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

rice_td.jg.0994

Jason Grow/ The San Jose Mercury News

In week six of the 2013 season the 49ers flew to London to take on the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite all signs pointing to a sure win, I had some reservations. How would the trip impact the team? Would the distraction of being in another country or the jetlag slow the 49ers down on the practice field and in the game? The 49ers were 5-2, but were still recovering from those ugly back to back losses to the Seahawks and Colts. Their success against Jacksonville wasn’t a sure thing.

This year, the 49ers are 7-5, yet things feel a lot more shaky. Their matchup with Oakland is a ‘road’ game, but it is the easiest possible road game they could play. Oakland is a statistically inferior team that has only managed to win one game. They are ostensibly recovering from years of horrible drafts, management and coaching, but whether they can legitimately improve isn’t clear.

Their defense is currently ranked 22nd in efficiency, their offense is 30th. They have enjoyed some production from rookie quarterback Derek Carr and halfback Latavius Murray, but they haven’t had any consistency from any position group. The Raiders have two goals in this game: get the younger players reps, and ruin the 49ers’ playoff chances.

There is only one thing I will be looking for tomorrow: dominance. The 49ers are in the best possible position to control this game; they just need to execute. What happened against Seattle felt inevitable. Against the Giants and Washington, the 49ers defense forced six turnovers, but the offense only managed to outscore the other teams by ten points. That vapid production was not going to work against the Seahawks.

This Oakland game represents the 49ers’ best chance to get things right on offense. You can call me ridiculous, but a win by anything less than two scores will be a disappointment. Another weak, inconsistent, penalty-filled effort by the offense resulting in a win will simply delay the inevitable: yet another loss in Seattle.

At this point, it doesn’t matter how they do it. Whether it’s Frank Gore running roughshod over the Raiders, or Colin Kaepernick finally getting Stevie Johnson and Vernon Davis involved in the passing game, they need to get some confidence and make it more difficult for their remaining opponents to draw up a defensive game plan. The lack of rushing success has left their offense one (or none) dimensional.

To put it in simpler terms: they need to get their mojo back.

C’mon Niners. Just destroy this stupid team like you should.

49ers at the Halfway Point

AP

AP

The sports world has been pretty busy for the last couple of weeks; some amazing and awful things happened that changed the tenor of the NFL. However, not even the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin debate can slow the implacable tide of baseless conjecture that follows each franchise. The 49ers are halfway through an up-and-down season, which has given pundits plenty to talk about. The catch all narratives of the Niners make it easier for SportsCenter to regurgitate half-formed projections and theories, but they often serve to mislead the viewer. Many sports blogs find a niche refuting this style of sports journalism, parsing what is said and why, and knocking down the opinions that don’t make sense. In that spirit, I have collected the most important stories following the 49ers, and provided clarity:

Good Story: The 49ers have returned to an offensive style that works.

Bad Story: The 49ers have a one-dimensional offense.

Reality: The 49ers run the ball really well, and pass when it counts.

A lot has been made of the 49ers offense in the last five weeks. After the pass-heavy, and largely unsuccessful attack wore out its welcome in week three, Greg Roman swallowed his pride and began using the tools his offense possesses to devastating effect. Frank Gore is not the stud back he was a few years ago, but he functions perfectly in what has become the best ground attack in the league. The annoying thing about this story is how it reflects on Colin Kaepernick. There are two other teams (Seahawks, Chiefs) using a similar strategy to win, but only the 49ers have been accused of one-dimensionality. Seattle has picked up 1323 yards rushing, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt, the Chiefs have 1071 yards with 4.2 yards per attempt, and the 49ers have 1224 yards with 4.5 yards per attempt. The combined record of those three teams is 23-3. Jim Harbaugh and Roman have kept Kaep under control, and for good reason. The 49ers do not yet possess the depth at wideout to attack through the air consistently, which brings me to my next point…

Good Story: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

Bad Story: The 49ers cannot move the ball through the air.

Reality: The 49ers are depleted at wide receiver.

