Scott 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.