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

Anquan-Boldin-49ers-Richard-Sherman-Seahawks49ers.com

The 49ers take on the arch-rival Seattle Seahawks tomorrow, hoping to exact some revenge for last year’s NFC Championship game. Both teams are very different from the two that faced off up in Seattle in January; injuries have devastated both rosters, forcing them to adapt and rely on unknowns to win games. The rivalry talk has died down somewhat, but with a playoff berth likely on the line, look for both teams to play their hearts out tomorrow. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

After losing Golden Tate to free agency and Percy Harvin to… something, Seattle has morphed into a bizarre, run-first offense, relying on Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson’s scrambles to get first downs. They look more like the Braxton Miller-Carlos Hyde Ohio State Buckeyes than the Seahawks the 49ers played last year. Getting to Russell Wilson and keeping him contained has worked really well for the 49ers in the past, and it will be on the pass rush to do so tomorrow. Despite averaging 6.1 yds/rushing attempt in his career, against the 49ers Wilson has managed only 74 total yards on 25 attempts, good for 2.96 yds/attempt. Given that Seattle’s offense relies so much on his legs, whether or not the 49ers keep him contained could very well decide the contest tomorrow.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense needs to be on point tomorrow. Newbies like Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland will have a long day ahead of them; despite being banged up, Seattle’s offensive line is great at run blocking, ranked 5th in the league by Football Outsiders. The 49ers’ run defense has suffered since losing Ian Williams and Glenn Dorsey, and they would do well to load up the box against Seattle.

Penalties

The players are well aware of the rivalry and what is at stake tomorrow, adding a layer of emotion that will no doubt have an impact on the field. Just like their last contest in San Francisco, the 49ers need to stay cool and not make stupid mistakes.

Turnovers

Since taking over as the starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick has played Seattle four times, throwing just two touchdowns and seven interceptions. Kaep does not need to be great or even good tomorrow for the 49ers to win, but he needs to avoid turnovers. Seattle is no longer the turnover king of the league, but they are still very good, with 15 takeaways in 11 contests. Kaep has done a good job limiting turnovers this season, and he must continue to play smart tomorrow.

Washington at 49ers: Getting It Done, Sorta…

408234_1280x720AP Photo

The 49ers won a slow, frustrating game against an inferior Washington team on Sunday, the latest in a series of defense-first, nail-biting comeback wins. They survived numerous mistakes and failed to build on a strong start to the game. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Pass Defense

Once again, the 49ers won because of their pass defense, which held Washington to just 77 yards through the air. Credit goes to the pass rush, which swallowed up Robert Griffin III, and the secondary, which blanketed star wideout DeSean Jackson all day. Rookie cornerback Dontae Johnson had an excellent day, adding his name to the growing list of rookies shoring up the 49ers’ battered defense.

Anquan Boldin

Q had one of his best games as a 49er, picking up 137 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He manhandled Washington’s secondary; his only mistake coming in the 3rd quarter when his route was jostled by Baushaud Breland, leading to a pick. Q has been one of the most entertaining 49ers for two years running. His reliability in 3rd and long situations has saved so many drives, it’s frankly amazing he isn’t doubled or tripled every time.

The Bad Things

Offense

It was a horrible day for the offense, who barely managed 17 points against one of the worst defensive units in the league. They only picked up 66 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. There were numerous drops, a botched snap and other mistakes, making it like basically every other 49ers game this season.

Counterpoint: The 49ers had to contend with horrible field position all game, thanks to Washington’s punter and Perrish Cox’s mediocrity as a return man. They also turned over the ball three times, two of which were fumbles, and managed to survive. They lost their other two multiple turnover games of the season, the 49ers (The Bears in week two and the Rams in week nine), so credit to this team for overcoming their mistakes. That said, it would be nice to see them get in some kind of rhythm.

