’t.

If you aren’t satisfied with these explanations, that’s fine. I’m not either. I took a look at Seattle’s wins since Russell Wilson arrived and picked up a bit of a trend: the Seahawks have a lot of comebacks. I took all the starting quarterbacks in the league (omitting the Bills, Buccaneers, Jets, Browns, Vikings, Titans, Raiders and Cardinals given their recent fluctuation at the position) and found out how often they ‘comeback’ and what percentage of their wins those comebacks accounted for. Two quarterbacks stood out: Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. Wilson averages about 24% comebacks/games, leading fourth-quarter comebacks in a quarter of his games, while Luck averages 26%. While it may seem silly to look at a season and a half as evidence for any kind of trend, take Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Ryan Tannehill. All three are close to or below the league average (14.8%) with 15%, 15% and 8% respectively, after playing for as long as Wilson and Luck.

To be fair to the youth of Luck and Wilson, I looked at the first few seasons of every Super Bowl winning quarterback since 2000, and compared them with the first few seasons of some recent memorable draft-bust quarterbacks. The average comeback percentage of Super Bowl winners in their early seasons was 11% (about two games in a 16 game season). My busts included Jason Campbell, Tim Tebow and Alex Smith, and averaged out at 13% in their early years. In other words, Luck and Wilson’s numbers stand out amongst their peers.

There is more of a correlation between comebacks and Super Bowl-winning seasons, but only one team since 2000 has won the Super Bowl with a comeback percentage higher than 31%. Eli Manning is the only quarterback with Super Bowl seasons that correlate with a large amount of 4th quarter comebacks, and his comeback ability took four years in the league to manifest (his comeback percentage in his first three seasons was a measly 3%). All quarterbacks that have enjoyed perennial success in the league follow the mean comeback percentage; frequent comebacks do not correlate with long-term success. The Falcons, who led the league with five comebacks last year en route to winning the division, are 2-9 this season.

Comebacks are fun to watch but monumentally difficult to orchestrate; they require a confluence of luck and skill, and often depend on the other team making mistakes. There is no better example of this than Seattle’s comeback against the Buccaneers. The overtime victory over Tampa Bay was a franchise record, and, with the perfect storm of poor play by Seattle, marked the first time such a game has occurred in five years. The last time a team with a winning record threw two or more interceptions, gave up 200 yards rushing and 21 points to a team with a losing record and won was a 31-27 Falcons win over the Rams in 2008. The 2008 Rams were in the midst of a 2-14 season, while the Falcons went 11-5 en route to losing in the wildcard round of the playoffs. The absurdity of the Seahawks’ comeback may have set a record, but it shouldn’t be a point of pride.

When a team successfully employs the luck, skill and adjustments that go into comebacks, it is easy to praise them for having ‘heart’ and ‘never saying die’. However, comebacks can also been seen as almost-losses. Seattle is a team that thrives on energy and momentum, and their ability and fortune when making plays in losing games is commendable. However, they, like everyone else, will regress to a mean.

I am not saying the Seahawks are doomed or even close to becoming a bad team. However, when a team with a top-ranked defense surrenders enough points or cannot hold leads well enough to bump the team’s comeback percentage 10% above league average, they have problems. Moreover, the Seahawks’ comebacks over the last two years are split, three at home and four on the road, which is strange for a team that prides itself on its home field advantage.. The real test for the Seahawks is whether their offense will continue to succeed without comebacks. It isn’t something they can count on forever.

49ers at Saints: Picking Up the Pieces

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Dave Martin, AP Photo

The 49ers drop their second straight game, moving to a 6-4 tie with the Arizona Cardinals. Games like this are difficult to write about. It is my job to parse the many factors of each game in order to come to some understanding of the outcome. Vastly different amounts of strategy, talent, skill and luck go into each win or loss, which is what makes analysis fun. It is difficult when factors which neither team can control influence the game at crucial points; when the outcome of the game is out of the hands of each team, analysis reaches a dead end. The 49ers did not play well, but they played well enough to win. The officiating demands discussion, but that will come later. Here is what I saw:

Good Things:

Defense

I can’t think of a game this season where the defense didn’t play well. Despite an inconsistent pass rush, the 49ers managed to make big stops through the whole game. They managed to hold the Saints under 100 yards rushing, and mitigated the damage done by Drew Brees’ arm. Most importantly, they kept the game within reach of the offense, and made some great adjustments in the second half. It wasn’t the harrying, sack happy defense I was hoping for, but it did its job. Vic Fangio has done a great job integrating young players into the 49ers system; this will be an exciting defensive unit to watch for years to come.

