Why the 49ers Are Missing the Playoffs

hi-res-015d79ac08d4b0ac08f6e329ffd4dfbb_crop_north 2Ben Margot/AP

The 49ers ended a three-season playoff streak on Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks for the second time this year. They sit at 7-7, and have very little to play for other than self-respect. The ever-eager local media has pounced on the 49ers and the fans have followed suit, calling for some kind of retribution against a team that has fallen far short of preseason expectations.

Watching the anger and the subsequent blamefest unfold has been equal parts fascinating and depressing. As with any subject debated in the public forum, most fans’ conclusions were hopelessly reductive, excoriating Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman or the bad karma brought on by the much-maligned move to Santa Clara. As with any subject worth discussing, the ‘reason’ that 49ers fans are looking for is far more complicated than any single player or coach; blame should be spread in varying layers across all parts of the 49ers franchise.

However, the most under-discussed factor is, in my opinion, the most obvious reason the 49ers failed to return to the playoffs, or even come close. Last season, I wrote a short piece summing up what I thought was holding the 2013 49ers from dominating: injuries. By the 13th week of the 2013 season, the 49ers had ruled individual players out of games a collective 68 times, an average of 5.6 per game, hampering their ability to produce on offense. This year is even more dramatic.

I put together an edited 2014 roster, eliminating injured players that were never meant to play this season (Brandon Thomas, Marcus Lattimore) and other players buried in the depth chart (Kaleb Ramsey, Keith Reaser). I also omitted Aldon Smith from the list, given the circumstances of his absence. Of this pared-down roster of 43 ‘impact players’, the 49ers have missed a collective total of 135 games, an average of 9.6 players per game. The offense had 58 absences, while the defense struggled with 77. Of those 135 games, Pro Bowlers missed 27. Only 18 players on my roster have gone the whole season without missing a game. Some of those 18, like Chris Borland, Carlos Hyde and possibly Frank Gore, could miss Sunday’s game against the Chargers.

There isn’t any explanation for this, there isn’t any blame to go around. The very simple reality is that this team was missing many, many pieces. They lost team stalwarts like Patrick Willis, and quality backups like Michael Wilhoite and Derek Carrier. They lost players from every corner of the roster, and still managed to stay in the playoff hunt through 13 games. The fact that a team this battered still has a shot at a winning season is, quite frankly, remarkable, and stands in my mind as the best argument for giving Harbaugh another chance in San Francisco.

People spent a lot the 2014 season (and every other season, if we’re being honest) deriding Roman for his predictable and mostly ineffective game plans, but it is crucial that we examine his choices, along with everything else, with these injuries mind. It is easy for me to say that he isn’t dialing up enough run plays, but in so doing I am willfully ignoring the tremendous turnover on the offensive line and at the tight end position. Vance McDonald has failed to impress as a passer but has become one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. He missed 7 games. Losing any player, even a role-player like McDonald, limits what the coach can do.

There are also the lingering injuries, the ones that the 49ers were forced to play through. It’s no secret that Vernon Davis has been a major disappointment this season, but very little consideration is given to how injuries to his ankle and back have limited him. It is so easy to blame his ego, his work ethic or his preseason holdout, but the most obvious reason has been present almost all season. His lack of speed and execution might be the number one reason the 49ers’ passing game struggled so mightily, and his injuries are the only tangible reason I see for his rapid decline.

The poor health of the team is not an excuse as much as a deflating reality. The 49ers could have been coached better. Kaepernick could have worked on his patience and accuracy. Special teams could have un-trainwrecked itself. Roman STILL could have called more run plays. But none of that is really as compelling to me as the numbers listed above. To ask why the 49ers are missing the playoffs and fail to consider the effect injuries have had is simply foolish.

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

hi-res-1d3bb589be4d85706157e4833eb0ab16_crop_northMarcio Jose Sanchez/AP

The 49ers continue their road trip to Denver, where they will take on arguably the best team in the NFL. Everything about this game screams danger. The 49ers are coming off a short week, and will be without the services of Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati. Denver has been pretty much perfect this season; their lone loss came in overtime on the road in Seattle. I firmly believe that this 49ers team can win this game, but it will take some incredible execution and a lot of luck. Here’s what I will be looking for:

Run Game

This is easily the most critical element of this game. The run game not only needs to be consistent, but it also needs to chew up the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning. Football Outsiders ranks the Broncos second in defensive DVOA, but I would rank them a shade lower. Other than the Chiefs and Seahawks, they haven’t faced many teams that boast a quality ground game. They gave up 262 yards to Kansas City and Seattle, showing that they can be beat on the ground, but the 49ers will be working with a banged up offensive line.

