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 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. Eagles: What I’ll Be Watching For

628x4712Rob Carr/Getty Images

The 49ers season continues with a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who have been, for all intents and purposes, the inverse of the 49ers. The Eagles are undefeated, thanks to three second-half comebacks and some breaks going their way. Much like the 49ers’ second half issues, these comebacks are unsustainable. In fact, it is worth mentioning that a lot of what has worked for the Eagles in the Chip Kelly era is unsustainable. Like any game, the 49ers have the talent and coaching to win, as long as they execute. We will see which unsustainable trend lasts, and which ends. Here is what I’ll be watching for:

Run Game

The 49ers need to run the damn ball. This is sort of counter-intuitive, as Philadelphia has a rotten secondary, but keeping the ball away from Nick Foles will be essential. Thankfully, both Anthony and Vernon Davis will be back, giving the 49ers offense a major boost. The Eagles haven’t faced any great rushing teams, but they managed to give up 169 yards on the ground to the Colts, which is baffling. The 49ers will have an advantage in the trenches, but it won’t mean anything unless Greg Roman calls a smart game.

For an extreme example of what the 49ers need to do, check out Stanford’s game against Oregon in 2013. Stanford was able to hold on to the ball for most of the game, thanks largely to some heroics from halfback Tyler Gaffney. The game was coached by Jim Harbaugh and Kelly’s predecessors, David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, who run comparable schemes to the 49ers and Eagles. Like Stanford, the 49ers must ‘impose their will’ and use the run to control the ball.

Pass Rush

Another broken record category, but damn do the 49ers need to turn up the pressure. After boasting the very best offensive line in 2013, the 2014 Eagles have been rolling out a hodgepodge unit of backups. The 49ers secondary is simply not good enough to contain Foles without a little help. I know the 49ers have the talent to do it; Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and Dan Skuta have all been underperfoming, and this game will be a great chance to set things right.

Penalties

I still firmly believe that the flood of penalties against the 49ers was partially a fluke, and it will slow down as time goes on. That said, however well or poorly Ed Hochuli and co. call this game, the 49ers need to stop the dumb mistakes; the Anquan Boldin headbutt mistakes, the Jonathan Martin needless cut block mistakes. It was those mistakes that compounded some bad luck penalties and turned them into a major are of concern.

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.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What To Watch For

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Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

When Cam Newton threw the game-ending interception to Donte Whitner last Sunday, it felt like the culmination of something that has been developing since the offseason. The two most touted teams in the NFC will be facing off in one of the most talked-about environments in sports. It is remarkable what a difference a few regular season plays can make in the playoffs: if Ahmad Brooks wasn’t flagged for strip-sacking Drew Brees, if Luke Kuechly didn’t break up a perfect pass to Vance McDonald, if the Rams had called a run play from the 1 yard line in the last second of their game against the Seahawks, the NFC Championship would be taking place at Candlestick. Instead, as if the script were written before the 2013 season began, the 49ers will head to Seattle with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

I wouldn’t say my attitude about this game is overbearingly confident. I know the 49ers can win, and I know how they can win, but the pressure is certainly on them to execute. Their last two trips to Seattle were blowouts, ugly, boring and not really characteristic of the 49ers we had grown accustomed to. Most cite the crowd noise as a deciding factor, but there were plenty of things the 49ers did wrong. The 49ers seemed to lack a cohesive game plan, or at least an effective one. The offense looked confused in all four quarters, and the Seahawks took advantage. More importantly, a lot went right for the Seahawks, including a slew of turnovers and some bizarre play calling from Greg Roman. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game

The strangest aspect of the 49ers last two games in Seattle was the run game. For whatever reason, Frank Gore saw season-low use twice at Century Link. In 2012, he was given the ball 6 times for a respectable 28 yards. In 2013, he got 9 carries for an abysmal 16 yards. When the 49ers faced Seattle at home this year, Gore was given the ball 17 times for 110 yards, including a monster run in the 4th quarter that effectively ended Seattle’s chances. In most of the 49ers’ wins over the last two seasons, Gore was given the ball more than 15 times, more than his total carries in his last two games in Seattle combined. Whatever happens tomorrow, the 49ers need to commit to the run. Even if Gore gets stuffed more often than he breaks through, it is essential that the 49ers attack the Seahawks on the ground.

