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

gore-sfBrant Ward/San Francisco Chronicle

It’s that time of the year again! The 49ers are missing the playoffs for the first time in three years, making this a somewhat sombre edition of the WDDYAs. Thinking back over the season, it’s hard not to let the dark cloud of Jim Harbaugh’s departure distort my view. However, there were plenty of bright spots in 2014, even if you have to squint to see them. Here are the brightest:

Offensive WDDYA:

Frank Gore

2014 Stats: 255 Att.*, 1106 Yds.*, 4.3 Y/A, 4 TD, 11 Rec on 19 Tgt., 111 Yds., 1 TD

(*=Leads Team)

I remember when they announced that Gore had finally broken 10,000 rushing yards. I couldn’t believe it. Behind this offensive line? In this offensive scheme? There was no way. Gore was the greatest tragedy of the 2014 season. Rather than leading the offense to another playoff run, he became a misused instrument, repeatedly battered behind the line of scrimmage and held back from his role as the 49ers’ tone-setter. In a year when all of the team’s greatest assets vaporized, Gore faced the reality of the 2012 run being the closest he would ever get to a title, and the possibility of leaving the team he had given everything to. His response was one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, he delivered two of the most electrifying performances of his career: a 158 yard game against the San Diego Chargers, followed by an incredible 144 yard performance against the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It was Frank as he had always been, patient, relentless and incredibly productive. We don’t deserve you, Frank.

Honorable Mentions:

Carlos Hyde

Very few backs could split duties with a player as talented as Gore and still stand out. The most remarkable thing about Hyde was how well he seemed to fit into the 49ers’ identity. He wasn’t perfect, but he responded to the rigors of NFL football with scads of physicality and some beautiful downhill running. I will be very excited to watch his career unfold.

Anquan Boldin

Even in an offense as dysfunctional as the 49ers’, Boldin got the job done. He put together his second consecutive 1000+ yard season, and the seventh of his career, bullying defensive backs several years his junior.

Defensive WDDYA:

Philadelphia Eagles v San Francisco 49ersEzra Shaw/Getty Images

Antoine Bethea

2014 Stats: 71 Tckls., 14 Asst., 4 Int., 1 Sk., 10 Pass D., 1 FF

Donte Whitner’s replacement was everything Whitner promised, with plenty more. His ability to hit as hard as Whitner was not in question after week one, and he was a huge part of one of the NFL’s best pass defenses. There were defensive players with gaudier numbers, or who had a more tangible presence, but nobody was as much of a surprise as Bethea. He seemed to come into his own in Vic Fangio’s system, making highlight reel plays despite being a typically low-key player. His history with the Colts was successful, if unremarkable (Super Bowl win aside), and many were concerned he would struggle to produce in San Francisco. His consistency was something the 49ers relied upon, particularly against high-flying offenses like the Eagles and Saints. I am looking forward to another year of Bethea leading the secondary. Congratulations, Antoine, we don’t deserve you.

Honorable Mentions:

Chris Borland

Had he played for a full season, Borland would be taking home the WDDYA trophy, as well as defensive rookie of the year. Borland’s brief stint as a human cyclone was something to behold. To think that a rookie could so ably step into the massive hole left by Patrick Willis was absurd to begin with. The fact that it was an undersized 3rd round draft pick with ‘t-rex arms’ only added to Borland’s epic story.

Aaron Lynch

Another rookie who nimbly stepped in to fill a major hole, Lynch had an incredible year. He didn’t put up incredible numbers, but has been recognized as one of the best rookie linebackers to play in 2014. He was asked to replace the skills of Ahmad Brooks, who spent much of 2014 having hissy fits on the sideline, and took full advantage of the opportunity. Lynch is one of many reasons to be very excited about the future of the 49ers’ defense.

49ers at Giants: Glorious

chris-borland-nfl-san-francisco-49ers-new-york-giants-850x560Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers put together one of the most glorious and frustrating games of the season, defeating the New York Giants 16-10 on the road. The 49ers’ travels are basically over; other than a short trip to San Diego and another to Seattle, every game from here on out will be at home or across the Bay in Oakland. The 49ers are 6-4, tied with Seattle in second place and still in the hunt for a wildcard spot. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

Every week it gets harder to figure this team out. The defense has been dealt a horrible hand, losing all-pros, leaders, role players and everything in between. But no matter what happens, they keep balling. The 49ers are ranked 3rd in the league in weighted defensive efficiency, ahead of Seattle and Arizona. They are ranked 1st in the NFL against the pass, which I had to recheck three or four times because it makes no sense. Last week I attributed this ridiculous success to Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke, but I think this goes deeper than that. The 49ers defense has proven capable of weathering nearly anything, and that starts with the players. Despite a massive loss in talent, every single healthy defensive player has risen to the challenge. They are the primary reason the 49ers sit at 6-4.