Mental Preparedness

Every game is, to some extent, won on the practice field and in the classroom. The 49ers are playing one of the most prolific passers in the league, someone who has been doing the same thing really, really well for 17 seasons. After the Seattle Seahawks shut down Denver’s offense in the Super Bowl, they credited their success to preparation, studying what had worked against the Broncos in 2013. Even shorthanded, the 49ers are talented and physical enough to do something similar, but that talent needs to be backed up by a week of perfect study and practice.

Rookies

The 49ers are starting a lot of rookies on defense, including Chris Borland, Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson. Manning will no doubt work to exploit their inexperience, making this a huge game for the 49ers class of 2014. If Borland, Ward and Johnson are able to step up and keep the ball in front of them, the defense should be able to hold. However, expecting too much of these rookies could prove to be a costly mistake.

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 at Cardinals: What Did You Expect?

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Rob Schumacher/AZCentral Sports

The 49ers blew another one on Sunday, losing to a seemingly inferior Cardinals team led by backup quarterback Drew Stanton. The 49ers made similar mistakes to last week, much like they did in weeks two and three of last season, unloading a full clip into their own foot en route to an embarrassing loss. It was a wholly unentertaining game; I actually turned it off towards the end of the fourth quarter when it became clear that the refs were determined to continually break up the flow of the game. Here is what I saw:

But first! A little something to keep in mind. Lost in the moaning and groaning, the complaints about the officiating, the calls for Greg Roman’s head on a pike is a very obvious and significant truth. The 49ers are missing a ton of talent. Navorro Bowman is out. Aldon Smith is gone until later in the season. Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald both missed Sunday’s game. Anthony Davis, for four years an anchor at right tackle and a key cog in the 49ers’ ground game, is still out. Even newer players like Tramaine Brock are missed. No matter what anyone says about Colin Kaepernick, Roman, Jim Harbaugh, the struggles in the second half or anything else, the undeniable fact is that this 49ers team is banged up, in many ways worse than they were last year. Just keep that in mind.

The Good Things

Colin Kaepernick

Kaep was SHARP on Sunday, completing over 70% of his passes and leading the offense in two strikingly effective drives. What stuck out the most to me was how composed he looked leading what was effectively a brand new offensive scheme . He made mistakes, to be sure, and has been criticized for his yards-per-attempt (8.8), but the short range of his passes was more the result of the game plan and a noticeable lack of speed thanks to Vernon Davis’ absence. It was great to see him bounce back and use all the weapons available to him, including Derek Carrier. This is also one of the more annoying parts of the game; the 49ers wasted a really solid effort from Kaep.

Stevie Johnson

Newbie receiver Stevie Johnson was one of Kaep’s favorite targets on Sunday, particularly on third down. He showed off some of his ‘wiggle’, picking up plenty of yards after catch, and was a huge part of the 49ers’ offensive successes. His chemistry with Kaep will be something to watch going forward.

The Bad Things

Penalties

More on that here.

Pass Rush

Discounting an unofficial sack from Justin Smith and a little pressure from Dan Skuta, Drew Stanton enjoyed an immaculate pocket on Sunday. This is becoming a crisis; the 49ers road is getting a lot tougher in the next couple of weeks, and their secondary isn’t currently capable of holding off the likes of Nick Foles and Peyton Manning without a little help. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer here. Aldon Smith can’t come back, and, other than Tank Carradine, the 49ers have exhausted their options to get some new blood into the pass rush rotation. Other than dialing up more blitzes, which had some moderate success in the first half against the Cardinals, the cavalry is a long way away.

Run Game

What can I say? Discounting a few designed runs for Kaep, the 49ers ran the ball a grand total of nine times on Sunday. Other than a nifty six yard touchdown run from Carlos Hyde, most of the runs were unremarkable– the back was either stuffed behind the line of scrimmage or good for a few quick yards. This is eerily similar to last season, but it makes a little bit more sense. Unlike last year, the 49ers have a lethal set of receivers, and the 00 personnel formations they rolled out on Sunday were pretty damn effective. Also unlike last year, the offensive line is in shambles, with stalwarts like Alex Boone and Mike Iupati failing to get the push that was so central to the run game. However, none of this stops Roman from at least trying to be a little more creative in the run game. It seemed like every give to Gore was an incredibly obvious run formation, and, more often than not, the Cardinals sniffed it out and prevented the 49ers from picking up significant yardage. I don’t understand why it needs to be so black and white with Roman– part of the benefit of having such a threatening complement of receivers is that it can open things up on the ground. I don’t know if this is Roman playing the long game, and he’s planning to move seamlessly into a more balanced offense soon, or he is just utterly unaware of the running back talent on the roster. Whatever the case may be, it needs to change.

