The Second Annual ‘We Don’t Deserve You’ Awards

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

Grading the 49ers’ 2014 Draft Class

hi-res-77284dc72587ecc87074d786e0232486_crop_northThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

About eight months ago, before the 49ers were a red and gold travesty, before Greg Roman became the leading cause of global warming, before Jim Harbaugh and Jed York began their six-month winner-take-all cage match, before Aldon Smith was exiled to Elba for committing crimes around the same time as Ray Rice, the 49ers were sitting on 11 draft picks. They had plenty of needs, to be sure, but Trent Baalke saw to basically all of them in just three days.

Baalke has played an interesting role amidst the recent turmoil in the 49ers organization. If recent reports are to be believed, the front office sees Harbaugh as eminently expendable, which essentially coronates Baalke as the future architect of the 49ers. Baalke is tremendously valuable; his draft strategy has not only brought a wealth of talented athletes, it has kept the team flush with future picks. I personally don’t think having a great General Manager is in and of itself enough to keep the 49ers relevant, but it’s better than nothing.

All that said, the 2014 draft will probably go down as the best in Baalke’s career. Despite the deluge of injuries, the 49ers were able to stay above .500 for most of the season, thanks largely due to the depth Baalke shoveled onto the roster over the last few seasons. The failure of the 2012 draft notwithstanding, Baalke has proven himself adept at finding bargain talent, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Of the 12 players picked up in the draft, seven saw playing time, while five were shunted into starting roles. Here is how they performed:

Round 1:

Jimmie Ward- Defensive Back, Northern Illinois, 8 games started, 19 tackles, 1 assist, 2 passes defended

Ward was something of an unknown when the 49ers drafted him, and he remains one going into next season. His most notable games were the low points, when some rookie mistakes and blown coverages saw him give up multiple touchdowns to Brandon Marshall and John Brown. Ward is an unusual case, as he was drafted to play the safety position once Antoine Bethea’s contract expires, but he was also a first round pick, and thus had to contend with a galaxy of high expectations. I’m not comfortable calling him a bust, but I didn’t see anything incredible from Ward. Given that he’s an undersized rookie playing out of position, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not sure he was worth a first round pick.

Grade: 60/100 (I am grading these because this is a list on the Internet.)

Round 2:

Carlos Hyde- Running Back, Ohio State, 14 games started, 4 touchdowns, 333 yards on 83 attempts (4.0 Y/A), 68 yards receiving on 16 targets

My second favorite pick of the 2014 haul, Hyde showed lots and lots of good things, while his shortcomings seemed more due to inexperience than a lack of talent. He has power and a little burst, and has been really, really fun to watch. Considering how inconsistent the run blocking was this season, Hyde’s solid Y/A and willingness to lower his shoulder and level defensive backs is encouraging. Oh, and he can cut a little bit.

Grade: B+ (You’re only here to see the grades, right? Are you even reading my blurbs?)

Round 3:

Marcus Martin- Interior Offensive Lineman, USC

Thanks to his injury during the preseason, Martin was able to bide his time behind Daniel Kilgore before being forced in as the starting center. It’s hard to honestly identify exactly how well he has done. He hasn’t really done anything of note, which may be a good thing. It’s also difficult to discern just how well any individual lineman performed given the constant o-line shuffling.

Grade: 4/7 (Grades are no less subjective than the stuff I’m writing… I guess you’re saving time if you aren’t reading, though. Good for you, I guess!)

Chris Borland- Linebacker, Wisconsin, 11 games started, 84 tackles, 23 assist, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended, 2 interceptions

Borland is easily the most interesting rookie of the class. I was skeptical of his ability to play in the NFL when he was drafted. He was one of those players that analysts felt did not deserve any kind of deep or descriptive analysis: they would say things like “He’s just a FOOT. BALL. PLAYER.”, “He has a nose for the ball”, “He plays with tremendous instinct” and so on.

I have never been happier about being wrong. Borland has been a revelation; he leads the teams in tackles and assists, and played his heart out in every single game. He does not have the sideline-to-sideline speed of Navorro Bowman or Patrick Willis, but his skill at run stopping and diagnosing plays will only get better with more experience. The future is bright!