Chris Borland

When the 49ers drafted Borland, I was skeptical. I don’t trust players who get by on instinct to last in the NFL. I’m glad I was wrong. His lack of physical tools has not stopped him from becoming the hero of the 2014 season. I’m still not 100% sure he can keep producing at such a high level, but here’s to hoping. For now, let’s just enjoy the one-man wrecking crew that is Chris Borland.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

The offense struggled to get anything done, picking up just 333 total yards against one of the worst defenses in the league. Kaep was a big part of this, although he is not entirely to blame. He overthrew receivers numerous times and was ineffectual in the red zone. The Giants’ defense did a decent job covering the 49ers down the field, but Kaep had far too many missed opportunities.

Offense

It was a truly pathetic showing by the offense, which was only able to score 3 points off of five interceptions. The 49ers dominated in the trenches until they moved inside the Giants’ 20 yard line. This game should have been a blowout. Unlike the defense, the offense has no excuses. They are mostly healthy and should be averaging more than 21 points per game. The 49ers might be able to squeeze enough out of this offense to make the playoffs, but they won’t be able to go much farther.

The Other Thing

Aldon Smith

It wasn’t an incredible day for Aldon Smith, but his presence was certainly welcome. The pass rush was the best it has been all season. With Smith commanding the attention of multiple offensive linemen, the rest of the d-line was given plenty of opportunities to disrupt plays and get to the quarterback. It’s scary to think just how good this pass rush could be going forward.

49ers at Saints: Sweet Revenge

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints

Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

The 49ers did enough right on Sunday to take down the New Orleans Saints, moving to 5-4 on the season. It was by far the most entertaining game of the season; only the win in Dallas in week one comes close in terms of entertainment value. It was also a deeply satisfying win for 49ers fans, who saw a very similar game slip away in 2013 thanks to some very poor officiating. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Coaching

Specifically, defensive coaching. The 49ers have lost three of their four most productive defensive starters. Of this defensive ‘core’, only Justin Smith remains. The 49ers have thrown out rookies and castoffs, and inexplicably are fielding the 8th ranked defense in the NFL. If there is one silver lining to this season, it’s that Vic Fangio and Trent Baalke are proving themselves to be the most potent defense-building and coaching duo in the NFL. The emergence of Aaron Lynch and Chris Borland has been incredible to watch, but perhaps more striking is the production of what many were happy to call the most tenuous secondary in the NFC. Despite an inconsistent pass rush and constant turnover at the cornerback position, the 49ers rank 6th in defensive efficiency against the pass (which is 8 ranks higher than Seattle’s vaunted pass defense).

Colin Kaepernick

He did not rise to the occasion as dramatically as I had hoped, but Kaep had a good day, and provided what I hope will be a major turning point in the season with his unbelievable 4th down game saving strike to Michael Crabtree. Kaep has yet to play a full four quarters, but he has been remarkably productive behind the league’s 31st ranked pass protecting unit. His line for the season: 179-289, 61.94 comp%, 2166 yds, 13 Tds, 5 int, 92.7 rating. Given the incredible amount of drops from 49ers receivers, his numbers show that he may in fact be coming along as a passer. His completion percentage dipped to 43.75% in New Orleans, but this was due to the 49ers receivers’ 8 droped passes (without which his comp% would have been an excellent 68.75%). He still makes mistakes, sometimes hesitating to throw the ball away or failing to check down when the situation calls for it, but things are looking up for Kaep.

The Bad Things

Drops

One of the most fascinating and disturbing things about this season is how poor the 49ers have been at football fundamentals. A lot is made of quarterback play, of injuries, of strategy, but all of that is irrelevant when professional athletes aren’t doing their job. Dropped passes have stung the 49ers a few times this season, and they nearly became the story of this game. Crabtree has had an uninspiring season, but Anquan Boldin’s sudden inability to secure good passes is worrisome. Hopefully, like the abundance of penalties and the ‘can’t-score-in-the-second-half’ nonsense early in the season, this will pass.

The Other Thing

Injuries
I realize it’s a little odd to put this in the ‘other’ column, but bear with me. The 49ers keep getting injured, and with each injury they lose strategic options and talent. The latest blow is the biggest of the season, leaving the most critical part of the 49ers’ defense in the hands of a rookie and a skilled but unremarkable player.