Secondary

It’s hard to talk about this secondary, which is full rookies, has-beens and hopefuls, without talking about the pass rush. Jimmie Ward has been ‘exposed’, but throwing a rookie out there against some of the best in the game is rarely a great idea. We’ve seen some good things from Perrish Cox, Dontae Johnson and Antoine Bethea, but they haven’t been able to make up for the lack of pressure on the quarterback. I suppose this group has actually met our expectations, as no one was expecting much of them to open the season. I can only hope that Brock’s return solidifies things a bit.

The Other Thing

Second Half Struggles

The worst thing about the 49ers’ struggles in the second half is that we have to go through another week of idiotic theorizing about why the team seems to fall on its face in the 3rd quarter and never get up. There isn’t a reason for this. There is nothing inherent about the second half that is baffling the 49ers. This is the worst kind of aberration, the kind that fits so neatly into a talking point but that lacks any substance. A combination of factors, most of them outlined above, have contributed to the 49ers scoring almost nothing in the second half.

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

boldinMichael Thomas/Getty Images

The 49ers are in the playoffs for the third year in a row. The team has been through a lot this year. They have survived a slew of injuries, epic Greg Roman cuteness, inept officiating and “adversity” (meaning they had a stretch where anyone writing anything about the 49ers would use the word “adversity” constantly). They enter the playoffs hoping to extend a six game win streak into February. Before that happens, it is important that we recognize the players who have gone above and beyond the call this year: introducing the first annual We Don’t Deserve You Awards!

Offensive WDDYA:

Anquan Boldin

2013 Stats: 85 Rec, 1179 Yds.*, 13.87 Yds/Rec, 73.7 Yds./GM* 7 TD

(*=Leads Team)

Boldin has been simultaneously the most likeable, consistent and entertaining offensive player this season, but that isn’t what gets him the award. Let’s review the facts. Boldin was traded to the 49ers by the Ravens, a team he had all but carried to a Super Bowl victory. He was in Senegal when he heard the news, working with Oxfam on a farmland restoration initiative. He was initially shocked by the move, but put that aside and started ingratiating himself with the 49ers. He opened his career in red and gold with a ridiculous 208 yard day against Green Bay. He went on to become Colin Kaepernick’s most reliable receiver, all the while working for charitable causes in the Bay Area and cultivating a healthy dislike of Richard Sherman. He hasn’t just done his job, he has been a revelation. Boldin has been a consummate team player, which is why he wins. Congratulations, Anquan Boldin. We don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions

Frank Gore

It has been an up and down year for Gore, but that is more the fault of the coaching staff than Gore himself. He saw limited use in some games and lit up others, but at no point was he anything but selfless, hard working and capable. Despite his waning speed, he has been able to remain highly functional within the 49ers’ offense. He also had the best run of the year; a 51 yard burst that kept the Seattle Seahawks from winning at Candlestick for the fifth year in a row.

Vernon Davis

Davis also had an inconsistent season, but never failed to impact every game he played in. Despite numerous injuries, he proved almost uncoverable, working overtime as the 49ers’ only legitimate speedster. He took a lot of punishment this season, enduring painful tackles by defensive backs and stadium walls, but still kept himself largely productive.

Defensive WDDYA:

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ersStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Navorro Bowman

2013 Stats: 5 Sk., 2 Int, 1 TD, 9 PD, 4 FF*, 2 FR, 118 Tckls*. 25 Assts.*

(*=Leads Team)

Could it be anyone else? His stat line, so far ahead of almost everyone else on the team, says a lot. The eye test says even more, however. He more than made up for Patrick Willis’ brief absence, leading the 49ers to a crushing 35-11 win over the St. Louis Rams. Bowman has dominated almost every game, both in terms of numbers and perceptible impact. In that sense, he is the 49ers’ most complete player. He has been totally consistent, active on every play and is usually involved when a big play gets made. He also made what may be the greatest defensive play in 49ers history, picking off Matt Ryan and scoring what might be the last touchdown at Candlestick Park. The play came immediately after, in a rare display of mortality, Bowman whiffed on an onside kick and allowed the Falcons to regain possession of the ball. For being the heart, soul, hands, body, mind, beard and legs of the defense, Bowman wins the award. Congratulations, Navorro Bowman. We don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions

Eric Reid

Dashon Goldson’s heir has performed very well under the pressure of replacing a Pro Bowl Safety. He made an immediate impact in the secondary, showing ball-hawking skills and a willingness to lay the wood. He has quietly become one of the better players on the defense, and is a big part of the 49ers’ revitalized secondary.

