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.

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.

Bears at 49ers: The Horror

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ersJeff Gross

The 49ers dropped a horrible, ugly, unwatchable game on Sunday, blowing a 17-point lead against a demonstrably inferior team. As much anger and frustration has been heaped on this game, it is important to keep in mind how strange it was. The reversal of fortunes in the fourth quarter was among the most dramatic I have ever seen. It is also important to remember that this is week two, and the 49ers are missing some crucial pieces. Here is what I saw:

The Good Thing

Run Defense

The run defense was stout on Sunday, holding Matt Forte to just 21 yards on 12 attempts, a pathetic 1.75 YPC. This was heartening to see; it was, for the most part, a good day for the defense, and it was great to see Ian Williams show a little something in the trenches.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

People are calling Kaep’s performance among the worst of his career. Although I usually avoid those kinds of blanket statements, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Kaep was playing with an ugly mix of apprehension and excitement, and he looked extremely jumpy in the pocket. As things started to fall apart, he got worse, and continued to dig the 49ers into a deeper hole. The reality of playing the first regular season game in a new stadium may have gotten to him (more on that later) but we’ve seen this before, most notably against the Seahawks. The ability to calm down and overcome mistakes is something Kaep has shown in the past, but I can understand the concern that his contract and the revitalized receiving depth have put more pressure on him.

Run Game

Frank Gore has run the ball 29 times in the last two weeks, the lowest total for weeks one and two of any season since 2005, his rookie year. As I established in the offseason, the 49ers tend to perform better when they give Gore lots of chances. Greg Roman clearly wants to air things out a bit more, but he needs to use the run to open things up if he wants to put the receiving corps to use. Gore made the most of his carries on Sunday, but the 49ers never gave him the chance to really feast on a weak Bears defensive line. Of all the bad things we saw on Sunday, this is what worried me most. We saw the same thing last season, when the 49ers first three games boasted a pass-heavy attack and went 1-2. I had hoped Roman had learned his lesson, but clearly he has not.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush is nonexistent, with only Justin Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch looking remotely productive. Touted veteran Ahmad Brooks and second year linebacker Corey Lemonier have been nonexistent thus far. Whether this is simply due to the absence of Aldon Smith isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the 49ers will need a stronger pass rush if they want to force turnovers and dominate on defense. I have faith in Vic Fangio to get things sorted out, but until then this remains a major concern.

The Other Things

Ball Distribution

For the second straight week, Kaep managed to give every receiver a chance to move the ball. He still isn’t trusting newcomer Stevie Johnson enough, but compared to the distribution last season (meaning: 90% of his throws going to Anquan Boldin) it is nice to see him spread things out. I’m a little concerned about his overreliance on Michael Crabtree. Their chemistry has brought good things in the past, but it is a tendency that can be exploited.

Random Stats

There have been a lot of random macrostats floating around since before the game started. Home teams are 20-29 in stadium openers. 49ers are 1-3 in week two of the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers lost stadium openers at Kezar and Candlestick. These are fairly meaningless, but they do speak to certain things. The stadium opener number does point to the gravity of the moment; it could help to explain the 49ers’ apparent nervousness on Sunday.

Penalties

There were 26 penalties thrown on Sunday, which is more than I can ever remember seeing. Some were fair, some were ticky tack and some were ridiculous. However, none of them take away from the fact that the 49ers turned the ball over 4 times. I am only mentioning it here because the volume of laundry on the field DOES have an impact on the outcome of the game. However, it does not excuse the 49ers’ utter failure to put this game away

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

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ersJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

As with any season opener, there are far, far too many storylines to account for. The general consensus is that this game will be a shootout, but season openers are weird. Look no further than the 49ers’ season opener last year, when Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and 3 touchdowns. He would not break 400 yards passing for the rest of the season, and only broke 200 yards 5 times. I’m not saying we won’t see a shootout, simply that games like this are can be really different from what we expect. The 49ers we see tomorrow are most likely not the 49ers we will be watching midseason. Here is what I will be watching for:

Run Game: If the 49ers want to win this, they will need to control time of possession and run the ball with authority. As bad as Dallas’ defense is, their offense is potent, and the 49ers will be starting a mishmash of rookies, projects and question marks on defense. Keeping the ball out of Tony Romo’s hands will mean running early and often. Hopefully rookie back Carlos Hyde gets some touches and spells Frank Gore.

