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 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.

49ers at Cowboys: Opening the Season in Style

628x471Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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.

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

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ersJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluating the 49ers’ Hot Streak

gorehawks3AP Photo/ John Froschauer)

The 49ers will attempt to pick up their ninth win in a row on Sunday. I was tired of hearing about this game before the season even started; this matchup has been beaten to death by the ranks of sports punditry. As such, I have limited my consumption of 49ers-related information this week. Even so, the pro-49ers narrative has filtered through. Bloggers, pundits and fans seem more confident about this game than I expected. The 49ers’ last two trips to Seattle saw them totally discombobulated. They were two uncharacteristically bad games that showcased some of the worst tendencies of the current incarnation of the 49ers.

The narrative follows a basic logic, namely that the 49ers are hot and the Seahawks are cooling off. The 49ers have been playing their most consistent football of the season. All three phases of the game have been solid, if not excellent, for the last eight games. The offense hasn’t been spectacular, but the team has limited turnovers and controlled the game. Colin Kaepernick has been highly efficient, tossing 12 touchdowns against 2 interceptions over the last eight games for a QBR average of 102.14. However, he played a mediocre game against Seattle at home, where he completed just over half of his passes with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

The story of the Seahawks’ lack of recent success centers on the offense. The defense has been just as good as it was in week 2, forcing a staggering 19 turnovers in the last eight games and generally stymying elite offenses. However, the Seahawks offense has been hard pressed to keep up with this defensive production. After an early to midseason hot streak, Russell Wilson has been underwhelming, tossing 4 touchdowns against 3 interceptions in the last five games for an average QBR of 77.5. These offensive struggles hurt Seattle against Arizona, when the defense forced 4 turnovers, but the offense managed just 192 yards in the 10-17 loss. All that said, the Seahawks have still gone 3-2, and have proven that they can rely on their defense and run game to win. Wilson has played well and poorly against the 49ers in the past; counting on him to struggle on Sunday isn’t a strategy that I find reassuring.

I like the way the 49ers are playing. Greg Roman has simplified the game plan and shown a better balance between the pass and run, allowing the offense to do what it does best. The defense has also proven capable of withstanding the pressure of the playoffs, helped a great deal by their depth and the unsung heroics of players like Tramaine Brock, Tony Jerrod-Eddie and Dan Skuta. However, they will need to play on another level if they want to get back to the Super Bowl. They faced down one of the best defenses in the NFL on the road in Carolina and managed to get enough done to win, but the Seahawks are better, particularity at home. The 49ers are playing winning football, but I won’t believe that their hot streak puts them above the Seahawks until I see it.

Falcons at 49ers: Fare Thee Well, Candlestick

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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.

Texans at 49ers: Red and Gold Domination

texans2Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in last week. The 49ers won big, but that fact is refracted through Matt Schaub’s three interceptions. Depending on who you ask, the 49ers dominated or the Texans handed them the game. I do agree that the Texans offense, other than Arian Foster, was off on Sunday, but that doesn’t mean the 49ers had no hand in this one-sided game. Even if Schaub had been solid, this was still a winnable game for San Francisco. They were playing with a ferocity we haven’t seen yet and executing on both sides of the ball. There is a lot of good and a little bad worth mentioning, so without further ado:

The Good Things:

Depth: Depth is important (see: San Francisco Giants 2013 season), and with three defensive starters out of the game, it is important that somebody steps up. Patrick Willis and Nmandi Asomugha were sidelined with injuries, and Tramaine Brock and Michael Wilhoite stepped in. Both were excellent replacements; Brock’s two interceptions were back breakers, and Wilhoite was a beast against the Texans’ powerful run game. After Ray McDonald left the game with a biceps injury, backup defensive tackle Tony Jerrod-Eddie came in and picked off Shaub. We saw flashes of the 49ers’ depth in the preseason; the 49ers defense only allowed two touchdowns in two preseason games. It is good to see that the defense can still function at a high level even after losing a leader like Patrick Willis.

Turnovers: Matt Shaub has been struggling with interceptions lately, but you cannot discount the 49ers’ efforts. Both of Brock’s picks were the result of an excellent read. The 49ers out-schemed the Texans, putting their cornerbacks in position to make plays on the ball. Schaub’s poor decisions helped the 49ers a lot, but Donte (w)Hitner’s strip of Ben Tate in the 4th quarter was the result of a hungry defense trying to keep up the pressure.

Pass Defense: The 49ers did a great job covering the Texans’ big, physical receiving corp. Only Owen Daniels had any marked success against a secondary that looked leaps and bounds ahead of where it left off last year. The pass rush helped to pressure Schaub into overthrowing his receivers, but it was some excellent coverage that kept the Texans from building any momentum in the passing game.

Penalties: The 49ers had their least penalized game of the season, only losing 17 yards on three penalties. The first penalty was a questionable pass interference call on Tarell Brown, and the last was a meaningless 4th quarter delay of game call on Andy Lee. This was great to see; the Niners cleaning up their play after so many disheartening injuries is a sign that they are still working hard to improve.

The Run Game: Although Frank Gore led the charge, the 49ers rolled out all five backs and even gave Kyle Williams a few running yards with a nicely executed trick play on the first drive. The 49ers garnered a total of 177 yards rushing, punching through a defensive line that Gore described as the best he has ever faced. It was logical, given the early lead, that the 49ers control the clock and run the ball. It is nice to see how well the ground attack can work when the team commits. We have already heard a lot about how the Texans gave this game away, but the success of San Francisco’s run game played a huge role in the win as well. The 49ers were able to run all over the Texans #1 ranked defense, keeping them off balance the whole game.

Bad Thing:

Run Defense: The 49ers run defense gave up 131 yards to the Texans, coughing up 100+ yards for the third time this season. It didn’t help the Texans win, but it wasn’t good to see either. The 49ers D-line struggled against Foster; he was able to cut past them and into the secondary eight times, gaining five yards or more with each run. The defensive line has taken some hits, and Foster is a remarkably good back, but the 49ers will need to improve against the run if they want to be able to shut down offenses like they have the past few years.

Other Things:

Confidence: This game may not have been the best example of everything the Niners can do, but it was great for the team’s confidence. As Gore said after the game, this was a team effort, and it was nice to see some offensive and defensive synergy after three weeks of confusion. The 49ers haven’t been themselves lately, and this game was a good wake up call. They have weathered one of the toughest early schedules in the league, facing four playoff teams, and came out a game up. The coming weeks will be a little less brutal, but it is important that the team get some confidence back.

Colin Kaepernick: Kaep’s journey this year has been an interesting one, despite his struggles, and the 49ers are doing the right thing by simplifying things for him. I saw a lot of good signs on Sunday; he looked more calm and sure of himself, facing the Texans’ nasty pass rush with poise and making the plays that needed to be made. He didn’t have a great passing game, but many incompletions were the result of good coverage by the Texans’ secondary. He looked great on the first 49ers drive, leading a balanced attack to the Texans’ 1 yard line before giving the ball to Gore to seal the deal. Kaep isn’t ready to take over the offense yet; he is playing the role of ‘game manager’, but the 49ers are winning games. Once he gets some more solid experience under his belt and the 49ers get some of their injured receivers back, we may see some more Kaepernick fastballs. Until then, what’s the hurry?