Run Defense

Stopping Marshawn Lynch early and often will be essential. The 49ers have to focus on fundamentals; sound tackling, speed and aggression are the only way to slow Lynch down. Russell Wilson’s drop in production has been well-documented, but he doesn’t have to have a big game for the Seahawks to win. If Lynch can get going against the 49ers, the Seahawks can control the clock and wear the defense down. This was what happened in week 2, when Lynch rushed for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Penalties

Week 2 saw the 49ers penalized a season high 12 times for 121 yards. Many of these penalties killed drives or gave Seattle’s offense a fresh set of downs. The 49ers did a great job staying controlled last week against an overly-aggressive Carolina team, and the same must happen on Sunday. The Seahawks are the most penalized team in the league, but this is a symptom of their defensive strategy. This strategy is only effective if the other team lacks discipline; the 49ers can turn the Seahawks’ flagrant disregard for the rules into an advantage if they stay calm and collected.

Let Colin Kaepernick Run

Kaep rushed 9 times in week 2 for a massive 87 yards. He was held more in check in week 13, but was still able to convert on a huge 3rd down during the 49ers final drive. He has been held mostly in check this season, and for good reason, but in a game like this the 49ers will need to use every weapon available. Designed runs and improvised scrambles were the key to the 49ers beating Green Bay, and they could be a huge difference maker on Sunday.

Turnovers

The 49ers turned over the ball a season-high 5 times in week 2. They haven’t turned the ball over more than 2 times since. Of all the things that went right for Seattle in that game, this was the biggest. It had a lot to do with the pass-heavy attack the 49ers employed, as well as the aggression of the Seahawks’ secondary. The 49ers have to win the turnover battle if they want to go to the Super Bowl. Kaep needs to be accurate and controlled, and understand that Seattle’s coverage is designed to force turnovers. The 49ers have done a great job with ball security since week 2, and that trend needs to continue.

49ers at Panthers: Revenge

NFL: Divisional Round-San Franciso 49ers at Carolina Panthers

The 49ers notched their eighth straight win today, out-executing the formidable Carolina Panthers on the road and moving just one game away from the Super Bowl. It was not a perfect four quarters of football, but considering that it was a road game against a team that had an extra week to rest and prepare, I can find little to complain about. True to form, the offense struggled early on but managed to put everything together in the second half. It was a game that showcased the 49ers’ resilience and maturity, two traits that were lacking early in the season. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Second Half Adjustments

The 49ers were a totally different team in the second half. They made some great changes at halftime that helped the whole team make big plays and wear down the Panthers. The second half started perfectly: the defense forced a Carolina 3-and-out, and the 49ers offense came right back with a 77 yard scoring drive. The momentum shifted away from the Panthers, and stayed with the 49ers for the rest of the game.

Defense

The Panthers were able to pick up plenty of yards on the 49ers’ defense, but they couldn’t score when it counted. The defense was able to force two turnovers, pressure Cam Newton and hold the Panthers to just 93 yards rushing, their second lowest total of the season. Most importantly, they stayed in control and never gave up on the game. There is no better example of this than the two goal line stands in the first half. Newton was able to lead two great drives to the 49ers’ 1 yard line, but couldn’t punch it in. Some gutsy stops from Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks held the Panthers to just 3 points. Those two stands kept the 49ers offense within reach of the lead.

Colin Kaepernick

It wasn’t an incredible game for Kaep, but it showed his cool-headedness in the face of a smothering defense. He looked out of sorts for much of the first half, but was able to lead some great drives and ensure that the 49ers ended the second quarter with the lead. He was efficient and conservative, which was the right game plan against a defense like Carolina’s. A big day from Frank Gore and a turnover-free offense was all the 49ers needed to keep the game out of reach.

The Bad Thing

Slow Starts

For the third week in a row, the 49ers opened their scoring with a field goal. Their struggle to complete drives is worrisome, and needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Wasting early opportunities isn’t going to fly against the remaining three teams.

The Other Things

Staying Calm

This was a scrappy game; the Panthers were clearly working overtime to get in the 49ers heads. The 49ers, for their part, stayed relatively sedate and let the Panthers rack up damaging penalties. That said, Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and even Jim Harbaugh got swept up in the emotion of the game, and could have cost their team if they had kept it up. Going forward, the 49ers must remain calm and focused. Emotions will be high, and the cooler-headed team will have a distinct advantage.

Officiating

There were plenty of legitimate complaints about the officiating after the game. It certainly favored the 49ers at several points, but the Panthers got the benefit of some stupid calls as well. All that said, the claim that the refs gave the game away isn’t legitimate. When an offense reaches the 1 yard line twice and only picks up three points, they have issues that go beyond the referees. A ridiculous ‘roughing the passer’ penalty on Dan Skuta helped to sustain the Panthers’ penultimate drive, but Newton failed to capitalize, instead throwing a game ending interception.