Vernon Davis

Davis continues to play well below our expectations, depriving the team of their favorite home run hitter. He had an ugly drop and twice ran a too-short route on 3rd down. Whether it be age, focus or just an unfortunate string of bad luck, Davis has been mostly useless in the pass game. As the 49ers gear up for a playoff push, his speed will be sorely missed.

Run Defense

The 49ers’ run defense has regressed since losing Ian Williams, and even Chris Borland playing out of his mind hasn’t stopped teams from running over the 49ers. They gave up 136 yards on Sunday, the same amount they gave up to the Saints two weeks ago. They won both contests, but given that neither team is necessarily great at running the ball, this is a worrying trend. Hopefully Glenn Dorsey can help them plug the gaps, but until he returns, they will have to rely on Quinton Dial and Tony Jerrod-Eddie at nose tackle.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

It was another so-so day for Kaep, who did an excellent job handling Washington’s blitz packages but also had some ugly overthrows. His pass to Boldin at the end of the 4th quarter was incredible, but was eclipsed by Boldin’s tough yards after the catch. I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Kaep will ever truly ‘take over’ a game like he did last season. With the offense sputtering and failing as frequently as it does, Kaep has done a good job of making plays when they count. However, his play has been more ‘proficient’ than ‘spectacular’. Here’s to hoping he puts on a show for the home crowd on Thanksgiving.

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

imrsRicky Carioti/The Washington Post

The 49ers take on Washington tomorrow, hoping to extend their win streak to three and show a little something at home. They are facing a beleaguered, banged-up team that has had a lot of turnover at the quarterback position. It’s an excellent chance to have a statement win, but the 49ers have struggled to score on just about everybody this season. Here is what I will be watching for:

Offensive Line

Washington is far from a complete team, but they do have some quality pieces. Their pass rush has been solid for a lot of the season, and was a big reason they were able to steal a win from the Cowboys on Monday Night Football. The 49ers’ o-line has been improving, due in large part to the emergence of Marcus Martin as an anchor at center, but they still aren’t close to their 2012 dominance. If they are able to keep Washington’s pass-rushers at bay, Colin Kaepernick can take advantage of their horrible secondary.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush has helped them stay afloat in the wildcard race, and it needs to take it to Washington’s o-line. Making Robert Griffin III uncomfortable will keep Washington from putting together any kind of momentum. I also just want to see Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch go to work; it has been insanely fun to watch Lynch mature as a player, and having Smith back only makes him more dangerous.

Dominance

Last year, the 49ers went to Washington and dominated in every aspect of the game. They held Washington to just 190 total yards, sacked RGIII six times and looked, for all intents and purposes, like a playoff team. The 49ers have failed to truly dominate in a single game this season, and it’s starting to worry me. Kaep will be in a good position to bounce back from a poor game against the Giants, while Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde should get plenty of chances to make plays against the NFL’s 29th ranked rush defense.

49ers at Giants: Glorious

chris-borland-nfl-san-francisco-49ers-new-york-giants-850x560Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers put together one of the most glorious and frustrating games of the season, defeating the New York Giants 16-10 on the road. The 49ers’ travels are basically over; other than a short trip to San Diego and another to Seattle, every game from here on out will be at home or across the Bay in Oakland. The 49ers are 6-4, tied with Seattle in second place and still in the hunt for a wildcard spot. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

Every week it gets harder to figure this team out. The defense has been dealt a horrible hand, losing all-pros, leaders, role players and everything in between. But no matter what happens, they keep balling. The 49ers are ranked 3rd in the league in weighted defensive efficiency, ahead of Seattle and Arizona. They are ranked 1st in the NFL against the pass, which I had to recheck three or four times because it makes no sense. Last week I attributed this ridiculous success to Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke, but I think this goes deeper than that. The 49ers defense has proven capable of weathering nearly anything, and that starts with the players. Despite a massive loss in talent, every single healthy defensive player has risen to the challenge. They are the primary reason the 49ers sit at 6-4.

