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 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.

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.

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 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.

Wait, Why Am I Worried About The Jaguars?

YAGSAP

The 49ers are facing the worst team in football this weekend, and I am worried. How can this be? The Niners are on a hot streak, every aspect of the team is improving and the supposed injuries to Eric Reid and Donte Whitner turned out to be nothing. Yet I keep considering the possibility of a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and how that would feel. I have a bad habit of torturing myself with hypotheticals, but that doesn’t mean this concern is totally illegitimate. Ugh.

The Jaguars have almost nothing that should worry me. They have the worst run defense in the league, and will be going up against the NFL’s 3rd best rushing team. Their points scored/points allowed over the last few games are almost perfect opposites of the 49ers’ (SF: 33/12.75 JAX: 12/32.5). The Jaguars have had a really tough schedule, but haven’t really shown any signs of life. However, it isn’t really the Jaguars that concern me.

Sunday’s game will be played in London, which levels the playing field to some extent. The 49ers will be preparing for the game far from home, dealing with jet lag and all the distractions of being in another country. The Jaguars are in the same position, but that isn’t reassuring. The 49ers are also coming into this game knowing the Jaguars’ reputation and record. My stupid brain is convincing me that these factors will come into effect as the week goes on, and the 49ers will be way less prepared for this game than any other game this season.

Harbaugh and Co. will also be facing an old nemesis. Jacksonville’s coach, Gus Bradley, was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-2012. His record against the 49ers while in Seattle was 3-5, but he had a major hand in crafting the defense that shut down the Niners last year in week 16 and this year in week 2. The Jags do not have the defensive talent Bradley commanded in Seattle, but he knows the Niners. The Jaguars are a team of professional football players, and with the right game plan and mindset they can cause problems for San Francisco.

My real problem with this game is how little fun it will be. When the 49ers played the Jets and Bills back to back last year, they outscored them 79-3. It was fun because both the Jets and the Bills had decently talented players, and no one was expecting Alex Smith to destroy those defenses like he did. This Sunday, dominance isn’t just expected, it’s necessary. Anything short of an overpowering effort from the 49ers will be a disappointment. This means the two possible outcomes of the game are the total destruction of the Jaguars or an unwatchable implosion by the 49ers. Neither sounds particularly entertaining.

Fortunately, the 49ers have been training with the same mindset. Hopefully, Frank Gore is way, way too much for the Jags, and the 49ers turn Kendall Hunter loose on them. Hopefully, Vance McDonald has a big day and bowls his way through Jacksonville’s secondary. Hopefully, all that Chad Henne remembers of his trip to England is Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier running directly at him. Until then, I worry like an idiot.

49ers vs. Cardinals: What to Watch For

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The 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday, looking to improve to 4-2 and 2-1 against the NFC West. Although the Cardinals are not considered contenders, they will be a tough team to beat. They match up well with the 49ers; a stingy run defense and a playmaking secondary means the 49ers will have to move the ball carefully. The Cardinals also have a lot of talented receivers, led by the prodigious Larry Fitzgerald. The 49ers secondary has done pretty well thus far, but hasn’t faced a team with great receiving depth since week 1 against Green Bay. This game will be a great test; it is time to prove that the momentum the Niners built against the Rams and Texans can keep them rolling. Here is what I will be paying attention to:

The Turnover Battle:

The 49ers need to have a game similar to last week’s if they want to win. Carson Palmer has been turning over the ball a lot, and the 49ers need to take advantage of his hesitation in the pocket. If they can keep the pressure on Palmer and cause him to make mistakes, the secondary can step up force turnovers. Conversely, the 49ers have to keep the ball secure against the Cardinals’ ballhawking secondary. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have been tormenting offenses with their ability to force fumbles and pick off passes, and the 49ers will need to play conservatively if they want to win.

Run Defense:

One of the keys to this game will be smothering Rashard Mendenhall and Arizona’s ground attack. Arizona has great receivers, but forcing Palmer to throw constantly will give the 49ers plenty of opportunities to exploit his mistakes and stop drives. The 49ers front seven is beat up, with injuries limiting Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, but they will need to step up and attack the ball if they want to succeed.

Moving the Ball through the Air:

The 49ers have been limiting Colin Kapernick’s arm, for good reason, but this may be a good game to return to a more balanced offense. The Cardinals have been good against the run, but they haven’t faced a smashmouth running team like the 49ers yet. If the 49ers can get some big plays out of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, that will help Frank Gore take over on the ground. I will be watching rookie tight end Vance McDonald; he is big, strong and fast, and could be great against the Cardinals’ physical secondary.