49ers at Packers: The Escape from Icy Oblivion

49ers Packers Football.JPEG-0cc90Mike Roemer/AP

The 49ers escaped Green Bay with a narrow win, advancing to the next round of the playoffs. It was one of the least enjoyable games of the season. It had the feel of the New Orleans and Carolina games, which were filled with inconsistency, offensive foibles and a constant struggle to get anything going. The performance of both teams was limited by the frosty temperature and the brownish, low traction loofah-field they were forced to play on. The Packers played with a lot of heart, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, doing their best to limit Frank Gore and try and force turnovers. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Michael Crabtree

Crab had his first really big game of the season, grabbing 8 passes for 125 yards, including a huge 31 yard reception on 4th down in the first quarter. He was mugged by Green Bay’s defensive backs all day, but still made a huge impact. Most importantly, his speed and ability to generate yards after catch seem to be returning.

Pass Rush

Aaron Rodgers saw a lot of turf on Sunday. He was sacked 4 times, and was constantly harassed by Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers defensive line stepped up at crucial moments, holding the Packers to 8 total yards in the first quarter. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Packers elected to go for it on 4th down. Ray McDonald got penetration and seemed to be on the verge of collecting another sack, but was flagrantly held.

This was the story of the day; the Packers offensive line was hard-pressed to handle the 49ers, and seemed willing to risk penalties to give Rodgers a chance to throw the ball. It was annoying to watch, but it also spoke highly of the ferocity of Smith, Brooks, McDonald, Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier.

Run Game

Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore once again tag-teamed the Packers, picking up 167 yards with 30 rushes for an average of 5.57 yards per attempt. On a day that Kaep struggled to pass consistently, it was a welcome constant in the offense. The Packers, who played an aggressive, turnover-focused defensive scheme, could not contain Kaep, who looked even faster than last year. Gore didn’t have a huge day numerically, but he provided critical blocks through the whole game and helped the 49ers answer Green Bay’s first touchdown with a 10 yard scoring run.

Health

No 49ers were seriously injured on Sunday. There were reports of cramps and other weather-related discomfort, but the team came out clean.

The Bad Things

Red Zone Execution

The play calling in the red zone was lacking. The 49ers advanced inside the Packers’ 20 yard line four times but only managed to score a touchdown once. A curious commitment to passing set the 49ers up for failure. The 49ers’ four losses were in some ways the result of this baffling, willful ignorance of what is working and what is not. After four blistering drives, Greg Roman refused to test the Packers’ readiness with some creative run plays. Poor play calling was a huge difference in this game; the 49ers could have won by a much larger margin and put the Packers in a much larger hole early on with some smarter red zone decisions.

Offensive Foibles

It is still amazing to me that the 49ers’ offense seemed to dominate the first quarter despite looking totally out of sorts. They screwed up plays, burned timeouts unnecessarily and stepped all over themselves. Some clutch plays from Crabtree and Kaep kept things going, but the offense seemed unable to relax and get into a rhythm. The 49ers have had trouble with clock management in the past, but things seemed especially bad in this game. It is difficult to tell whether this was the result of the weather, the playoff atmosphere or the crowd noise.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

NFL writers, bloggers and pundits have been quick to praise Kaep, but I am not as enthusiastic. He made some great plays, including a flawless touchdown throw to Vernon Davis in the 4th quarter, but he also made a multitude of mistakes and never looked truly in control. The 49ers’ final drive, the focal point of much of today’s commendation, was almost derailed before it began. Kaep nearly threw a game-ending interception on the 4th play of the drive, but managed to keep it together and burn enough clock to seal the win. On one hand, Kaepernick entered an environment that was extremely hostile in almost every respect and came away with a win. Playing in the cold on the road against a team eager for some revenge isn’t easy. On the other hand, he made mistakes that could have cost the 49ers dearly. Even the aforementioned throw to Vernon Davis was a dangerous one; it could have been easily defended or even intercepted had the throw not been absolutely perfect. Kaep showed his toughness by winning in less than ideal circumstances, but he also made some worrying mental errors and was inconsistent for much of the game. I hope this was more the result of the environment than his own abilities.