Tramaine Brock

Brock has one of the coolest stories I have ever read. After years of being counted out, Brock worked hard and played up to the level of his peers. His first big play, a pick six that set the tone for the 49ers’ game against the Texans, was just one of many aggressive, momentum-shifting grabs this season. He has worked hard to earn a starting spot, and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Falcons at 49ers: Fare Thee Well, Candlestick

APTOPIX Falcons 49ers Football.JPEG-00dce

Well, that was entertaining. The 49ers got the better of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday, securing their spot in the playoffs. The game was far closer than anyone anticipated, keeping Candlestick’s final regular season crowd on the edge of their seats until the very end. In terms of entertainment value, it was a great game that will be remembered for a long time. In terms of home team performance, it was an awkward, uncharacteristic and mildly disconcerting showing by the whole team. The combination of the pressure of closing out the ‘Stick, the playoff berth on the line and some great execution by the Falcons kept the 49ers’ defense wound up and ineffective. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things:

Run Game

Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu spearheaded a monster day for the 49ers running corp, who ravaged the Falcons for 199 yards on the ground. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick all made big plays, picked up 7 first downs, 2 touchdowns and averaged 6.64 yards per play. Gore and Hunter led the 49ers’ final scoring drive, an incredible 3:35 minute rush that seemed to push the game out of Atlanta’s reach. It was the sort of game the 49ers should have against a defense as spotty as the Falcons’. Whether Dixon and Tukuafu can fill in for Bruce Miller against better teams remains to be seen.

“The Pick at the Stick”

Yes, the Falcons are a bad team, and yes, the 49ers let the game get a little too close. Neither of these things really diminish what will go down as one of the greatest moments in recent 49ers history. After nearly four quarters of soft, conservative and mostly ineffective defense, Navorro Bowman and Tramaine Brock engineered a play that, at the time, seemed impossible. That is not to say that Matt Ryan was un-interceptable; it was more a question of momentum, and Bowman’s runback defying what everyone watching that drive was thinking. At that point in the game, most fans were hoping for a field goal, or for the 49ers offense to put together another game saving drive. Moments like that play, which go against everyone’s expectations, are what make football fun to watch.

The Bad Thing:

Defense

After weeks of stifling defense, the 49ers’ D looked totally inept. Unable to get stops or force turnovers, the 49ers seemed powerless against Matt Ryan’s passing attack. It was reminiscent of week 1, when Aaron Rodgers picked apart the 49ers’ secondary with quick, accurate passes and short routes. I have to hand it to Ryan; he stood tall against the 49ers’ pass rush and kept the ball moving. Matt Ryan is an excellent quarterback, and the 49ers have struggled against pass-heavy offenses in the past. However, the most discouraging part of the 49ers’ defensive foibles was the pass rush, which failed to generate significant pressure against Atlanta’s awful offensive line. All that said, I am confident that the 49ers’ defense will get it together after a down game.

The Other Things:

Offense

The offense went from cold to hot, made some great adjustments at halftime and made up for a 3 point first half with four consecutive scoring drives. I have a hard time crediting Atlanta’s defense for the slow start; the 49ers seemed to trip over themselves and fail to execute properly. Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald and Michael Crabtree dropped crucial passes and left the offense to sputter until the third quarter. It was a very conservative game, which was wise considering the playoff implications, but the offense’s strong play in the second half should be recognized as among the best this season.

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.

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.

Robbed

Jason O. Watson, U.S. Presswire

Jason O. Watson, U.S. Presswire

Bad officiating happens all the time. Mistakes are made every game, by every crew, working for and against every team in every sport. The hope is that it somehow evens out, allowing each team to compete in relative fairness. The 49ers have no doubt benefited from poor officiating this season, but I cannot see this game as one that allowed the teams to play fairly. The main complaint is around the personal foul on Drew Brees, which kept the Saints’ game-tying drive alive, but the fact is the officiating was terrible in all four quarters.

Early in the 1st quarter, Saints defensive back Jabari Greer held Jon Baldwin in front of a referee, but was not called. Greer was injured on the play, and because Baldwin didn’t catch Kaep’s pass, the drive stalled. The foul was so obvious that commentators Joe Buck and Troy Aikman highlighted it in a replay that was meant to find out how Greer was injured.

Later on, the 49ers enter the 4th quarter with a six point lead, putting together their best drive of the day. On 3rd and 9 from New Orleans’ 11 yard line, Vernon Davis dropped a pass from Kaep in the corner of the endzone after being flagrantly held by Saints safety Rafael Bush. Again, the commentators spotted the foul, which occurred in front of a ref. The drive stalled, and the 49ers were forced to kick a field goal. A screenshot of the hold appeared on the internet shortly after the game:

HOLDING

These non-calls came on crucial third downs, and killed potentially touchdown scoring drives.

