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)

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49ers at Raiders: The Black Hole

San Francisco 49ers v Oakland Raiders

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The 49ers effectively ended their season on Sunday, failing in all three aspects of the game and struggling to look competent against one of the league’s worst teams. Anyone paying attention to this team saw this coming, just not necessarily against the Raiders. There isn’t much to say. The rest of the season has a new meaning. It’s on Jim Harbaugh to salvage what the 49ers have left and either prove his worth to Jed York or give his resume a little more oomph. Past that, the 49ers will be playing for pride and spite. The playoffs are still technically in reach, but after the last few weeks, I’m not going to torment myself with the idea of them playing in January.

The Good Thing

Bruce Ellington

Sunday’s sole bright spot was in the return game. The 2014 49ers have been horrible on special teams, consistently putting the offense in terrible position and sticking the defense in tricky spots. They are ranked 28th in the league, but, like every other position group, have had their share of injuries. Ellington was absolutely electric in college, and I was really excited when the 49ers drafted him. After years of placing my hopes in Kyle Williams and LaMichael James, it was nice to finally see the 49ers get SOMETHING together in the return game. Ellington was great on Sunday, averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return and showing exactly why he will be a big factor in the 49ers’ long-term plans.

The Bad Things

Pass Rush

For the first time in a while, the pass rush failed to get anything done. Rookie quarterback Derek Carr was lauded throughout the game for his calm in the pocket, but it was the Raiders’ offensive line stonewalling Aaron Lynch, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith that allowed their offense to flow.

Gameplan

The 49ers averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the Raiders, but only rushed 18 times. For whatever reason, the coaching staff decided that this distinct advantage was not worth exploiting. This is a team that averages 28 rushing attempts per game, but on a day that Frank Gore was able to pick up chunks of yardage, did not rely on this obvious strength. I would love to say that this was an isolated incident, but this has strung the 49ers numerous times during Greg Roman’s reign, most notably against the Seahawks.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was the polar opposite of Carr: jerky, indecisive and utterly ineffective. He threw an ugly, useless interception on the first play and never got it together after that. He’s had ugly stretches before, but he’s also had a strong run game to rely on. In a season like this, where everything seems to be going wrong, Kaep has failed to rally the team consistently. He is one of the many reasons the 49ers will be missing the playoffs, but nobody can honestly cite him as the primary driver of the offense’s ineffectiveness. Whatever is going on with Kaep, I hope he is learning. No quarterback has a flawless career, but the truly good ones learn from their failures and never let the problems of the present drag them down and hinder their development.

49ers at Cowboys: Opening the Season in Style

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The 49ers move to 1-0 after defeating a decidedly inferior team on Sunday afternoon. Just as I wrote in my pregame post, a hefty percentage of this game is semi-irrelevant; the 49ers we watched probably aren’t the 49ers we will be watching for the bulk of the season. We can be thankful for the macro results of the game, but there was too much downright weird stuff for us to look at this as anything but a typically aberrant season opener. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Turnovers

It was great to see the 49ers out there ballhawking. Whatever glaring weaknesses the defense had, they more than made up for them by taking advantage of each and every mistake the Cowboys’ offense made. Tony Romo threw three picks, but it was nearly five, and the 49ers started the game on the highest possible note with Chris Culliver recovering a fumble for a touchdown on the second play of the game. As I’ve written before, turnovers are erratic and cannot be counted on, but the sheer volume of turnovers is at least partially the result of a sound defensive scheme and the 49ers’ talent.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was more crisp and composed than I ever remember him looking. He was facing down one of the league’s worst defenses, but was impressive nonetheless, posting a career-best 125.5 QBR and throwing some incredible passes. It was a small sample size, as the game was basically over at the half, but I saw a lot of good and very little bad from Kaep. My favorite thing was the ball distribution: Anquan Boldin was Kaep’s favorite target, but he managed to give everyone some touches, including newcomer Stevie Johnson. This game was not enough to dispel the lingering doubts about Kaep’s ability to go through progressions, but it was a big step forward.

Run Game

Amazingly, the 49ers did not run the ball once until the 2nd quarter . Again, this was more due to the turnovers than anything, but even without actually looking it up I feel confident saying that this was the first time Frank Gore did not get a touch in the first quarter in the Jim Harbaugh era. That weirdness aside, the run game looked great, with Gore showcasing his prodigious vision (and surpassing the 10,000 yard mark) and Carlos Hyde showing some incredible burst off the line. What was particularly striking was how well balanced they were; Greg Roman struggled to fully incorporate LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter in recent years, but I love that he was willing to give Hyde plenty of chances.