Chris Borland

When the 49ers drafted Borland, I was skeptical. I don’t trust players who get by on instinct to last in the NFL. I’m glad I was wrong. His lack of physical tools has not stopped him from becoming the hero of the 2014 season. I’m still not 100% sure he can keep producing at such a high level, but here’s to hoping. For now, let’s just enjoy the one-man wrecking crew that is Chris Borland.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

The offense struggled to get anything done, picking up just 333 total yards against one of the worst defenses in the league. Kaep was a big part of this, although he is not entirely to blame. He overthrew receivers numerous times and was ineffectual in the red zone. The Giants’ defense did a decent job covering the 49ers down the field, but Kaep had far too many missed opportunities.

Offense

It was a truly pathetic showing by the offense, which was only able to score 3 points off of five interceptions. The 49ers dominated in the trenches until they moved inside the Giants’ 20 yard line. This game should have been a blowout. Unlike the defense, the offense has no excuses. They are mostly healthy and should be averaging more than 21 points per game. The 49ers might be able to squeeze enough out of this offense to make the playoffs, but they won’t be able to go much farther.

The Other Thing

Aldon Smith

It wasn’t an incredible day for Aldon Smith, but his presence was certainly welcome. The pass rush was the best it has been all season. With Smith commanding the attention of multiple offensive linemen, the rest of the d-line was given plenty of opportunities to disrupt plays and get to the quarterback. It’s scary to think just how good this pass rush could be going forward.

I Hate the New York Giants

ginsider10s-1-web (1)John G. Mabanglo/EPA

Twenty-three years ago, the 49ers played the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. The 49ers were hoping to reach, and win, their third Super Bowl in a row, the ultimate capstone to one of the greatest decades by any sports franchise ever. Unfortunately, the Giants ruined it. The 49ers not only lost 15-13, but Joe Montana was thoroughly broken by a blindside tackle from Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall. I was less than a year old at the time, but I like to think that some part of me remembers this game. Some part of me remembers how my parents groaned and by big brother cried as the Giants’ Matt Bahr hit the game-winning field goal.

Almost exactly three years later, the 49ers took on the Giants at Candlestick for a chance to reach the NFC Championship game. It was the first football game I remember watching. I can still hear my dad roaring at the TV, imploring Ricky Watters to “GO! GO!” Watters rushed for 118 yards and five touchdowns that day, helping the 49ers bury the Giants 44-3. That game made me a football fan, and ensured that I would forever associate fun and excitement with watching the Giants lose.

I hate all sports franchises on some level. For the hard luck teams like the Browns I have a certain amount of glowing indifference, but little more. That said, I cannot think of a team that makes me angrier than the Giants. The Dodgers are the worst, but that is a rivalry I share with an entire city. With the Giants, it’s personal.

I hate their uniforms, an utterly vacant mix of big, dumb colors that signify nothing. I hate their logo, which has to be the most half-assed in professional sports. It looks like it was drawn left-handed at 4:59 on a Friday afternoon; 80% of the logo designer’s body and 100% of their mind was already outside of their tiny cubicle, raring to head to a bar, drink gallons of gin and ponder how the fuck their life became so crushingly awful.

Look at this shit

Look at this shit

I hate MetLife Stadium, a massive, half-used roll of duct tape jammed unceremoniously into the New Jersey swamp. I hate Giants fans, who spend more time complaining about the team they claim to love than cheering for them, only to backtrack as soon as the Giants stumble backwards into another playoff berth. Actually, scratch that. Giants fans spend their time mocking people who had their lives ruined by natural disasters and government incompetence.