49ers vs. Packers: What to Watch For

49ers Packers FootballAP Photo

The 49ers’ playoff run begins on the road in Green Bay. They have had some recent success against the Packers, but this game promises to be a little different from the last three matchups. Aaron Rodgers has returned, helping the Packers wheeze into the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record. Many of the Packers starting offensive players are also back after missing time from injury, making this offense as potent as the one the 49ers saw in week 1. Oh, and its gonna be cold. In case you haven’t heard, this coldness may or may not affect the game, and will probably be the most talked-about factor on Sunday. Nobody seems to be giving the Packers a chance, but they are more than capable of keeping up with the 49ers as long as Aaron Rodgers is on point. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

The 49ers have given up 740 yards passing over the last two games, well above average (200 yds/gm weeks 1-15). They have struggled with pass-heavy offenses for a while now, but Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer got particularly surgical against the 49ers’ secondary. Although much of the blame for this goes on some poor coverage, the pass rush has been sagging lately. Palmer, who was sacked an average of 3 times per game this season, was only sacked once on Sunday and was given far too much time to let plays develop. Aldon Smith, Ray Mcdonald, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks have been stingier against the run, but need to get the pass rush on line if they want to keep Rodgers under control.

Run Game

The Packers run defense has been on a downward slope since they stopped Frank Gore in week 1. Whether or not Gore and Kendall Hunter can get going will be a huge factor in the game. The cold conditions and inherent threat posed by the Packers’ offense means keeping the ball in control is essential if the 49ers want to stay out ahead. After getting bottled up last week, Gore needs to have a big day and pick up consistent yardage.

Balanced, Consistent Offense

The 49ers have beaten the Packers with run and pass-heavy approaches, but a balanced offense would be a good sign as they enter the tournament. Colin Kaepernick needs to distribute the ball on the air and ground, and keep turnovers to a minimum. The offense also needs to play a full four quarters, starting strong and adjusting to the Packers at halftime. They looked lost against the Cardinals in the second half and still managed to win, but they won’t have the luxury of waiting for the game to come to them against the Packers. A strong scoring effort through all four quarters will keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and keep the defense fresh.

Turnovers

The turnover battle was a huge factor the last time these two teams met. The 49ers won the turnover battle 2-0, helping even out the game early on. Kaep needs to continue his low-turnover streak and keep the ball safe. Forcing turnovers will help the 49ers wear down the Packers’ defense and score at will.

49ers vs Cardinals: What To Watch For

vdcardsBen Margot/AP

The 49ers head out to Arizona for the final game of the regular season, taking on one of the hottest teams in the NFC. The Cardinals pulled off a major upset last week, beating the Seahawks in Seattle with a combination of tough defense and… tough defense. Arizona is an interesting team; they have some serious flaws, but the intensity of their play on the defensive side of the ball has made up for it. Carson Palmer has hardly been a revelation at quarterback, but he has proven capable of delivering the ball to Arizona’s real offensive studs: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Ellington. I believe the 49ers can win this game, but it still feels like a toss up. Here is what I will be watching for:

Pass Rush

After an off game against the Falcons, the pass rush will need to play big in the desert. They are facing another terrible offensive line and will getting after a quarterback with two left feet; I have no doubt that they will generate pressure, but whether or not it will have an impact isn’t clear. Matt Ryan was able to pick apart the 49ers with quick passes to his receivers, and I’m sure Bruce Arians and the Cardinals noticed. The 49ers won’t be able to totally eliminate Arizona’s passing game, but forcing Palmer to make the mistakes he’s known for will go a long way towards ensuring a win.

Run Game

The Cardinals defense is ranked 1st in the league against the run. I don’t put a huge amount of stock in those rankings, but I would be willing to bet that the Cardinals will try to take away the 49ers’ ground attack. Making an early statement in the run game is essential; the 49ers need to get physical and punch the Cardinals in the mouth (beak?). The 49ers were able to pick up 149 yards against Arizona in week 6, the most rushing yards the Cardinals have allowed. After a beastly game against the Falcons, the 49ers halfback corp needs to brutalize Arizona’s front seven and help open up the passing game.

Michael Crabtree

Everyone’s favorite matchup goes into its fifth round on Sunday:

The last time these two teams met, Vernon Davis had a huge day, picking up 180 yards and 2 touchdowns. Whether or not Crabtree has a great game on paper, his presence will help Davis, Anquan Boldin and maybe even Quinton Patton get open and move the ball. If this game goes like it should, Colin Kaepernick will sit back and take the shots he wants to take. With Davis as fast as ever and Crabtree almost back to full strength, Arizona’s secondary will be in for a long day.