Grade: +33.3 (Are you even paying attention to the grades? Write them on your hand so you can yell them at your family over Christmas dinner)

Also drafted: Clemson Offensive lineman Brandon Thomas (did not play)

Round 4:

Bruce Ellington- Wide Receiver/Running Back, University of South Carolina, 12 games started, 62 yards receiving on 12 targets, two touchdowns, 28 yards rushing on six attempts, 4.7 yards per attempt, one touchdown

188 yards on 23 punt returns, 8.2 yards per return, 614 yards on 24 kickoff returns, 25.6 yards per return

Say it with me: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE. I’m a Bruce Ellington fan, but he hasn’t really been tested yet. All that said, his athleticism and versatility were a huge part of the offense at South Carolina, and he has experience working with a mobile quarterback. His ability to return the ball for more than -10 yards is also amazing, but that’s more because I’m willing to take any kind of gain after years of Kyle Williams and LaMichael James. I don’t think Greg Roman has the aptitude to fully utilize a player like Ellington—here’s hoping the next offensive coordinator does.

Grade: Pretty Good (I had some friends in high school who didn’t get grades. They just got lyrical poems written on papyrus about their performance. It was very San Francisco).

Dontae Johnson- Defensive Back, North Carolina State, 2 games started, 21 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended, 1 interception (pick-six)

Of all the rookies, Johnson got the rawest deal. He had the length, measureables and skill to be a great cornerback, but he needed time to bulk up and adjust to the demands of the NFL. However, losing Chris Cook, Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver and other corners for extended periods accelerated his professional debut. He played reasonably well, but still looks like a developmental prospect. He was easily manipulated by veteran quarterbacks, and even struggled against fellow rookie Derek Carr. He should improve going forward, but there isn’t much worth mentioning, other than his garbage time pick-six, of course.

Grade: 3/5 Faux hawksScreen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.55.37 PM

 

Round 5:

Aaron Lynch: Linebacker, University of South Florida, 3 games started, 15 tackles, 6 assists, 5 sacks, 4 passes defended

My favorite pick of the 2014 draft, Lynch stepped in to help out the 49ers’ reeling pass-rush unit and never looked back. He might not have the run-stopping skills to be an all-around great linebacker, but his size, speed and ferocity were a factor in every single game. His college tape, particularly from his freshman year, showcases just how talented he could be. With both Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier having down seasons, Lynch made his case for a starting position. He is only a strong training camp away from getting it.

Grade: 100% (Hope you memorized these grades. They will be incredibly important next season).

Also drafted: Florida Atlantic University Defensive Back Keith Reaser (did not play)

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.

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 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.

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.

Eagles at 49ers: Righting the Ship

Patrick Willis, Eric Reid, Jeremy Maclin

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The 49ers got their first win at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, outlasting the Eagles in a bizarre game. It wasn’t exactly a must-win, but it was a very welcome one, and hopefully something that the 49ers can build on. Facing down one of the most prolific offenses in the league was a big test, and it was one the 49ers passed with flying colors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

The 49ers’ defense was insane on Sunday, holding the Eagles inside their own territory until late in the 4th quarter and shutting out what had been the NFL’s highest scoring team. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gets a lot of credit, but as he pointed out after the game, they didn’t do anything especially new to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles. Intense training regimen aside, the 49ers played the way they have for the last three seasons, stuffing the run and not giving up big plays. Aaron Lynch, who I am tremendously excited for, and Antoine Bethea were the standouts, but it was an all-around great day for the defense.

Run Defense

The run defense gets a little extra shout out in this recap, because they have been earning their stripes every week. Ian Williams, who only started two games last year, has been a force at nose tackle, and has anchored a defensive front that faced down three outstanding running backs and gave up next to nothing. They’ve surrendered 279 rushing yards in four games, holding opponents to an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. If you ignore the first game against Dallas, the 49ers held Andre Ellington, Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy to just 2.71 Y/A on the ground. This is a good sign, as they will need to stand up to one of the best in Jamaal Charles next week.