I hate the way the Giants play. Their team is exemplary of why the veneration of championships is one of the most reductive and annoying parts of sports. The 2007 and 2011 Giants will be remembered for their dominant defense, but they were actually in the middle of the pack during the regular season. The 2007 team was ranked 13th in defensive efficiency and averaged 1.6 turnovers per game, but averaged 3.5 turnovers in the playoffs. The 2011 team was even worse. They ranked 19th in defensive efficiency, and surrendered an average of 2.7 touchdowns per game. That average dropped to 1.5 touchdowns in the playoffs. Whatever worked for them in these instances escaped the Giants in other playoff appearances. Since 2000, the Giants have reached the playoffs six times. Other than ’07 and ’11, they have been outscored 108-69.

Their quarterback is a scummy moron. He refused to play for the team that drafted him, instead crying to his father until he was traded to New York. He still will not admit that he was too much of a dipshit to sign on with a rebuilding franchise.

Here are three quarterback stat lines:

QB 1: 173:122 touchdown/INT ratio, 3.4 INT%, 61.5 CMP%, 85.3 Rating

QB 2: 246:177 touchdown/INT ratio, 3.3 INT%, 58.5 CMP%, 82 Rating

QB 3: 93:62 touchdown/INT ratio, 2.5 INT%, 59.1 CMP%, 81.3 Rating

One of these quarterbacks is a longtime backup currently starting for the Buffalo Bills. Another is right now watching as fans of his team burn his jersey. The third has won two Super Bowls and will, by virtue of those championships and his brother’s accomplishments, reach the Hall of Fame. That’s Eli. He’s #2.

You can tell me that Eli Manning and the Giants are well coached, are ‘clutch’, or they know how to ‘win when it counts’, but the fact is, none of these truly suffice. There is no statistical, strategic, emotional or metaphysical explanation for this blight.

The Giants are an unfortunate reality. Every few years, they swoop in like a swarm of locusts to devour any joy and entertainment we might hope to extract from watching football. Why? Because the New York Giants hate football, and they want you to hate it too.

Three years ago, I was sitting in the subbasement break room of a swanky Manhattan hotel, watching as the Giants recovered Kyle Williams’ fateful fumble and set up the game winning field goal. The 9-7 Giants, who wheezed their way into the playoffs, had targeted Williams because of his history with concussions. It paid off.

In an effort to cheer me up, some coworkers took me to Korea town to buy me dinner. Just after we ordered, a man on the other side of the restaurant spotted my 49ers shirt and started berating me:

“Hey. HEY! The 49ers are a good team. They’re a good team. But the Giants are perfect. They’re fucking PERFECT.”

This went on for a while. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

So what will I be watching for tomorrow?

Pain.

49ers at Saints: Sweet Revenge

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints

Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

The 49ers did enough right on Sunday to take down the New Orleans Saints, moving to 5-4 on the season. It was by far the most entertaining game of the season; only the win in Dallas in week one comes close in terms of entertainment value. It was also a deeply satisfying win for 49ers fans, who saw a very similar game slip away in 2013 thanks to some very poor officiating. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Coaching

Specifically, defensive coaching. The 49ers have lost three of their four most productive defensive starters. Of this defensive ‘core’, only Justin Smith remains. The 49ers have thrown out rookies and castoffs, and inexplicably are fielding the 8th ranked defense in the NFL. If there is one silver lining to this season, it’s that Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke are proving themselves to be the most potent defense-building and coaching duo in the NFL. The emergence of Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland has been incredible to watch, but perhaps more striking is the production of what many were happy to call the most tenuous secondary in the NFC. Despite an inconsistent pass rush and constant turnover at the cornerback position, the 49ers rank 6th in defensive efficiency against the pass (which is 8 ranks higher than Seattle’s vaunted pass defense).