Red Zone Execution

The sole high point of the 49ers’ offense was their red zone play calling. Scoring points off of turnovers has been the 49ers bread and butter so far, and the 17 points they scored after an interception, a touchback after a Saints interception and a muffed punt were the result of some bold play calling. The third red zone appearance nearly resulted in a touchdown, but a missed holding call held the 49ers to three points (more on that later).

Bad Things:

Offense

The 49ers offense wasn’t totally awful, but it wasn’t nearly good enough. Facing down a stacked box, Greg Roman shelved Frank Gore in favor of a shaky passing attack. Rather than wearing down the Saints’ mediocre front seven, Colin Kaepernick played another confusing, stop-and-go game. For the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, it looks as if the coaching staff is out of synch with the talent on the roster. The 49ers put together a five game winning streak by shoving the best rushing attack in opponents’ faces, only to give up on it against better teams. The best example is a much-maligned play call in the 2nd quarter; on 3rd and 2, Roman called for speedy halfback LaMichael James to run up the gut. Rather than calling for marquee power back Gore or even Bruce Miller to grind the ball for two yards, James got the handoff and was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

For two years, the 49ers’ coaches have been excellent at identifying the talents of their players and using them effectively. This year has been a struggle; many players are seeing limited use, like Gore, while others are being tasked with things that they are not ready for, like Kaepernick. The source of this confusion isn’t clear, but the answer is obvious. The 49ers are a running team, and, until Kaep has some healthy receivers and builds some confidence in the pocket, they will remain a running team.

Special Teams

Despite starting the year strong, the 49ers special teams has shown some weaknesses. A week after struggling to contain Ted Ginn Jr., the 49ers gave up an 82 yard return to 2nd string return man Travaris Cadet. This resulted in an easy touchdown for the Saints, keeping them in the game, and erasing the 49ers’ chance to hold the lead until halftime. Given their recent success, I would chalk this up more to bad luck than anything. Look for the special teams to return to form against Washington.

The 4th Quarter

For the third time in two weeks, the 49ers had an opportunity to win the game with a scoring drive in the 4th quarter. In both cases, the 49ers simply had to get into field goal range. In both cases, the 49ers failed to cross the 50 yard line. The play calling the 4th quarter has been horrible; rather than dialing up a clock-eating drive, Roman has watched the offense fall flat. In these drives, Kaep was sacked three times, due to both coverage and hesitation in the pocket. The defense has done a great job of keeping the lead within reach, but this has been squandered by an offense that seems to shrink at the biggest moments.

Other Things:

Eric Mangini

After two head-scratching challenges in the first half, Harbaugh was asked about his lack of restraint. He acknowledged that newly-appointed offensive advisor Mangini had told him to challenge, which is the first time Mangini has been mentioned since the offseason. For those who don’t remember, or actually had important things to worry about during the offseason, Eric Mangini was given a job as an offensive consultant before the season began. His role in the challenge gaffe is interesting; many people are wondering what caused the 49ers offense to change so drastically since last season, and Mangini may provide an answer. There is no way to explicitly see Mangini’s influence, and his addition is less significant to the offense than, say, the loss of Michael Crabtree, but it is worth considering. Nobody can say whether or not Mangini has a direct hand in the 49ers’ offensive ineptitude, but simply having another voice in the room may have contributed to the confused spectacle that is the offense.

Officiating

Check out my full writeup of the poor effort by the referees here.