However, the 49ers have done a miraculous job of following the ‘next man up’ philosophy. Despite losing some tremendous talent, they’ve been able to exceed what was expected of them, particularly on defense. That is not to say injuries are in any way a good thing, just that giving the 49ers’ rookie class reps could prove beneficial in the long run.

49ers at Broncos: Nothing Learned

"Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers"Tim Rasmussen/Denver Post

The 49ers suffered their biggest loss of the season on Sunday Night Football, showing the football viewing world just how banged up they are, and little more. I would love to stick to my usual recap format, but this sort of game doesn’t lend itself well to dissection.

The only thing we learned Sunday is that the 49ers can’t perform well when a significant portion of the team is injured. This is nothing new, but it is important to keep in mind. Missing three All-Pro linebackers isn’t something that can be ironed out. Those of you convinced that Vic Fangio and Greg Roman were capable of out-scheming the Broncos might have been right, but then the backup’s backup got injured and everything fell apart. As much as we might like the potential of rookies like Dontae Johnson and Chris Borland, it’s a little ridiculous to expect them to do anything more than what they did on Sunday.

I’d like to say that Colin Kaepernick looked good, but it’s hard to really conclude anything when your offensive line costs you 53 offensive yards by giving up a season high 6 sacks. It’s doubly hard when multiple receivers drop good passes and cost the team points.

My point is that there are thresholds when it comes to injury. Often they are explanations, or to some people, excuses for a loss or a poor performance. However, when a team loses not only its Pro-Bowler core, but a hefty chunk of players outside of that core, there really isn’t much they can do. If there is a silver lining to a game like this, it is that the team we watched was not the 49ers, or at least, not the 49ers we’ve watched for the last three years. However, with luck, they will be whole soon.

Eagles at 49ers: Righting the Ship

Patrick Willis, Eric Reid, Jeremy Maclin

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The 49ers got their first win at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, outlasting the Eagles in a bizarre game. It wasn’t exactly a must-win, but it was a very welcome one, and hopefully something that the 49ers can build on. Facing down one of the most prolific offenses in the league was a big test, and it was one the 49ers passed with flying colors. Here is what I saw:

The Good Things

Defense

The 49ers’ defense was insane on Sunday, holding the Eagles inside their own territory until late in the 4th quarter and shutting out what had been the NFL’s highest scoring team. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio gets a lot of credit, but as he pointed out after the game, they didn’t do anything especially new to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles. Intense training regimen aside, the 49ers played the way they have for the last three seasons, stuffing the run and not giving up big plays. Aaron Lynch, who I am tremendously excited for, and Antoine Bethea were the standouts, but it was an all-around great day for the defense.

Run Defense

The run defense gets a little extra shout out in this recap, because they have been earning their stripes every week. Ian Williams, who only started two games last year, has been a force at nose tackle, and has anchored a defensive front that faced down three outstanding running backs and gave up next to nothing. They’ve surrendered 279 rushing yards in four games, holding opponents to an average of 3.5 yards per attempt. If you ignore the first game against Dallas, the 49ers held Andre Ellington, Matt Forte and LeSean McCoy to just 2.71 Y/A on the ground. This is a good sign, as they will need to stand up to one of the best in Jamaal Charles next week.

Run Game

The 49ers finally got back to running the ball, and lo and behold, they stormed all over the Eagles, picking up 218 yards on the ground and 5 Y/A. Frank Gore led the way, doing exactly what we knew he was capable of with 164 total yards and a touchdown. Some have suggested that the return to the ground game was the result of Jim Harbaugh exerting his will over Greg Roman and balancing things out a bit, but there isn’t any direct evidence for that. Either way, this is exactly what the 49ers need to be doing.

The Bad Things

Offensive Line

The run blocking was fairly solid, but the o-line continues to be a major weak point for the 49ers. Even stalwarts like Joe Staley and Alex Boone have been less than impressive, which is alarming. However, this group has never been all that great at pass blocking; it was their impressive push on the ground that earned them accolades over the last few seasons. We know Staley, Boone and Anthony Davis (provided the injury isn’t serious) have the talent to get it together, but when will it happen?

Special Teams

Other than Phil Dawson, who was 4 for 4 with a 51 yard field goal, special teams was a dang mess. I can’t decide whether this is a fluke or an ongoing problem, but it is worth noting that the 49ers cut a lot of their special teams talent in the offseason, including longtime ace C.J. Spillman. Maybe Brad Seely is having a little trouble with newcomers like L.J. McCray, or maybe things just got away from them.