The Bad Things

Defensive Line

The d-line was inconsistent on Sunday, never really pressuring Tony Romo and struggling to stop the run through the first half. It seemed like the 49ers were more committed to preventing big plays through the air than short yards on the ground, but Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith’s absences loomed large. As I have said repeatedly before, this was the season opener, and I know that Jim Tomsula and Vic Fangio are going to be working overtime to get the d-line back in working order this week. The 49ers are facing one of the league’s most prolific rushers next week in Matt Forte, and they will need to generate more pressure if they want to beat the Bears.

Penalties

Stupid officiating aside, the 49ers looked out of synch, giving up 80 total yards on 11 penalties. We saw the same thing week one last year with the 49ers losing 85 yards on 11 penalties, and generally lacking discipline. Hopefully this goes away quickly like it did in 2013.

The Other Things

Offensive Line

The O-line was less than impressive on Sunday, a fact that is easily ignored given how well Kaep performed under pressure. They are missing two starters in Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, so some struggles can be expected. Jonathan Martin and Joe Looney actually did quite well; it was veteran Mike Iuapati that failed to impress. Boone and Davis should be back soon, which, apart from newbie Daniel Kilgore at center, would round out the same group the 49ers had in 2012 and 2013.

Secondary

The secondary was a bit of everything, providing tight coverage but also showing some of rawness. Rookies Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson had great starts, while Tramaine Brock and Culliver were solid, if not impressive. Brock, Culliver and Ward were all injured, but none of the injuries proved serious other than Culliver’s concussion. The secondary was also not thoroughly tested, but they will be tried a bit more thoroughly next week by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Robbed, Again

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Kirby Lee

I felt surprisingly emotionless after last night’s game. It was upsetting, but in a way that was different from the Super Bowl. Maybe I learned last February that playing “what if” after a tough loss is unwise, or I was better braced for a loss. After months of buildup and a week filled with internet trash-talking, I was totally prepared to embrace the rivalry and come away from the game hating the Seahawks. That didn’t happen. Their fan base is obnoxious and doesn’t deserve the win, but any anger I felt last night was directed at the referees. If you look at last night’s game as a series of semi-connected events, the 49ers were given multiple opportunities to take the lead and failed to do exactly that. The three turnovers in the 4th quarter are the 49ers’ fault, no question. However, that entire series of events came after the game pivoted on a crucial point. After being behind for most of the game, a mishandled penalty by the referees gave Seattle a possession they never should have had. The Seahawks used that possession to score a touchdown and take a lead they would never surrender. Despite barely keeping up with the 49ers for much of the game, the Seahawks were suddenly in the ideal position: ahead of the 49ers and only a couple of defensive stands away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It was a day of baffling officiating. The Seahawks were given generous spots numerous times, providing first downs that were not earned and keeping drives alive. Donte Whiter was penalized for a tackle which he had no control over, while the Seahawks administered numerous helmet to helmet hits (with LaMichael James and Vernon Davis on the receiving end) that were never flagged. The referees also seemed unwilling to penalize Russell Wilson for intentional grounding; it took Wilson committing the penalty twice and Coach Harbaugh hassling the referees to get a flag thrown. Navorro Bowman sacrificed his leg to hold on to a fumble and give the 49ers possession at the 1 yard line, only to have the referees give possession to the Seahawks once Marshawn Lynch snatched the ball away from him.

The worst penalty came in the 4th quarter. With the score 17-13 in the 49ers’ favor, Andy Lee punted the ball away from San Francisco’s 20 yard line. He was tackled in the leg by Chris Maragos. A review of the play held that the tackle should have resulted in 15 yards and a fresh set of downs for the 49ers. Instead, the referees called it a 5 yard penalty and allowed the Seahawks to take possession. The Seahawks managed to put together a drive and score, putting them 3 points ahead of the 49ers. When they were ahead, the 49ers played conservatively and challenged Seattle’s defense to make plays. When they fell behind, Kaep was forced to throw more, and Seattle was primed to force turnovers.I cannot say that the 49ers would have won had the officials done their job properly, but I can say there is simply no excuse for these failures. Given what happened, no one can honestly say that the better team won yesterday.