Robbed

Jason O. Watson, U.S. Presswire

Jason O. Watson, U.S. Presswire

Bad officiating happens all the time. Mistakes are made every game, by every crew, working for and against every team in every sport. The hope is that it somehow evens out, allowing each team to compete in relative fairness. The 49ers have no doubt benefited from poor officiating this season, but I cannot see this game as one that allowed the teams to play fairly. The main complaint is around the personal foul on Drew Brees, which kept the Saints’ game-tying drive alive, but the fact is the officiating was terrible in all four quarters.

Early in the 1st quarter, Saints defensive back Jabari Greer held Jon Baldwin in front of a referee, but was not called. Greer was injured on the play, and because Baldwin didn’t catch Kaep’s pass, the drive stalled. The foul was so obvious that commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman highlighted it in a replay that was meant to find out how Greer was injured.

Later on, the 49ers enter the 4th quarter with a six point lead, putting together their best drive of the day. On 3rd and 9 from New Orleans’ 11 yard line, Vernon Davis dropped a pass from Kaep in the corner of the endzone after being flagrantly held by Saints safety Rafael Bush. Again, the commentators spotted the foul, which occurred in front of a ref. The drive stalled, and the 49ers were forced to kick a field goal. A screenshot of the hold appeared on the internet shortly after the game:

HOLDING

These non-calls came on crucial third downs, and killed potentially touchdown scoring drives.

The infamous strip sack on Brees came at the end of this display, capping off a day of questionable calls by Tony Corrente and his crew. The sack was quickly .gifed after it occurred, which highlighted the violence of the hit. I have watched the video and .gif several times, and at no point during the tackle does Ahmad Brooks ‘go after’ Brees’ head or neck. See the .gif here.

Brooks grabs Brees around the shoulder, hitting him hard and loosening his grip on the ball. Brees falls, his head lapsing into the crook of Brooks’ arm, which is apparently the cause of the foul. Brooks tackles the quarterback soundly, a skill he has learned in his seven years in the NFL. In order to avoid touching Brees’ head, his options were:

  1. Fall down (not sound tackling)
  2. Reverse his momentum away from Brees (not sound tackling, not physically possible)
  3. Drop his arms for no reason (not sound tackling)

There is no debate about the cleanliness of the hit. The only debate that should be had is whether this is a case of a bad call or a bad rule. If you ask me, its both. This rule is meant to protect quarterbacks, but a rather astute comparison with a sack on the 49ers’ next drive challenges this idea:

SACK

Brooks was rightfully incensed after the game, questioning whether the site of the game and the profile of the quarterback influenced the referee’s call. He also called into question the NFL’s mandate of player protection, in particular with regard to cut blocks. The 49ers lost nose tackle Ian Williams in week 2 on a brutal cut block by a Seattle Seahawks lineman, which was criticized by the defense.

I am not going to rant about the increasingly protective rules of football, because I believe players should be protected. This was a case of horrible, horrible officiating favoring a home team. Brooks’ hit was just one part of a consistently lackadaisical effort by Tony Corrente and co. When we take the time to watch sports, our enjoyment is predicated on an assumption of fairness. The 49ers lost the game for a number of reasons, which is difficult to swallow on its own. The fact that we spent an otherwise beautiful day in San Francisco watching referees utterly fail to do their job properly is worse.

UPDATE:

Ray Lewis voiced his support for Brooks after the game. Watch the video here.

49ers vs. Saints: What to Watch For

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

 

Tomorrow the 49ers take the field against the Saints in what feels like the biggest game of the season. The 49ers are still on track to make it to the playoffs, but whether or not they can hang with the better teams in the NFC remains in doubt. The team needs to come into this game with a flawless game plan and execute perfectly. This is a game the 49ers can win, especially if they play to their strengths. Keeping the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands will be crucial, which means a disruptive defense and the same relentless ground attack the Niners used against the Rams and Cardinals. There will be no room for cuteness in this game, and Greg Roman knows it. Here is what to watch for:

Pass Rush

The 49ers pass rushers looked great last week, harrying Cam Newton and doing their part in limiting the Panthers to 10 points. The Saints’ offensive line isn’t great, and the pass rush arsenal of Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks will be in a great position to wreck the Saints’ aerial attack. It is important that the Saints struggle to get into any kind of an offensive rhythm; an offense as high-powered as New Orleans’ can run away with the game if given the chance.