Run Game

The 49ers finally got back to running the ball, and lo and behold, they stormed all over the Eagles, picking up 218 yards on the ground and 5 Y/A. Frank Gore led the way, doing exactly what we knew he was capable of with 164 total yards and a touchdown. Some have suggested that the return to the ground game was the result of Jim Harbaugh exerting his will over Greg Roman and balancing things out a bit, but there isn’t any direct evidence for that. Either way, this is exactly what the 49ers need to be doing.

The Bad Things

Offensive Line

The run blocking was fairly solid, but the o-line continues to be a major weak point for the 49ers. Even stalwarts like Joe Staley and Alex Boone have been less than impressive, which is alarming. However, this group has never been all that great at pass blocking; it was their impressive push on the ground that earned them accolades over the last few seasons. We know Staley, Boone and Anthony Davis (provided the injury isn’t serious) have the talent to get it together, but when will it happen?

Special Teams

Other than Phil Dawson, who was 4 for 4 with a 51 yard field goal, special teams was a dang mess. I can’t decide whether this is a fluke or an ongoing problem, but it is worth noting that the 49ers cut a lot of their special teams talent in the offseason, including longtime ace C.J. Spillman. Maybe Brad Seely is having a little trouble with newcomers like L.J. McCray, or maybe things just got away from them.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

If you had asked me immediately after the game, I would’ve said Kaep was a shoe-in for The Bad, but after the smoke cleared, I realized that wasn’t totally fair. Kaep certainly didn’t look good, but it wasn’t necessarily godawful. After the game, I spoke with a few people that said that his ‘lack of intelligence‘ was evident in the way he handled himself, but I don’t think that has ever been the issue. He made some great decisions, and showed off just how excellent he can play when he sees the field. However, he was just off on a lot of throws, and was wholly to blame for the horrible pick-six that gave the Eagles the lead in the 2nd quarter and the baffling delay of game that took the 49ers out of a short yardage situation in the 4th. As I mentioned above, the pass protection was horrible, and Kaep can’t be blamed for making a few mistakes while getting constantly harassed by the Eagles’ pass rushers.

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

gordcardssChristian Petersen/Getty Images

The 49ers will play the Cardinals tomorrow, their first NFC West matchup of the season. Much like last week, this feels like the 49ers’ game to lose. The Cardinals’ defense lost a lot of good players in the offseason, and they will be rolling out second string signal caller Drew Stanton. However, after the absurdity last Sunday, it feels wrong to take anything for granted. Generally speaking, I want the 49ers to get back to what they do well: playing fundamentally sound football, limiting big plays and running the damn ball. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game: The Cardinals have held teams to 2.6 yards per rush this season, which is a pretty scary stat. The catch? Say it with me: small sample size. They’ve dominated on the ground, but only against the Giants and Chargers, two teams with offenses that don’t lean on the run game all that much. I foresee the 49ers having a tough time picking up rush yards, but that shouldn’t dissuade them from giving Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde plenty of carries. They need to commit and wear down the Cardinals’ banged-up front seven.

Pass Rush: This is will be THE thing to watch tomorrow. If the 49ers can get their pass rush firing and make Stanton uncomfortable, they can give their secondary chances to make big plays. Stanton has a 5-9 touchdown-interception ratio, and is not nearly as good as he looked last week against the New York Giant Tire Fire. However, that means nothing unless players like Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch can make an impact.

Calm Colin: Colin Kaepernick had a horrible 4th quarter against the Bears last week, and his mistakes have no doubt been stewing around in his head all week. I’ll be watching to see how he handles the Cardinals blitz-happy defense, and whether he can take what they give him. He struggled in back to back games last season, but it was against better teams than the Bears and Cardinals. I’m hoping and praying that he can keep the jumpiness to a minimum, and instead show the remarkable composure he had in week one.

Penalties: The 49ers have lost 198 total yards over the last two weeks to penalties, 103 on offense and 95 on defense. They actually did the same thing last year, giving up 206 total yards to penalties in their first two games. This trend needs to stop; penalties were one of the things that kept the Bears in the game last week, and the 49ers will not be able to make these many mistakes against the Broncos or Eagles.