As I watched the 49ers squander their final opportunities, it felt meaningless. If the rules are not enforced as they are written, the game loses legitimacy in my mind. The stats from each team are remarkably similar; the same yardage, penalties, passes and almost everything else. However, when a team loses a possession and the other gains one and it allows them to put the other team behind, it makes everything that occurs after suspect. It is becoming more and more difficult to accept this kind of error. The NFL has done the bare minimum to address problems with officiating, and we can only hope that games like this put more pressure on them.

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.

49ers at Buccaneers: A Step Forward

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The 49ers move into double digit wins, notching their tenth (and fourth consecutive) victory after taking down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They are one win away from securing a playoff birth, and are looking better and better as the season goes on. It was a resounding win, but the team lost one of their key role-players to injury. Fullback Bruce Miller fractured his scapula and is likely out for the remainder of the season. He has been a big, if relatively unseen, part of the 49ers’ offense thus far, and it will be interesting to see what the coaching staff does to replace him. Here is what I saw on Sunday:

The Good Things:

Offense

The 49ers had an excellent game plan coming into this matchup. The offense was not just balanced, but eerily symmetrical, with the 49ers picking up 189 passing yards and 185 rushing yards. Despite the win, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the offense was struggling to turn the corner at times. The 49ers got into Tampa territory three times only to stall and punt the ball away. There was also a lack of execution in the red zone, but both of these things are small strikes against what was in the end a great offensive effort. Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the 49ers game plan was the distribution; every player (except Mario Manningham) made a contribution, complementing a strong game from Frank Gore.

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep has been improving steadily over the last few games, and played what I thought was his best all-around game of the season. He was accurate and decisive, and kept the ball moving through the whole game. His improvisation and ability to extend plays was the most remarkable part of this game; his 39 yards rushing included two 3rd down scrambles that resulted in a new set of downs. It is clear that having Michael Crabtree helps other receivers to get open, making Kaep’s speed and evasiveness all the more dangerous. Tampa’s defense, easily the strongest part of the team, was kept on its heels for most of the game.

Defense

The defense was excellent yet again. They got after Mike Glennon and the Bucs’ offensive line, allowing only two scoring drives the whole game. They held Tampa to 13 first downs and 183 total yards, marking the third time this season the 49ers have held an offense under 200 yards. The Bucs’ two drives were impressive; Glennon weathered the storm of the 49ers’ pass rush and took advantage of some blown coverage to pick up 172 total yards and keep the game interesting. The defense was able to control the game by holding Tampa to 39 yards on the ground, their lowest rushing yards allowed this year.

Special Teams

The coverage and return units were excellent on Sunday. LaMichael James provided some solid returns while Raymond Ventrone led another game of suffocating coverage. Kendall Hunter’s recovery of a botched special teams handoff effectively ended the game; it pushed the score out of the Bucs’ reach and ensured a win long before Glennon threw an interception to Eric Reid.

The Bad Thing:

Penalties

The 49ers lost 62 yards on 8 penalties, which is above average for the season. The last two games agains the Rams and Seahawks were heavily penalized, but that is to be expected against division rivals. The Buccaneers are the most penalized team in the NFL, but looked calm and disciplined in comparison to the 49ers. Many of the penalties were stupid and preventable; the coaching staff needs to iron these lapses out.

The Other Things:

Offensive Line

It was a mediocre game for the offensive line, who struggled to deal with the Bucs’ blitzes, but were able to power the run game to 185 yards. Kaep’s improvisation came in the face of Tampa’s pass rush, meaning some of his completions could have easily been sacks. The o-line has been banged up, but has played reasonably well without Mike Iupati. However, it is clear that their play has regressed somewhat since last season.

Michael Crabtree

Crab made some great plays, and looked very much like the clutch receiver we remember from 2012. He also committed one of the dumbest penalties of the year, chucking the ball away in frustration and costing the team 15 yards in the middle of a critical drive. He has been penalized several times since his return, most notably picking up two flags and losing 20 yards in his first offensive series against the Rams. Crab looks eager to make an impact on the 49ers’ offense, but getting emotional is clearly going to do more harm than good. The threat he represents has helped the offense to grow and evolve, but he needs to show discipline or he will undo any the good he provides.