Play Calling

The 49ers will need to control the ball through all four quarters, which means a robust ground game. The Saints are mediocre against the run, a weakness that was highlighted when they struggled to stop the Jets’ Chris Ivory. Roman needs to dial up strong running plays to keep the Saints’ defense on its heels, using the 49ers’ running back depth to move the ball consistently. This will prevent the game from becoming a shoot out, which the 49ers simply do not have the offensive firepower to win. The Saints will be ready for the ground game, but if the offensive line can bounce back and power Frank Gore through some tough runs, the Niners should be able to dictate the course of the game.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep played a career-worst game last week, and will need to bounce back with a vengeance to keep his team in the game. He will need to show a lot more composure than he did against the Panthers and make plays while facing down the Saints’ front seven. Kaep will need to take control of the game early on and quiet down the crowd, making the plays that have to be made without forcing throws or dancing around outside the pocket. It is clear that Mario Manningham’s return isn’t enough to make the 49ers’ passing offense relevant; a strong, efficient game from Kaep will be enough to keep the 49ers rolling.

Vernon Davis

Davis has played out of his mind this season, and will need to be his usual, incredible self tomorrow. His skills in blocking and receiving were sorely missed last week, and he will be key to driving the offense. His ability to stretch the field, not to mention his value as a red zone threat, will be essential against an excellent Saints secondary. Whether or not the Saints are able to contain Davis will be a huge factor tomorrow.

Donte Whitner

Look at this tackle!

 

 

Panthers at 49ers: Chill Out

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AP

The 49ers are 6-3 after losing a nasty game against the Carolina Panthers. The playoffs are drawing closer, meaning the reactions to yesterday’s game are amplified. There has been a lot of freaking out by the fan base; calling for Colin Kaepernick or Greg Roman’s head isn’t new, and it isn’t helpful. It wasn’t the weakest the team has looked this season, but it was certainly the worst showing by the offense in a while. It was also a low-scoring, one point game, where a few crucial plays meant a whole lot more than they normally would. Both teams played superb defense, but not even that could make it fun to watch. There are reasons to freak out; the implications of potentially losing four starters for an undisclosed amount of time are serious. The offense was utterly inept, but placing that solely on the shoulders of Kaepernick isn’t fair or correct. My observations:

The Good Thing

Defense: The real tragedy of this game is how well the defense played. Even after losing Ray McDonald and Eric Reid, the Niners D brought what looked to me like their best defensive effort this season. They pressured Cam Newton all day, and didn’t let up at any point in the game. The defense looked gassed by the end of the Seattle and Indianapolis games, but didn’t show much exhaustion against Carolina. Dan Skuta and Ahmad Brooks were huge, and Tramaine Brock continued his ballhawking ways with a 41 yard interception return.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep had a career-worst day, was sacked six times and threw a game-ending pick in the 4th quarter. There was plenty of debate about his abysmal showing, and a lot of god-awful ‘we should never have gotten rid of Alex Smith’ talk after the game. There are reasons to worry about Kaep, but many of the mistakes he has made betray his lack of experience rather than a lack of talent. He has struggled with pocket awareness, and needs to learn when to bail on a broken play and throw the ball out of bounds. He also has had trouble going through progressions, but these problems can be worked on and fixed. It is difficult to overstate the loss of Vernon Davis’ receiving talents. All too often I hear the phrase “You take away Kaepernick’s weapons, and what is he?” as if a second year starter is capable of playing at a high level without viable receivers. Losing his favorite target in Michael Crabtree and the team touchdown leader in Davis has an impact that Kaepernick can’t make up for. The Falcons have gone 2-7 after losing Roddy White and Julio Jones, because even Tony Gonzalez cannot make up for a receiving corps lacking two stars. I am not excusing Kaepernick’s shortcomings, but I think the 49ers’ struggles yesterday are more complex than what he could and could not do with Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and Anquan Boldin.