After Crabtree’s injury went public, I wrote a post about Kaep’s ability to spread the ball around. I don’t think Kaep has been as unsuccessful throwing the ball as the numbers show; Kyle Williams’ ineptitude and the lack of any other option outside of Anquan Boldin means the 49ers are limited. The fact that they have been able to win five straight shows that this limitation has not ended their season. The return of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, if handled properly, could make this offense tough to stop. Three great receivers, all of whom have shown some level of chemistry with Kaep, paired with Vernon Davis and the aforementioned run game sounds pretty damn good to me.

Good Story: The 49ers have dominated the last five games.

Bad Story: The 49ers have only beaten bad teams.

Reality: The 49ers have won exactly the way they should win.

The 1-2 start may have been a good thing, after all. Losing to Seattle and Indianapolis showed the 49ers that they needed to get themselves together if they wanted to make it to the playoffs, and as a result they have steamrolled a decent slate of teams. The changes in the 49ers strategy and attitude go deeper than playcalling; remarkable special teams efforts, a lack of foolish penalties and a defense that can force turnovers have kept San Francisco’s opponents on their heels. The team has shown that it truly looks at every game as a crucial one, and they prepare accordingly. This attitude will be tested against Carolina, but it is clear that this team can bounce back when it needs to.

Good Story: The 49ers are set to get stronger/get hot before the playoffs.

Bad Story: The 49ers have plenty of challenges ahead.

Reality: The 49ers have a lot of work to do, but they are more than capable.

The return of Aldon Smith, Crabtree, Manningham and the highly-anticipated debut of Tank Carradine have a lot of fans excited, but it will be a challenge to fit them in with what has been working for the 49ers. They will be folding the above players into their gameplan, but how effective those players are will depend on how they are used. The team should give Gore more rest, but the run game must remain the centerpiece of their strategy. On defense, they need to limit the run a little better, but not sacrifice too much of their pass-prevention. The 49ers success in the last five weeks was made possible by excellent play from the whole team, from Corey Lemonier, Dan Skuta, Kassim Osgood, Glenn Dorsey and Justin Smith. Star players returning to the roster is good, but how much of an impact they have will be decided by the coaching staff and whether or not the team can keep up the momentum.

The Trouble With Kaepernick

Kapbaugh

The 49ers seem to be missing a quarterback. Colin Kaepernick has been as conservative as we’ve ever seen in his short career. His low passing numbers are well known; what isn’t known is where he and the 49ers go from here. He is one of several young quarterbacks struggling to help their team. Russel Wilson, Robert Griffin III, and Kaep have all been inconsistent, showing up to play in some games and getting shut down in others. Kaepernick became a star after taking over last season, and as a result his recent performance is being heavily scrutinized. However, it is too early to tell where he will go. After five games, no one can rightfully say that the league has figured Kaep out, nor can anyone say that he is playing at the level he reached last year. A lot of Kaep’s problems are the result of perception; after his incredible entrance last season, he has been hailed as a potential great, a franchise QB in the making, and an unbeatable athlete with a never before seen skillset. These predictions ignored many of the shortcomings he and the 49ers exhibited last year, and more importantly they ignored his lack of experience. Since he became the starter, we have seen many different sides of Kaep, and he has simply not had enough time to establish any consistency.The 49ers coaching staff believe that he can be every bit as good as the pundits say; it is now a matter of him keeping up. Here are a few of my thoughts on his recent struggles, and why I am not worried about Kaepernick (yet):

Wins:

The 49ers have a winning record. This is a testament to the whole team, from the newly revitalized secondary to a special teams unit that looks vastly improved over last year’s. They have beaten two teams that reached the playoffs in 2012, one with a top-flight offense and the other with a #1 ranked defense. Despite Kaepernick looking totally lost against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers are still very much in contention and will continue to succeed. This point isn’t directly revelatory of Kaepernick, but it is important to keep in mind.

