49ers at Broncos: Nothing Learned

"Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers"Tim Rasmussen/Denver Post

The 49ers suffered their biggest loss of the season on Sunday Night Football, showing the football viewing world just how banged up they are, and little more. I would love to stick to my usual recap format, but this sort of game doesn’t lend itself well to dissection.

The only thing we learned Sunday is that the 49ers can’t perform well when a significant portion of the team is injured. This is nothing new, but it is important to keep in mind. Missing three All-Pro linebackers isn’t something that can be ironed out. Those of you convinced that Vic Fangio and Greg Roman were capable of out-scheming the Broncos might have been right, but then the backup’s backup got injured and everything fell apart. As much as we might like the potential of rookies like Dontae Johnson and Chris Borland, it’s a little ridiculous to expect them to do anything more than what they did on Sunday.

I’d like to say that Colin Kaepernick looked good, but it’s hard to really conclude anything when your offensive line costs you 53 offensive yards by giving up a season high 6 sacks. It’s doubly hard when multiple receivers drop good passes and cost the team points.

My point is that there are thresholds when it comes to injury. Often they are explanations, or to some people, excuses for a loss or a poor performance. However, when a team loses not only its Pro-Bowler core, but a hefty chunk of players outside of that core, there really isn’t much they can do. If there is a silver lining to a game like this, it is that the team we watched was not the 49ers, or at least, not the 49ers we’ve watched for the last three years. However, with luck, they will be whole soon.

49ers vs. Broncos: What I’ll Be Watching For

hi-res-1d3bb589be4d85706157e4833eb0ab16_crop_northMarcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers continue their road trip to Denver, where they will take on arguably the best team in the NFL. Everything about this game screams danger. The 49ers are coming off a short week, and will be without the services of Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati. Denver has been pretty much perfect this season; their lone loss came in overtime on the road in Seattle. I firmly believe that this 49ers team can win this game, but it will take some incredible execution and a lot of luck. Here’s what I will be looking for:

Run Game

This is easily the most critical element of this game. The run game not only needs to be consistent, but it also needs to chew up the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning. Football Outsiders ranks the Broncos second in defensive DVOA, but I would rank them a shade lower. Other than the Chiefs and Seahawks, they haven’t faced many teams that boast a quality ground game. They gave up 262 yards to Kansas City and Seattle, showing that they can be beat on the ground, but the 49ers will be working with a banged up offensive line.

Mental Preparedness

Every game is, to some extent, won on the practice field and in the classroom. The 49ers are playing one of the most prolific passers in the league, someone who has been doing the same thing really, really well for 17 seasons. After the Seattle Seahawks shut down Denver’s offense in the Super Bowl, they credited their success to preparation, studying what had worked against the Broncos in 2013. Even shorthanded, the 49ers are talented and physical enough to do something similar, but that talent needs to be backed up by a week of perfect study and practice.

Rookies

The 49ers are starting a lot of rookies on defense, including Chris Borland, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson. Manning will no doubt work to exploit their inexperience, making this a huge game for the 49ers class of 2014. If Borland, Ward and Johnson are able to step up and keep the ball in front of them, the defense should be able to hold. However, expecting too much of these rookies could prove to be a costly mistake.

49ers at Rams: Kaepernick Steps Up

boldinnnAP Photo/Scott Kane

The 49ers won a wild game against the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football, moving to 4-2 and 1-1 against NFC West opponents. There was a lot to take away from this game; the 49ers looked totally helpless for most of the first quarter, but pulled things together in a hurry. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

This was Kaep’s best game of the season, hands down. Until Monday, it was hard to tell whether or not Kaep was ever going to take control of the offense. We had seen him make some incredible throws, but he hadn’t looked dominant in a game like he did against the Rams. His stat line (22-36, 3 TD 0 INT, good for a 120.5 rating) doesn’t tell the full story, as Vernon Davis had numerous drops and broke up an easy touchdown pass to Vance McDonald in the 4th quarter. Kaepernick was a delight to watch, showing poise in the pocket and looking like a player wholly deserving of a long-term contract. Also worth noting: Kaep spread the ball around really well, involving everyone from Bruce Miller to Anquan Boldin. The 49ers’ receiving corp as a whole had 16 receptions for 270 yards and 3 touchdowns, good for a yds/rec. of 16.875.