The Offensive Line: Carolina’s pass rush was, in my opinion, the difference in this game. The o-line’s inability to protect Kaepernick was evident in all four quarters, and must be addressed before the Niners head down south to face the Saints. Although Kaep showed a lot of hesitation and needlessly extended plays, it was easily the toughest pressure he has faced this season. The o-line’s success against the Texans and Rams’ blistering pass rushers tells me that yesterday’s ineptitude may have been an aberration, but this theory will be tested against New Orleans and Seattle.

Injuries: There isn’t a whole lot to say about this. Injuries are a part of the game, and have been a big part of the 49ers’ season. Their winning record is testament to the team’s depth and Jim Harbaugh’s ability to get players to go the extra mile. However, it is clear that there are some players the 49ers simply cannot lose. Vernon Davis is one of those, and the team’s play against the Colts and Panthers reflects this. There isn’t anything anyone can do about injuries, though, except say stop getting injured you danged Niners.

The Other Things

Run Game: Despite finding holes in Carolina’s front seven, Frank Gore saw below-average use on Sunday. Gore averaged 5.4 yards per carry against the Panthers, which makes his limited use all the more baffling. Jim Harbaugh commented that the lack of tight ends limited the Niners’ ability to set up power running plays. Ted Robinson also pointed out that the lost yardage from six sacks dictated the play calling; running the ball on 2nd and 15 is unwise, given Carolina’s tough defensive line. That said, it was another game where a stronger commitment to the run would have gone a long way. Roman’s stubbornness in this respect limited the team against Seattle and Indianapolis, and his ability to adjust to defenses needs to be seriously examined.

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

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The 49ers will take on the Carolina Panthers tomorrow, hoping to pick up their 6th straight win after a long road trip. This game will have a very different feel from the last few; the Panthers have momentum after winning four straight games, and possess a defense that matches up well with the 49ers. The general take on this game is that it is a test for San Francisco; they have run roughshod over some mediocre teams, but need to keep evolving if they want to hang with contenders like Carolina or New Orleans. This game will also be the debut of Tank Carradine and Eric Wright, as well as a homecoming for Aldon Smith and Mario Manningham. The 49ers can win this game, but they will have to stay out of their own way and force Cam Newton to make mistakes. Here’s what I will be watching for:

Defense: The 49ers defense must stay balanced and aggressive against Carolina; the Panthers have a lot of weapons and big play ability. That said, the Panthers haven’t faced many strong, physical defenses this season. The Seahawks were able to hold Cam Newton to 253 yards and a touchdown in week 1, and the Panthers also lost out against the defensive talent on the Bills and Cardinals. The last four games have allowed Carolina’s offense to gel, but if the Niners’ pass rush can get to Cam Newton they will be in great shape. Using Carradine and Smith effectively will be essential to stopping Carolina.

Run Game: Carolina has stared down two of the best backs in the league this season, limiting Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards and Adrian Peterson to 62 yards. That said, the 49ers have committed to the run and have an offensive line that can brutalize even a decorated defensive line like the Panthers. It will be interesting to see how much success Frank Gore has early on; if the Niners can keep the ground game going, it will keep Carolina’s defense out of synch. Otherwise, Roman will have to roll out a passing game that isn’t nearly as reliable.

Balance: The return of Mario Manningham is good for the team, but the 49ers shouldn’t ask too much of him in this game. A balanced offensive attack will be key to controlling the clock and allowing the 49ers defensive starters to rest. Relying too much on Kaep to make plays through the air hasn’t worked well in the past, and forcing throws will not fly against the Panthers’ talented secondary.

Chemistry: The last five games have been a team effort; the Niners’ tremendous depth has allowed them to fill in the gaps on defense after Patrick Willis’ injury and Smith’s departure. The 49ers need to continue to function as a team if they want to keep playing ’49ers football’. Playing hard-nosed, low-penalty games has helped San Francisco add to the win column; this style will be key to them building up momentum for the playoffs.