The Run Game:

As I mentioned above, the Cardinals have had some success against the run. They held Doug Martin and Reggie Bush to 45 and 25 yards, respectively. That said, the Bucs and Lions aren’t built for the run in the same way as the 49ers. If San Francisco can win the battle in the trenches and keep feeding Gore, it will help them wear down Arizona’s defense and open up the passing game. The 49ers don’t need a monster effort from their running backs, but a strong showing from the ‘three headed monster’ of Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James is crucial.

49ers Rookie Minicamp

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© San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers rookie minicamp has ended, and the glut of Niners draftees and rookie free agents have made their first impressions on the coaching staff and a hand full of starters who showed up to watch the practices. Although much of the media coverage was full of the standard platitudes used to describe rookies from every team, some of the major draft story lines have developed further, many along the lines the experts had predicted. The most engaging of these story lines belong to the rookies who will be tasked with stepping in and starting next season.

Eric Reid was the 49ers’ first pick in the draft, and has already received praise from those watching the practices, including Donte Whitner. What is most striking about Reid is his adoption of Jim Harbaugh’s meritocratic philosophy when it comes to the depth chart. Although it has been acknowledged that Reid is slated to fill Dashon Goldson’s shoes, he is showing no signs of entitlement when it comes to earning the starting role. Reid has impressed with his hitting ability as well as his intelligence, and will be an exciting player to watch.

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© San Francisco 49ers

Although he was not a high profile pick, Vance McDonald is the answer to the loss of Delanie Walker. He has already begun to show himself capable of surpassing Walker; he has better hands and overall receiving ability along with the versatility that allows the 49ers to place him anywhere they need him on the line. He still lacks Delaine’s blocking ability, but has shown a great deal of raw strength and should learn a lot under the league’s best tight end, Vernon Davis. Harbaugh has already spoken to the potential he sees in the rookie.

Quinton Patton is one of the more exciting picks; he was nabbed in the fourth round, despite his talent. Patton’s skills at route running and mobility are going to make a big impression in the upcoming OTAs, after he gets a chance to look over the playbook and use his football smarts. Patton will be even more interesting when he is stacked up next to A.J. Jenkins and some of the 49ers’ other receivers; he is going to be a wildcard in the competition for the Niners 3rd wideout. He looked strong at the minicamp, and has already endeared himself to Jim Harbaugh by showing a lot of initiative in making his own way to the Bay.

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© San Francisco 49ers

One of the less storied rookies was Corey Lemonier, who is slated to act much like Aldon Smith in Vic Fangio’s defense. Although many see him primarily as a pass rush specialist, he showed versatility as an outside linebacker, meaning he could be used next season to spell the Niners’ aggressive pass rush or to supplement their run defense.

Paired with Lemonier on the defensive line is Cornelius “Tank” Carradine, one of the injured draftees who the Niners hope will prove to be an asset filling holes on the defensive line. He has expressed confidence in his ability to recover from a torn ACL and become an valuable addition to the team, but he has not been able to show much yet. Tank has been ordained as the heir apparent to Justin Smith, but won’t be able to step up until he is cleared for practice.

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© San Francisco 49ers

Much like Carradine, Marcus Lattimore could do little during the minicamp except watch is fellow rookies and study the playbook. Though he was one of the more well-known draft picks, Lattimore has not proven particularly talkative or open. Despite this, he has expressed willingness to sit out a season, let his injury heal and absorb what he can from the 49ers’ running corps and offensive line.

Former USF quarterback B.J. Daniels has become the darling of the sports blog conjecture circuit, and not without good reason. He has been projected to fill in as third string quarterback, practice squad imitator of Russel Wilson (Although this is likely due more to 49ers-Seahawks hysteria than anything else) or even punt returner. It will be interesting to see whether he can out-hustle Colt Mccoy and Scott Tolzien and move up the depth chart, as he has the raw athletic talent to fill in as a surrogate Kaepernick should the unthinkable happen to No. 7.   Lawrence Okoye© Ap                                                                                                                                       My favorite storyline has been that of Lawrence Oyoke, who has fulfilled everything expected of him in minicamp, both in terms of insane athleticism as well as extreme inexperience. He has expressed a very healthy, appreciative outlook on his place with the 49ers, showing a great deal of appreciation for the opportunity and even tweeting awkwardly about Jim Tomsula:

I am a bit over-excited to see what this guy can do; he is in the best position possible with the best team and coaching staff to host him, and can only get better learning from Justin Smith.