Pass Rush

So, so glad to finally put this one in the good column. The 49ers were all over Austin Davis, picking up 5 sacks and getting all kinds of pressure. Ahmad Brooks had a huge game, redeeming himself after a stupid hands-to-the-face penalty that extended the Ram’s opening drive (his 3rd of the season by my count). Dan Skuta and Aaron Lynch were also consistently in the Rams’ backfield, and even Antoine Bethea picked up a sack on a safety blitz in the 4th quarter. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t great, but any production from this unit is a good sign.

This Pass

Whatta pass

The Bad Things

Run Game

The Rams committed to stopping the run from the outset, a strategy that has burned the 49ers’ opponents in the past. The 49ers were only able to gain 89 yards on the ground, averaging 3 yards per carry, by far their lowest Y/C this season. Although they have struggled to rush the passer, the Rams defensive front has been strong against the run, and it isn’t surprising they opted to take away the 49ers’ ground game.

Injuries

The 49ers lost a lot of talent on Monday, including Patrick Willis, Jimmie Ward, Stevie Johnson and Mike Iupati. This team has found ways to win without some of its key players, but they can’t really afford to lose anyone else at this point. There isn’t a ton of info on the other injuries, but Willis is expected to be out until after the 49ers’ bye. His replacement, rookie Chris Borland, filled in well, but will be hard pressed to replace the 49ers’ leading tackler.

The Other Things

Coaching

The 49ers’ coaches had a good day overall, out-scheming the Rams after a slow start and making some astoundingly effective adjustments at halftime. However, the decision to go for it not once, but twice on 4th down late in the came nearly burned the 49ers. Given how well they shut the Rams down in the second half, I can understand Jim Harbaugh’s willingness to go for it on 4th and goal, but the second attempt baffled me. All that said, none of this would matter if Vernon Davis hadn’t prevented Vance McDonald from scoring a touchdown.

Offensive Line

The o-line had a great day in pass protection, giving Kaep time to do what he does best and keeping the Rams sackless. However, the lack of push in the run game was frustrating, particularly on the two 4th down runs. It’s hard to get too upset given the quality of the defensive line they were facing, but it was uncharacteristic for a unit that so often overpowers opponents on the ground.

49ers vs. Rams: What I’ll Be Watching For

 

goreAP

The 49ers take the national stage tomorrow, facing the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football. After two straight wins at home, the 49ers are hoping to keep their momentum going on the road against the Rams and Denver Broncos.

The Rams are a strange matchup; a lot has gone wrong for them, but they’ve gotten unexpected production from backup quarterback Austin Davis, who has accumulated a 96.8 quarterback rating in four starts. They are also the first “struggling” team the 49ers have played. The first five games of the season were surprisingly tough: the 49ers’ opponents cumulative record stands at 15-9, a total bolstered by the surging 4-1 Dallas Cowboys. The Rams have lots of dangerous pieces, but they’ve been ravaged by injuries. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

Much like Drew Stanton, Davis is overproducing as a quarterback, but is still dangerous. The 49ers have been able to get a little going against quarterbacks in the last two games, thanks mostly to Aaron Lynch and Justin Smith, but the pass rush needs to be on its game tomorrow. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t very good, but the onus is on the 49ers to generate pressure and force Davis to make hasty decisions.

Run Game

St. Louis has been inconsistent against the run. Opposing rushers are averaging 4.9 YPC against the Rams thanks to a mediocre secondary, which struggles to stop backs when they reach the second level. Given the recent resurgence of the 49ers’ ground game, this will be an excellent opportunity to keep things going. Hopefully Greg Roman understands this, and will use a balanced gameplan.