Colin Kaepernick

He did not rise to the occasion as dramatically as I had hoped, but Kaep had a good day, and provided what I hope will be a major turning point in the season with his unbelievable 4th down game saving strike to Michael Crabtree. Kaep has yet to play a full four quarters, but he has been remarkably productive behind the league’s 31st ranked pass protecting unit. His line for the season: 179-289, 61.94 comp%, 2166 yds, 13 Tds, 5 int, 92.7 rating. Given the incredible amount of drops from 49ers receivers, his numbers show that he may in fact be coming along as a passer. His completion percentage dipped to 43.75% in New Orleans, but this was due to the 49ers receivers’ 8 droped passes (without which his comp% would have been an excellent 68.75%). He still makes mistakes, sometimes hesitating to throw the ball away or failing to check down when the situation calls for it, but things are looking up for Kaep.

The Bad Things

Drops

One of the most fascinating and disturbing things about this season is how poor the 49ers have been at football fundamentals. A lot is made of quarterback play, of injuries, of strategy, but all of that is irrelevant when professional athletes aren’t doing their job. Dropped passes have stung the 49ers a few times this season, and they nearly became the story of this game. Crabtree has had an uninspiring season, but Anquan Boldin’s sudden inability to secure good passes is worrisome. Hopefully, like the abundance of penalties and the ‘can’t-score-in-the-second-half’ nonsense early in the season, this will pass.

The Other Thing

Injuries
I realize it’s a little odd to put this in the ‘other’ column, but bear with me. The 49ers keep getting injured, and with each injury they lose strategic options and talent. The latest blow is the biggest of the season, leaving the most critical part of the 49ers’ defense in the hands of a rookie and a skilled but unremarkable player.

However, the 49ers have done a miraculous job of following the ‘next man up’ philosophy. Despite losing some tremendous talent, they’ve been able to exceed what was expected of them, particularly on defense. That is not to say injuries are in any way a good thing, just that giving the 49ers’ rookie class reps could prove beneficial in the long run.

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

Colin+Kaepernick+San+Francisco+49ers+v+New+n9ZIR6sSo6UlChris Graythen/Getty Images

Sunday’s game is the most important of the season. I’ve said that before, but it actually means something now. The 49ers have dug themselves into a hole over the last three weeks, and they need to start crawling out now, or not at all. Just like every other game on their schedule, this game is winnable, but they will need to do something that escaped them for the first half of the season: establish an offensive identity. The offense is at full strength, or as close to it as they will be this season, and the onus is on Greg Roman, Colin Kaepernick and the offensive line to show that they aren’t done. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Offensive Line

Last season, the 49ers lost an ugly game in New Orleans, the result of some horrible offensive play (the offense only gained 196 yards and 12 first downs) and some equally horrible officiating from Tony Corrente. This year, the 49ers’ offense, despite being replete with playmakers, looks even worse, easily among the worst in the league. A big reason for this is the offensive line, which has seen lots of turnover. The o-line doesn’t need to have an incredible game, but they need to stop making mistakes. The stupid penalties, whiffed blocks and lack of push in the run game that have limited the 49ers’ o-line need to end, now.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep hasn’t been excoriated quite the same way he was last year, but he has yet to truly play up to his contract. He will have a great chance to prove his worth in New Orleans. After some unsustainably good defensive play in 2013, Rob Ryan’s unit has fallen part, falling from 10th to 29th in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders. If Kaep can get Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved, he can feast on New Orleans’ banged-up secondary and take control of the offense.

Aaron Lynch, Jimmie Ward, Chris Borland, Marcus Martin

Due to some unfortunate injuries, the 49ers’ future has been rushed onto the field earlier than expected. Results have been mixed, but overall much better than can be reasonably expected of rookies. If the 49ers can’t get it together and the season is indeed lost, rookies like Lynch and Ward will be one of the only things worth paying attention to (other than the Seahawks games). The 49ers’ rookies are being run through a meat grinder – Borland, in particular, will have faced off against two of the NFL’s greatest passers in Peyton Manning and Drew Brees in his first three games. After this week, the 49ers’ missing defensive core will start to return, starting with the suspended Aldon Smith. We know Vic Fangio doesn’t like to overuse untested talent, so the rookies will need to show out in the limited chances they get.