Seahawks at 49ers: Defending Candlestick

Kyle Terada

Kyle Terada

The 49ers beat the Seahawks on Sunday, preventing Seattle from clinching the division. A glance at the numbers would tell you that it was an ugly, defensive game, and you would be right. It was also one of the best games of the season, which showcased how good the 49ers are, and hinting at how much better they could be. An incredible second half by the defense and excellent special teams controlled the game, making the margin of victory feel much larger than two points. It wasn’t dominance, and the 49ers offense still hasn’t hit its stride, but it was the outcome we wanted and should give the team confidence as they push for the playoffs. Beating a team that only a few days ago was considered the best in the league goes a long way. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Defense

Their play wasn’t perfect, but considering how well Seattle has looked on offense in the past, it was an excellent game for the 49ers’ D. Limiting Russell Wilson to a career low 2 yards rushing was huge, as was holding Marshawn Lynch to 74 yards on the ground. The defense did a great job preventing big plays, keeping Wilson in front of them and covering Seattle’s receivers. However, it was their adjustments going into the second half that set this game apart. Holding the Seahawks to 83 yards and 3 points in the last two quarters was remarkable; their stifling play was best encapsulated by a game-saving red zone stand that kept Seattle from scoring a touchdown. After a 38 yard return from Golden Tate, the Seahawks took over at San Francisco’s 27 yard line. They only managed to gain 14 yards, the defense stuffing Lynch for 5 yards on three carries and giving the offense a chance to retake the lead. I have written about Seattle’s ability to lock down the fourth quarter and come back; it is a testament to the 49ers defense that they made such a comeback impossible.

Frank Gore

It was a mostly uneven day for Gore, who saw limited use, but, as we all know, delivered the play of the game. Taking away that play, his yards per carry stand at about 3.7, which is low but not terrible given the tenacity of Seattle’s defense. He left the game with an injury early on, but made his impact felt in the fourth quarter, busting out a 51 yard dash that set the 49ers up for the game winning field goal. The mesmerizing .gif of his run encapsulates why Gore is one of the best backs in the league. A great play call and some excellent blocks from Bruce Miller and Vance McDonald gave Gore a big hole, but it was his incredibly subtle movements across the line of scrimmage that made the play. Betting on Earl Thomas to go after him, Gore feints left as he enters the Seahawks’ secondary. As Thomas bites, Gore turns on the jets, streaking between Thomas and Richard Sherman and grinding Seattle’s hopes and dreams into dust. Realizing he didn’t have a chance to take it to the house, Gore goes down at Seattle’s 18 yard line, allowing the clock to run. His vision, intelligence and speed make this play, in my opinion, the play of the year.

Special Teams

The 49ers’ special teams unit rose to the occasion, providing great coverage for most of the game. Raymond Ventrone, Kassim Osgood and LaMichael James had great days, giving Seattle’s top-flight special teamers a run for their money. Osgood’s blocked punt was a great tone-setter, even if the 49ers’ offense wasn’t able to fully capitalize off of it.

The Bad Thing:

Red Zone Execution

The 49ers mostly fell apart in the red zone, settling for two field goals and a boneheaded interception inside Seattle’s 20 yard line. Seattle is very stingy, and it wasn’t necessarily surprising that they were able to stall drives. What was surprising was the stubborn play calling, which kept the 49ers from reaching the end zone. Running up the gut into a stacked box hasn’t worked well this season, and it isn’t going to work going forward. Colin Kaepernick’s interception was the result of a bad throw, and it echoed a similar red zone pick he threw against Seattle in week 2. The win was great, but the team will have to take full advantage of red zone appearances if they want to win in the playoffs.

The Other Things:

Penalties

As expected this game was heavily penalized, with Sherman, Pete Carroll and even golden boy Wilson complaining about the amount of flags that went against them. It was a poorly officiated game, but it struck me (and everyone else) as more ineptitude than favoritism. As a matter of fact, the referees mishandled the blocked punt, and took ten yards away from the 49ers. No penalty call or non-call ‘stole’ the game from either team; Seattle committing lots of penalties goes right in line with their season, which has been the second most penalized of the year.

Offense

If the offense is looking to get hot before the playoffs, this game might not be the best blueprint. Kaep looked shaky but got enough done and led some solid drives. This isn’t terrible worrisome, as it was against one of the strongest defenses in the league. Many are saying that the best is yet to come; hopefully this offense is close to turning the corner and getting back to its winning ways.