The infamous strip sack on Brees came at the end of this display, capping off a day of questionable calls by Tony Corrente and his crew. The sack was quickly .gifed after it occurred, which highlighted the violence of the hit. I have watched the video and .gif several times, and at no point during the tackle does Ahmad Brooks ‘go after’ Brees’ head or neck. See the .gif here.

Brooks grabs Brees around the shoulder, hitting him hard and loosening his grip on the ball. Brees falls, his head lapsing into the crook of Brooks’ arm, which is apparently the cause of the foul. Brooks tackles the quarterback soundly, a skill he has learned in his seven years in the NFL. In order to avoid touching Brees’ head, his options were:

  1. Fall down (not sound tackling)
  2. Reverse his momentum away from Brees (not sound tackling, not physically possible)
  3. Drop his arms for no reason (not sound tackling)

There is no debate about the cleanliness of the hit. The only debate that should be had is whether this is a case of a bad call or a bad rule. If you ask me, its both. This rule is meant to protect quarterbacks, but a rather astute comparison with a sack on the 49ers’ next drive challenges this idea:

SACK

Brooks was rightfully incensed after the game, questioning whether the site of the game and the profile of the quarterback influenced the referee’s call. He also called into question the NFL’s mandate of player protection, in particular with regard to cut blocks. The 49ers lost nose tackle Ian Williams in week 2 on a brutal cut block by a Seattle Seahawks lineman, which was criticized by the defense.

I am not going to rant about the increasingly protective rules of football, because I believe players should be protected. This was a case of horrible, horrible officiating favoring a home team. Brooks’ hit was just one part of a consistently lackadaisical effort by Tony Corrente and co. When we take the time to watch sports, our enjoyment is predicated on an assumption of fairness. The 49ers lost the game for a number of reasons, which is difficult to swallow on its own. The fact that we spent an otherwise beautiful day in San Francisco watching referees utterly fail to do their job properly is worse.

UPDATE:

Ray Lewis voiced his support for Brooks after the game. Watch the video here.

49ers vs. Panthers: What to Watch For

mario manningham

The 49ers will take on the Carolina Panthers tomorrow, hoping to pick up their 6th straight win after a long road trip. This game will have a very different feel from the last few; the Panthers have momentum after winning four straight games, and possess a defense that matches up well with the 49ers. The general take on this game is that it is a test for San Francisco; they have run roughshod over some mediocre teams, but need to keep evolving if they want to hang with contenders like Carolina or New Orleans. This game will also be the debut of Tank Carradine and Eric Wright, as well as a homecoming for Aldon Smith and Mario Manningham. The 49ers can win this game, but they will have to stay out of their own way and force Cam Newton to make mistakes. Here’s what I will be watching for:

Defense: The 49ers defense must stay balanced and aggressive against Carolina; the Panthers have a lot of weapons and big play ability. That said, the Panthers haven’t faced many strong, physical defenses this season. The Seahawks were able to hold Cam Newton to 253 yards and a touchdown in week 1, and the Panthers also lost out against the defensive talent on the Bills and Cardinals. The last four games have allowed Carolina’s offense to gel, but if the Niners’ pass rush can get to Cam Newton they will be in great shape. Using Carradine and Smith effectively will be essential to stopping Carolina.

Run Game: Carolina has stared down two of the best backs in the league this season, limiting Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards and Adrian Peterson to 62 yards. That said, the 49ers have committed to the run and have an offensive line that can brutalize even a decorated defensive line like the Panthers. It will be interesting to see how much success Frank Gore has early on; if the Niners can keep the ground game going, it will keep Carolina’s defense out of synch. Otherwise, Roman will have to roll out a passing game that isn’t nearly as reliable.

Balance: The return of Mario Manningham is good for the team, but the 49ers shouldn’t ask too much of him in this game. A balanced offensive attack will be key to controlling the clock and allowing the 49ers defensive starters to rest. Relying too much on Kaep to make plays through the air hasn’t worked well in the past, and forcing throws will not fly against the Panthers’ talented secondary.

Chemistry: The last five games have been a team effort; the Niners’ tremendous depth has allowed them to fill in the gaps on defense after Patrick Willis’ injury and Smith’s departure. The 49ers need to continue to function as a team if they want to keep playing ’49ers football’. Playing hard-nosed, low-penalty games has helped San Francisco add to the win column; this style will be key to them building up momentum for the playoffs.