Offensive Line

Last season, the Rams boasted the most productive defensive line in the NFL, and bolstered it in the offseason by adding defensive tackle Aaron Donald in the draft. This season, they’ve struggled to generate pressure, which is a big reason for the Rams 1-3 record. The 49ers o-line has been horrible in pass protection, and I believe the Rams’ defensive front is just too talented to struggle for long. This will be a great test for the 49ers, who should get things rolling on the ground before working in playmakers like Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis.

Chiefs at 49ers: Homecoming

alexcolinScott Strazzante/SF Chronicle

The 49ers moved above .500 on Sunday with a narrow win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The big story was the return of Alex Smith, who looked sharp after leading the Chiefs in a 41-14 thumping of New England on Monday Night Football. The 49ers looked solid, if not great, and were the happy beneficiaries of some critical errors by Kansas City. It was a welcome win, and one that will hopefully quiet the pervasive Jim Harbaugh-locker-room-team-discord-sky-is-falling rumors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Run Game

The 49ers obliterated Kansas City’s defensive front, running for 171 yards on 40 attempts for 4.3 YPC. Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde both looked good, but it was the offensive line’s run blocking that really amazed me. Even without Anthony Davis, the 49ers’ o-line was able to open up huge holes and dominate for most of the game. There isn’t much else to say; this is how the 49ers are built, and how they need to play if they want to win games.

Penalties

The 49ers averaged 11.5 penalties per game going into this contest, but were only flagged twice for a net loss of ten yards. The deluge of penalties that was drowning the 49ers at the beginning of the season was probably aberrant, but it was worsened by a series of stupid mistakes on both sides of the ball. Hopefully the lack of flags on Sunday is a sign that the team is getting it together.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Offense

The 49ers reached Kansas City’s red zone four times, but only scored one touchdown. This has been a problem in San Francisco since 2011, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It would be easy to blame Greg Roman and the play calling, but there was bad execution from the whole offense inside the 20 yard line. On the 49ers’ 5th drive, for instance, 2 of Kansas City’s three sacks came in the red zone, both following a 1st down false start on Mike Iupati. This implosion caused the drive to stall and robbed the 49ers of a chance at scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

Pass Blocking

The pass blocking was horrible on Sunday, and has been for the last few weeks. This weakness has been glossed over somewhat because of the o-line’s success on the ground, but it is starting to become a huge problem. The Harbaugh-era 49ers have never boasted an good pass-blocking line, but it has always functioned well enough. Football Outsiders has them ranked 28th in pass protection this year, down from 22 in 2013. Part of the blame rests on injuries, and the still-absent Davis, but even veterans Alex Boone and Mike Iupati have been struggling. As long as the team is winning, this is easy to ignore, but not giving Colin Kaepernick the chance to throw from the pocket will hurt the 49ers in the end.

The Other Thing

Defense

The defense was solid, surrendering just 265 total yards to the Chiefs and generally holding their own in the trenches. They limited Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, who had days before gashed New England for 207 rushing yards, to just 90 yards on the ground. There were some major miscues, the most memorable of which was Antoine Bethea’s whiffed tackle on DeAnthony Thomas which resulted in a touchdown, but overall it was a decent, if not memorable effort.

Colin Kaepernick

I’m still not sure what to make of Kaep. He has shown incredible flashes, most notably in Dallas, but has also looked fairly pedestrian. He wasn’t impressive against Kansas City, but managed to control the ball and make a couple of incredible throws. I am curious to what extent his inconsistency is the result of the offensive line, which has already surrendered 13 sacks (tied with the Chiefs for 4th most in the NFL). Kaep has made a lot of his best plays while evading pass rushers, which is what leads to pundits dubbing him a ‘mobile quarterback’, but he hasn’t had great protection for most of the season, or indeed his career. This is somewhat alarming, as it limits what the 49ers can do offensively. I know Kaep can make reads and pick apart defenses, but it’s clear that the way the offensive line is playing, he won’t get many opportunities to do so.