Michael Crabtree

Crab didn’t have a very good day, netting 40 yards on 4 catches. As some have pointed out, he was only a couple of drops from a huge day, but it is clear that Crab isn’t ready to be 49ers’ number one just yet. If he can get his pass-catching skills going, he might become a big factor in the playoff push. His development in the next couple of games will be interesting to watch.

49ers vs. Seahawks: What To Watch For

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The 49ers face the Seahawks for the second time on Sunday in a game that feels sort of important. It isn’t quite a must win; Seattle is the last playoff-bound team that the 49ers will play this season (unless Arizona continues to make a push), meaning they will be well set up to compete for the 6th seed should they lose. The importance is more psychological. Allowing Seattle to clinch the division at Candlestick would be annoying, and it would make the prospect of facing the Seahawks at Century Link in the playoffs all the more daunting. The last two matchups, Seattle seemed to get under the 49ers’ skin and control the game. They need to shake this feeling of ownage, and shake the narrative that the Seahawks are an insurmountable opponent. Nothing I have seen this season tells me that the 49ers cannot win this game. What to watch for:

Defense: The 49ers defense did pretty well against the Seahawks the last time they faced off; it was the turnover battle and a flurry of penalties that eventually led to the lopsided score. Russell Wilson had a particularly underwhelming game, going 8-19, 142 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 pick. Seattle’s offense has improved since, but the 49ers’ defense has gotten scarier as well. The pass rush will be crucial in this game; it has been picking up steam over the last few weeks, and needs to have a big day against Seattle’s mediocre offensive line. Keeping Marshawn Lynch out of rhythm and Wilson on his back will go a long way. Similarly, the secondary has gotten stronger, with Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright bolstering a hard-hitting pair of safeties in Eric Reid and Donte Whitner. This defense has done well against hard-running offenses (Washington) and aerial attacks (Green Bay, New Orleans), but they will need to stay balanced if they want to handle the Seahawks.

Run Game: Frank Gore’s recent struggles, mostly the result of opposing defenses working to take away the run, need to end. Greg Roman needs to make an early commitment to the run and keep Seattle on its heels. The Seahawks’ defense isn’t great against the run, and the only way the 49ers will get anything going in the air will be by forcing Seattle to sell out to stop Gore. Hopefully, the home field environment and a few weeks of limited ground attack will set Gore up for some big plays.

Vernon Davis: The last two times the 49ers played the Seahawks, Davis left the game early after taking a big hit. He is an indispensable part of the 49ers’ offense, and, whether or not he has a big pass-catching day, needs to stay healthy. His blocking is a huge part of what powers Gore and Kendall Hunter in big-bodied, physical running plays like Trap and Wham. Losing him against Carolina and Indianapolis hamstrung the offense, and it cannot happen against Seattle.

Early Starts: The offense doesn’t need to be incredible to win this game. A revitalized receiving corp will be helpful, but only if used effectively. The 49ers need to get started early, however, if they want to control the field. Scoring a touchdown or at least putting together some long drives in the first quarter will help keep the defense fresh and knock the wind out of Seattle’s secondary. The Seahawks are a team that thrives on momentum, and keeping them off-balance is essential if the offense wants to get anything going.

Penalties: Seattle is the league’s second most penalized team, averaging 74.25 yards lost per game. On the road, this number ticks up to 81, and against NFC West opponents, 79. The last time the 49ers played them, they outdid the Seahawks, losing an appalling 121 yards in penalties to Seattle’s 84. Many penalties came on third down, and kept Seattle drives alive. As we saw last week against the Rams, the 49ers tend to get scrappy against divisional opponents (averaging 81.5 vs. NFC West), but they have otherwise been pretty clean, averaging 54 yards lost per game. The Seahawks have a reputation as smack-talkers, and the 49ers will need to lock things down if they want to keep the game winnable. Stupid penalties sustaining Seattle drives or putting the offense in long-yardage situations will destroy their chances, particularly in a defensive battle like this game promises to be. The cooler heads will prevail on Sunday.