Secondary: There are so many things to watch in the 49ers’ secondary. They will be starting Chris Culliver, who hasn’t played in a game of football since the 2012 Super Bowl and Tramaine Brock, who had a breakout 2013 season but still feels like an unknown. They will also be using rookie Jimmie Ward in the nickel, and could use has-been Chris Cook as well. This is a patchwork unit that probably won’t look very good initially. I’ll be looking for the two most trusted hands, safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea, to step up and lead.

Run defense: The 49ers lost Glenn Dorsey to injury and will be out one of their most prolific tacklers in Navorro Bowman. Dallas is not a running team by any means, but the 49ers have made stopping the run a cornerstone of their defensive style. All eyes will be on Ian Williams, the starting nose tackle who was injured in week 2 last season, and Michael Wilhoite, who was recently tapped as Bowman’s replacement.

Ball distribution: Colin Kaepernick will be playing with a loaded offense, and I’m excited to see what he’s able to do with it. Will he rely on Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, or will he show some trust in newcomer Stevie Johnson? Will he have the same willingness he had in the preseason to use checkdowns? Obviously, this all comes with the caveat I mentioned above, but this offense, unlike the defense, is pretty much in the shape it will be hopefully in at the end of the year, give or take a lineman.

Injuries Remain 2013 49ers’ Biggest Problem

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

Carlos Avila Gonzalez

The 49ers move into week 13 with a very different team than the one that started the season against Green Bay. Although they sit at 8-4, this 49ers team, at least until this point, has felt less impressive than the last two seasons. Every week, bloggers, pundits and reporters uncork new theories on what has brought on the inconsistencies and failures that have led to the 49ers four losses. Poor play calling, lackluster performance from Colin Kaepernick and a run and pass game woefully out of synch with one another have been popular responses, but they all allude to something that began long before the season started: injuries and absences.

In 2011-12, the 49ers enjoyed two largely injury-free seasons, only ruling players out 13 and 16 times, respectively. This season, players have been ruled out of games 68 times. A large chunk of this is due to inert players; players like Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine were not meant to play this season, but take up roster space. Taking those players off the totals, the number is reduced to 32, which is still essentially double what it was the last couple of years. Of these 32, 14 games have been missed by Pro Bowlers, including Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati.

Looking over these numbers, it is interesting to see what has worked thus far for the team, and what has fallen flat. The most questionable position groups after 2012 were wide receivers and the secondary, both of which were hit hard by injury and free agency. Cornerback Chris Culliver was injured before the season started, which, coupled with Dashon Goldson’s departure, left the 49ers pass defense in a tough spot. They turned to Nnamdi Asomugha, who was underwhelming and eventually got injured himself, and Eric Reid, who has been an excellent replacement for Goldson. Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright stepped up in Asomugha’s (and later Tarrell Brown’s) absence, and won starting jobs. This has been the story with the defense thus far; Corey Lemonier was a solid fill-in for Aldon Smith, Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite did a great job filling in for Willis, Tony Jerrod-Eddie has subbed a limited Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey has filled the gap at nose tackle after Ian Williams’ injury. Most injuries have been ably handled by the 49ers’ defensive depth, allowing Vic Fangio to scheme at will.

The offense has been another story. Mario Manningham and Crabtree were absent to begin the season, and rookie hype-beneficiary Quinton Patton injured his foot during week 4. With Kyle Williams lacking any perceptible receiving talent, wideout depth was reduced to Jonathan Baldwin and Anquan Boldin. However, the most significant offensive injury was Vernon Davis, who left two games early (Seattle and Carolina) and missed play against Indianapolis. The 49ers were outscored in those three games by a combined score of 66-19, lacking both Davis’ abilities as a receiver and his role as a premier run blocker. With rookie Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek as the only backup tight ends, Greg Roman found himself limited in what kind of plans he could draw up against elite defenses.

The 49ers’ shortcomings this season are complex, and no member of the team or coaching staff is above blame. However, the most consistent factor weighing the 49ers down has been injuries and absences. Even players like Justin Smith and Frank Gore, who haven’t missed a game, have been limited in what they can do both in practice and on the field. Injuries can also steal the momentum from games; losing players like Davis and Reid mid-game forces the coaching staff to improvise and changes the flow of play on the field. As players like Manningham, Smith and Crabtree return, their impact will be felt. The most consistent threat to the team this season hasn’t been their NFC West rivals, but the weekly injuries which limit them immensely.