Frank Gore and the Run Game:

Where Kaepernick has fallen short, Gore has thrived. This isn’t a bad thing; Frank Gore is one of the keys to the 49ers’ success. Since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2011, the 49ers have a 14-0-1 record when Gore rushes for 80 yards or more (3-1-0 in the playoffs), and a 3-6-0 record when he is held under 50 yards. The 49ers offensive line and running back corp have excellent chemistry and are very difficult to stop once they get rolling. Even after Kaep took over, it was the excellent run blocking and gritty performances from Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James that helped establish the offense. Against the Seahawks and Colts, Greg Roman tried to reduce the ground attack, and as a result the 49ers offense looked lost.

Wide Receivers:

You cannot overstate the lack of receiving talent the 49ers possess. This is not meant as an excuse for Kaep; it is simply a factor in what the 49ers can do against good defenses, and the options they have when trying to move the ball. Other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, no one has stepped up and proven themselves as a threat. Vance McDonald and Kyle Williams have been non-existent, and the highly touted rookie Quinton Patton has been sidelined with an injury. Thus far, the 49ers have been surviving on great defense and the ground attack, and that may be all they have until Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham return. After Crabtree’s injury, I wrote a post¬†about why it wasn’t the end of the world. I cited Kaep’s ability to throw to multiple receivers and creative play calling as good reasons not to worry. Thus far, neither has proven true.

Confidence and Experience:

The game against the Texans was Kaep’s 17th start. He is a very talented, inexperienced quarterback and is playing like one. The offense looked shaky against Seattle and Indianapolis, but this isn’t necessarily surprising. Kaep’s game seems to depend on confidence, both in himself and his team, and he hasn’t exhibited the same never-say-die swagger we saw last season. This does not mean his confidence isn’t there, or that last season was a fluke. After two wins, the 49ers are building up steam and learning what is working early in the season. The 49ers offense isn’t a static thing; it must evolve as Kaepernick improves and exhibits greater awareness. Forcing Kaep to pass against strong defenses didn’t work. The 49ers are facing some weaker teams in the coming weeks, and he will have some great opportunities to move the ball through the air. If you were to look at Andrew Luck or Russel Wilson’s first sixteen games, you would see the same mistakes. What put those quarterbacks in the playoffs was their coaches’ willingness to let them improve slowly and learn the offense. Kaep may be more experienced, but he clearly has plenty to learn and the 49ers need to recognize this.

The Many Faces of Kaep:

We have seen many different Kaepernicks. The Kaep that made plays with his arm against Green Bay in week 1 and picked apart the Patriots last season is different than the Kaep that broke the Packers with the read option in the playoffs, or the Kaep that started slow before he led two comebacks in the playoffs last year. We have also seen Kaep look intimidated and unsure, jerking around in the pocket before throwing an incomplete pass or interception. Most recently, we have seen Kaep the ‘game manager’, a taller, faster Alex Smith impersonator. The good and bad thing about Kaep is that he can be any of these things, but doesn’t seem to have great control of which shows up on any given week. Inconsistency is another rookie tendency, and it will only be really worrisome if it is still a problem next year. He played his heart out in 2012 to earn the starting job, but looks indecisive now that he’s made it. If we start to see a balanced offense that mixes the best of what Kaep can do with a power running game, the 49ers will be in good shape.

Conservative Playcalling and Winning the Turnover Battle:

Kaep has thrown 4 interceptions this season, all of them while Roman was calling a pass-heavy offensive attack. The 49ers defense has done a great job of forcing turnovers, and conservative playcalling has helped the 49ers win the turnover battle. Although it may not be exciting to watch, winning the turnover battle is crucial against contenders like the Colts or Seahawks. If a strong ground attack and an aggressive defense means the 49ers win games, I am all for it.

I guess what I am trying to say is ‘small sample size’. No, this isn’t baseball, and the 49ers have a pretty limited window to let Kaep develop, but it is too early to say anything definitive about him. This season, we have seen Kaep succeed and fail as a passer. It is important that he and the coaches figure out what is working and keep the ball moving. If we are still asking the same questions by week 12, we should start to worry. Until then, let’s keep feeding Frank and building momentum. How Kaep recovers after stumbling the last couple of weeks will be a good test of his leadership. He is the quarterback, and nothing I have seen since he replaced Alex Smith leads me to believe that he will back down from this challenge. Go Niners!