The Other Thing

Colin Kaepernick

If you had asked me immediately after the game, I would’ve said Kaep was a shoe-in for The Bad, but after the smoke cleared, I realized that wasn’t totally fair. Kaep certainly didn’t look good, but it wasn’t necessarily godawful. After the game, I spoke with a few people that said that his ‘lack of intelligence‘ was evident in the way he handled himself, but I don’t think that has ever been the issue. He made some great decisions, and showed off just how excellent he can play when he sees the field. However, he was just off on a lot of throws, and was wholly to blame for the horrible pick-six that gave the Eagles the lead in the 2nd quarter and the baffling delay of game that took the 49ers out of a short yardage situation in the 4th. As I mentioned above, the pass protection was horrible, and Kaep can’t be blamed for making a few mistakes while getting constantly harassed by the Eagles’ pass rushers.

Bears at 49ers: The Horror

Chicago Bears v San Francisco 49ersJeff Gross

The 49ers dropped a horrible, ugly, unwatchable game on Sunday, blowing a 17-point lead against a demonstrably inferior team. As much anger and frustration has been heaped on this game, it is important to keep in mind how strange it was. The reversal of fortunes in the fourth quarter was among the most dramatic I have ever seen. It is also important to remember that this is week two, and the 49ers are missing some crucial pieces. Here is what I saw:

The Good Thing

Run Defense

The run defense was stout on Sunday, holding Matt Forte to just 21 yards on 12 attempts, a pathetic 1.75 YPC. This was heartening to see; it was, for the most part, a good day for the defense, and it was great to see Ian Williams show a little something in the trenches.

The Bad Things

Colin Kaepernick

People are calling Kaep’s performance among the worst of his career. Although I usually avoid those kinds of blanket statements, I have to agree, at least to some extent. Kaep was playing with an ugly mix of apprehension and excitement, and he looked extremely jumpy in the pocket. As things started to fall apart, he got worse, and continued to dig the 49ers into a deeper hole. The reality of playing the first regular season game in a new stadium may have gotten to him (more on that later) but we’ve seen this before, most notably against the Seahawks. The ability to calm down and overcome mistakes is something Kaep has shown in the past, but I can understand the concern that his contract and the revitalized receiving depth have put more pressure on him.

Run Game

Frank Gore has run the ball 29 times in the last two weeks, the lowest total for weeks one and two of any season since 2005, his rookie year. As I established in the offseason, the 49ers tend to perform better when they give Gore lots of chances. Greg Roman clearly wants to air things out a bit more, but he needs to use the run to open things up if he wants to put the receiving corps to use. Gore made the most of his carries on Sunday, but the 49ers never gave him the chance to really feast on a weak Bears defensive line. Of all the bad things we saw on Sunday, this is what worried me most. We saw the same thing last season, when the 49ers first three games boasted a pass-heavy attack and went 1-2. I had hoped Roman had learned his lesson, but clearly he has not.

Pass Rush

The 49ers’ pass rush is nonexistent, with only Justin Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch looking remotely productive. Touted veteran Ahmad Brooks and second year linebacker Corey Lemonier have been nonexistent thus far. Whether this is simply due to the absence of Aldon Smith isn’t clear, but what is clear is that the 49ers will need a stronger pass rush if they want to force turnovers and dominate on defense. I have faith in Vic Fangio to get things sorted out, but until then this remains a major concern.

The Other Things

Ball Distribution

For the second straight week, Kaep managed to give every receiver a chance to move the ball. He still isn’t trusting newcomer Stevie Johnson enough, but compared to the distribution last season (meaning: 90% of his throws going to Anquan Boldin) it is nice to see him spread things out. I’m a little concerned about his overreliance on Michael Crabtree. Their chemistry has brought good things in the past, but it is a tendency that can be exploited.

Random Stats

There have been a lot of random macrostats floating around since before the game started. Home teams are 20-29 in stadium openers. 49ers are 1-3 in week two of the Jim Harbaugh era. The 49ers lost stadium openers at Kezar and Candlestick. These are fairly meaningless, but they do speak to certain things. The stadium opener number does point to the gravity of the moment; it could help to explain the 49ers’ apparent nervousness on Sunday.

Penalties

There were 26 penalties thrown on Sunday, which is more than I can ever remember seeing. Some were fair, some were ticky tack and some were ridiculous. However, none of them take away from the fact that the 49ers turned the ball over 4 times. I am only mentioning it here because the volume of laundry on the field DOES have an impact on the outcome of the game. However, it does not excuse the 49ers’ utter failure to put this game away

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.

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 vs. Washington: What to Watch For

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

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

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

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

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

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.