49ers at the Halfway Point

AP

AP

The sports world has been pretty busy for the last couple of weeks; some amazing and awful things happened that changed the tenor of the NFL. However, not even the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin debate can slow the implacable tide of baseless conjecture that follows each franchise. The 49ers are halfway through an up-and-down season, which has given pundits plenty to talk about. The catch all narratives of the Niners make it easier for SportsCenter to regurgitate half-formed projections and theories, but they often serve to mislead the viewer. Many sports blogs find a niche refuting this style of sports journalism, parsing what is said and why, and knocking down the opinions that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I have collected the most important stories following the 49ers, and provided clarity:

Good Story: The 49ers have returned to an offensive style that works.

Bad Story: The 49ers have a one-dimensional offense.

Reality: The 49ers run the ball really well, and pass when it counts.

A lot has been made of the 49ers offense in the last five weeks. After the pass-heavy, and largely unsuccessful attack wore out its welcome in week three, Greg Roman swallowed his pride and began using the tools his offense possesses to devastating effect. Frank Gore is not the stud back he was a few years ago, but he functions perfectly in what has become the best ground attack in the league. The annoying thing about this story is how it reflects on Colin Kaepernick. There are two other teams (Seahawks, Chiefs) using a similar strategy to win, but only the 49ers have been accused of one-dimensionality. Seattle has picked up 1323 yards rushing, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, the Chiefs have 1071 yards with 4.2 yards per attempt, and the 49ers have 1224 yards with 4.5 yards per attempt. The combined record of those three teams is 23-3. Jim Harbaugh and Roman have kept Kaep under control, and for good reason. The 49ers do not yet possess the depth at wideout to attack through the air consistently, which brings me to my next point…

Good Story: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

Bad Story: The 49ers cannot move the ball through the air.

Reality: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

After Crabtree’s injury went public, I wrote a post about Kaep’s ability to spread the ball around. I don’t think Kaep has been as unsuccessful throwing the ball as the numbers show; Kyle Williams’ ineptitude and the lack of any other option outside of Anquan Boldin means the 49ers are limited. The fact that they have been able to win five straight shows that this limitation has not ended their season. The return of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, if handled properly, could make this offense tough to stop. Three great receivers, all of whom have shown some level of chemistry with Kaep, paired with Vernon Davis and the aforementioned run game sounds pretty damn good to me.

Good Story: The 49ers have dominated the last five games.

Bad Story: The 49ers have only beaten bad teams.

Reality: The 49ers have won exactly the way they should win.

The 1-2 start may have been a good thing, after all. Losing to Seattle and Indianapolis showed the 49ers that they needed to get themselves together if they wanted to make it to the playoffs, and as a result they have steamrolled a decent slate of teams. The changes in the 49ers strategy and attitude go deeper than playcalling; remarkable special teams efforts, a lack of foolish penalties and a defense that can force turnovers have kept San Francisco’s opponents on their heels. The team has shown that it truly looks at every game as a crucial one, and they prepare accordingly. This attitude will be tested against Carolina, but it is clear that this team can bounce back when it needs to.

Good Story: The 49ers are set to get stronger/get hot before the playoffs.

Bad Story: The 49ers have plenty of challenges ahead.

Reality: The 49ers have a lot of work to do, but they are more than capable.

The return of Aldon Smith, Crabtree, Manningham and the highly-anticipated debut of Tank Carradine have a lot of fans excited, but it will be a challenge to fit them in with what has been working for the 49ers. They will be folding the above players into their gameplan, but how effective those players are will depend on how they are used. The team should give Gore more rest, but the run game must remain the centerpiece of their strategy. On defense, they need to limit the run a little better, but not sacrifice too much of their pass-prevention. The 49ers success in the last five weeks was made possible by excellent play from the whole team, from Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta, Kassim Osgood, Glenn Dorsey and Justin Smith. Star players returning to the roster is good, but how much of an impact they have will be decided by the coaching staff and whether or not the team can keep up the momentum.