Turnover Battle: Turnovers will loom large in this game. The 49ers were utterly defeated in the turnover battle last time, coughing up the ball 5 times to Seattle’s 1. Kaepernick, and the offense as a whole, has since improved ball security, but the Seahawks are notorious for forcing turnovers. I do not foresee the turnover battle being so one-sided this time around, but it will no doubt play a crucial role, particularity late in the game. The 49ers’ defense has been great at forcing turnovers this year, which has become a huge weapon given the offense’s perfect track record scoring after turnovers. If they can force Wilson to make poor decisions, it could prove the difference in this game.

Special Teams: This will be a good game for LaMichael James to go full on Kyle-Williams-fair-catchathon. Seattle has excellent special teams, and it would probably be best to play things safe rather than risk any special teams turnovers.

Rivalry: A final note on the rivalry… Just like the last game, the hype around this matchup has been ridiculous. It doesn’t have the playoff implications that everyone predicted before the season, but it still has the feel of a huge game. That said, nothing about the week 2 or the games before it have inspired me to look at the Seahawks as a rival. They are a big challenge to the 49ers’ Super Bowl hopes, sure, but the stupidity of both fanbases only reinforces my opinion that the ‘rivalry’ is just a big, overhyped, profit-push by the NFL, ESPN and anyone else that stands to gain from fan fervor. If this becomes a long term rivalry, fine, but fans of both teams need to chill out. Its getting embarrassing for everyone.

49ers at Washington: Return of the Smith Brothers

Ricky Carioti

Ricky Carioti

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the 49ers’ game against Washington was the most satisfying of the season thus far. Out-pointing or out-scheming an inferior team is great, but the 49ers utterly dominated Washington. The prevailing narrative before and no doubt after the game is that the 49ers are only capable of beating bad teams, and this isn’t necessarily incorrect. Washington has one of the worst defenses in the league, and it was important to keep this in mind as the dust cleared. They also have several highly functional parts, including the league’s best rushing attack in terms of yards per game, and the 4th best offensive line per Pro Football Focus. The 49ers offense dismantling Washington wasn’t surprising, but simply saying a good team beat a bad team doesn’t tell the whole story. The 49ers showcased several new and exciting changes in each phase of the game, which left me feeling more hopeful about this season than I have in the past. Here is what I saw:

Good Things:

Defense

The 49ers defense seems to get better every week. Aldon Smith had a huge night, but he was just a piece of a smothering defensive effort. Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Donte Whitner, Navarro Bowman, Patrick Willis and even Carlos Rogers had big days, flattening Washington’s attack and keeping them out of the end zone the whole game. There is no better example of defensive dominance than Washington’s first drive in the second half. After recovering a Vernon Davis fumble, Robert Griffin III took over at the 49ers 49 yard line. The 49ers were only up by four points, and had to keep Washington bottled up. After surrendering 8 yards to Alfred Morris and a short pass to Santana Moss, the defense managed to stop the drive: Roy Helu ran right on 4rd down, but was stuffed for only one yard by Willis and Bowman. The 49ers slim lead was preserved, and the stop allowed the offense to put together a 61 yard scoring drive. The defense was great all day, but particularly in these do-or-die moments. They held Morris to 52 yards rushing, his lowest since week 1, and kept RGIII from making any big plays.

Pass Rush

Yes, pass rush is part of the defense, but it still deserves its own mention. As I mentioned above, the defense was pitted against an excellent offensive line and still found ways to pancake RGIII all night long. Aldon Smith made Pro-Bowl tackle Trent Williams look foolish, finishing the game with 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit 5 hurries on 23 rushing plays, meaning he was able to reach and harass RGIII on 35% of his plays. The Smith brothers have returned to mid-2012 form, complementing what has already become a career-best season for Ahmad Brooks. The pass rush has been good, if inconsistent, for most of the season, but it seems to be clicking at the perfect time. Ray McDonald’s return to the front seven will only make this defense stronger… a scary thought for opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.

Offense

It was another slow start, but the 49ers offense looked wholly competent for the first time in weeks. Colin Kaepernick enjoyed great protection the whole game, and made some incredible plays. He wasn’t perfect; one of his passes was nearly picked off thanks to a poor decision to throw into double coverage. All that said, it was an aggressive, dynamic attack that highlighted his accuracy and big play ability. He also spread the ball out more than any other game this season, getting Mario Manningham involved with 4 catches and even hitting a wide open Vance McDonald with a 23 yard pass late in the game.

LaMichael James

The sad truth about the 49ers’ return game is that James could have walked all of his returns and would have gained more yards that Kyle Williams. The coaching staff has smartly given Williams return duties, allowing him to work in the open field and show off his incredible speed. He already looks better than Williams or Ted Ginn Jr. and will only get better with practice. His 125 yard game came against one of the worst coverage units in the league, but is hopefully a sign of great things to come.

Bad Thing:

Run Game

The 49ers finished the game with 76 rushing yards on 33 attempts, averaging 2.3 yards per attempt. Washington followed the blueprint of other teams, stacking the box and forcing the 49ers to throw the ball, which helped contribute to a season-low in rushing yards. Frank Gore was only given 13 touches, but had a great day pass blocking and setting up play-action throws. The run game has all but disappeared over the last three weeks, something that is partially the result of defenses selling out to stop the run and partially pass-heavy play calling. However, it isn’t clear why Greg Roman is holding Gore back. My bet is that he is saving him for the playoffs, but doing so may hamstring the offense against better defensive teams like Arizona and Seattle. There is certainly some logic to keeping Gore rested for the postseason, but with the Wildcard race tightening, the 49ers will need him to be put him in the position to contribute.

Other Thing:

Play Calling

Roman gets a reprieve from accusations of ineptitude this week. The 49ers game plan took a while to take shape, but it attacked Washington’s secondary consistently and kept their defense reeling. His tricky play calling payed major dividends at the end of the 49ers’ final drive of the 3rd quarter. After picking up 20 yards with Gore and Kaepernick runs, Washington lined up on their one yard line, confident that the 49ers would try to drive the ball up the gut with another run. Instead, Kaep floated a pass to a wide open Vernon Davis, who cut away from the line of scrimmage at the last second. The offense looked prepped and ready, and didn’t get in their own way too much. Hopefully, Roman can find a way to integrate the run game in with the offense we saw on Monday. It wasn’t a flawless game for Roman, given his inability to get the ground attack going, but it was a step in the right direction.

49ers vs. Washington: What to Watch For

Washington+Redskins+v+San+Francisco+49ers+5I_lhECta9HlThe 49ers take on Washington tomorrow on Monday Nigh Football. This game will be interesting for a number of reasons; the NFC West now plays host to three contenders, and the 49ers need to get their offense going if they want to make it to the playoffs. Arizona’s bizarre rise makes the next slate of games very interesting. The if the 49ers can get hot in the next few weeks, they have an outside shot at overtaking Seattle in the division. Given their poor play recently, it seems very unlikely, but it is still too soon to rule anything out. Here is what to watch for tomorrow:

Run Defense: Washington is 3-7 thanks to their poor defense and some inconsistent play from Robert Griffin III. However, they have had tremendous success running the ball, averaging 155 yards per game. The 49ers run defense hasn’t been as staunch as it has in the past, but they have improved against the pass. Vic Fangio has used a more balanced approach this season, but this would be an excellent game to stack the box and keep Alfred Morris at bay. Forcing Washington’s offense to stay one dimensional will allow the 49ers’ secondary to make plays and force turnovers.

Offensive Line: The o-line has been inconsistent, performing well at times but generally not rising to the challenge over the last two weeks. This may have to do with the reduced emphasis on the run, which has left the whole offense out of synch. Additionally, Mike Iupati was ruled out and will be replaced by backup guard Adam Snyder. This will be a great chance for the o-line to bounce back, but whether or not that happens will hinge on Greg Roman and the offensive strategy the 49ers bring.

Offense: Much like week 4 against the Texans, the 49ers will have a good shot at dispelling what has been plaguing them over the last couple of weeks. Washington’s glaring weakness is their defense which is ranked 31st in the league in points per game. A calm, conservative and efficient game from Colin Kaepernick and a strong day from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter should be enough for the 49ers to come away with a big road win. Look for Vernon Davis to play a major role as well; Washington’s secondary will be hard pressed to stop him in the red zone.

LaMichael James: Washington has arguably the worst special teams coverage in the league, and it will be interesting to see how James fares. He has already outperformed the hapless Kyle Williams in return duties, and will no doubt be given plenty of chances to break out tomorrow. If the 49ers’ offense struggles to get off the ground early in the game, field position will play a major role in setting the tone. James can prove the doubters wrong by exposing the cracks in Washington’s coverage unit.