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San Francisco 49ers: Being the Best Team in NFL Through Two Weeks Means Little

Courtesy of ESPN
Courtesy of ESPN
Vincent FrankCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2012

Take a look at all the NFL power polls and they have one thing in common. Your San Francisco 49ers are ranked No. 1 by each and every one. ESPN,, Associated Press, Bleacher Report, etc....It doesn't matter.

But what does this really mean? Unlike the ranking system in college football, it means absolutely nothing.

The Green Bay Packers went wire-to-wire as the top team in the National Football League during the regular season last year. Where did it leave them? Sitting on the couch as the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. 

With that in mind, it is important to look forward without reading the press clippings. Just take a look at what happened to heavily favored New England in its home opener against the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday. 

Unbeaten San Francisco could easily go into Minnesota this week too complacent and leave with its tail between its legs. The 49ers could take this game for granted, leaving Adrian Peterson too much room to run and Christian Ponder too much time to throw.

It is also important to note that the 49ers aren't playing at anywhere near their potential. In short, this team needs to get better across the board if it is going to be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans in February. 

Let's take a look at the issues San Francisco needs to address to ride this unanimous No. 1 ranking all the way to the Super Bowl.


Third-Down Conversions

San Francisco ranks 26th in the NFL, converting only 30 percent of its third downs. While they have only had 20 third-down plays through two games, the fewest in the league, they have only converted six of those. And Michael Crabtree converted half of those in the 49ers' game-clinching touchdown drive against the Detroit Lions on Sunday night. 

Take those three conversions away and San Francisco is a dreadful 3-for-17 thus far. The 49ers need to gain yards on first and second down to create more manageable third-down opportunities.

They will not be facing as mediocre a pass defense every week as they did against Green Bay and Detroit.


Pass Protection 

Though Alex Smith has only been hit nine times, San Francisco ranks 27th with seven sacks allowed through two games. With his improved accuracy, Smith can pick apart opposing secondaries if given more time to pass.

The 49ers offensive linemen need to do their job in front of Smith. San Francisco will be facing mighty strong pass-rushers such as Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants in the next few games. If they are able to give Smith more time to pass, San Francisco's passing game will be that much more effective. 

This isn't just up to Alex Boone and Anthony Davis, the unproven right side of the line. Instead, Joe Staley needs to become more consistent in pass protection. The 49ers can't afford for him to repeat his subpar performance against Green Bay in this week's game against Minnesota.


Scoring Efficiency

San Francisco has scored six touchdowns and five field goals through two games, a much better ratio than we saw in 2011. This doesn't mean they don't have to improve that aspect of the game. 

The Buffalo Bills are a perfect case study. All of their points this season have come via a touchdown. While that isn't a sustainable statistic, it is still worth mentioning.

San Francisco would have a 70-30 ratio of touchdowns to field goals. With a defense as dominating as the 49ers, scoring six instead of three will make it virtually impossible for any team to defeat them.


Downfield Passing Game

San Francisco ranks among the bottom third in the NFL in passing plays of 20 yards or more yards with five through two games. In fact, Smith has completed just one pass that traveled more than 20 yards.

As we saw with the original West Coast offense in San Francisco under Bill Walsh in the 1980s, this scheme relies a great deal on yards after the catch. Freddie Solomon and Dwight Clark were masters at this during the earliest part of the 49ers' dynasty. Jerry Rice and John Taylor brought it to a whole new level in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Still, we are in a new era in the NFL, one that requires offenses to open up a little bit more down the field. Besides, as good as some of the 49ers' receiving threats are, none is at the level of those four, especially in terms of YAC. 

This means that the 49ers are going to have to open up the offense. Whether it is Smith hitting Vernon Davis between the hashes or finding Randy Moss on the outside, this needs to happen in relatively short order.

They simply can't rely on Crabtree taking a four-yard reception and turning it into a gain of 11 on third down. That will not be successful on a consistent basis, especially against better tackling defenses than what San Francisco saw in Green Bay and Detroit. 

By no means am I saying that the 49ers should stray away from their West Coast tendencies. Instead, it would probably behoove them to mix it up a little bit.

I am pretty sure that Jim Harbaugh and Co. will be doing just that against a lackluster Minnesota Vikings secondary. At the very least, it would gauge where they stand in terms of the downfield passing game. 


Inside the 50, Both Sides of the Field 

By my estimation, the 49ers have crossed the 50-yard line 13 times and come away with points 11 times (85 percent.) Less than half the time they have crossed the 50, the 49ers have scored a touchdown.

The first statistic is pretty good. The touchdown statistic, on the other hand, isn't too great. It is pretty much par for the course. 

And we aren't talking about a team looking to become elite. Instead, San Francisco is ranked No. 1 in every single power poll for a reason. The 49ers are expected to be great on a consistent basis. These numbers must remain the same or get better if they are going to remain the top dog in the NFL. 

On the other hand, the 49ers' defense has been stellar at bending but not breaking. Opponents have crossed their side of the field 13 times, only to come away with three touchdowns and five field goals. Those are elite statistics.

If the defense can keep that up, the 49ers are going to be hard to beat on a weekly basis. 


Pass Defense

Don't look at how many yards the 49ers give up through the air. Those statistics don't matter in the grand scheme of things. When opposing teams are playing from behind, they are going to be forced to pass a great deal of the time. This is only magnified when they are unable to run the ball on a consistent basis. 

Instead, look at quarterback rating, yeah, that dreaded statistic that no one seems to take seriously. 

Opposing quarterbacks had a 73.6 rating against the 49ers last season. Through two games this year, they have an 87.2. Okay, this statistic might sound pretty bad on the surface, but it is important to note that the two quarterbacks San Francisco has faced thus far, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, combined for a 98.1 rating last season. 

If San Francisco is able to continue playing stellar pass defense, this number is sure to go down as they face less stellar quarterbacks, starting with Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick in the next three games.

If the 49ers keep doing what they are doing, they will be in great shape heading into an NFC Championship rematch against the New York Giants in mid-October. 


Continue to TKO Opponents

Any time that each of the 49ers' first two games appeared to be getting close, they proceeded to put the game away.

First, it was the NaVorro Bowman interception of Aaron Rodgers followed by Frank Gore's touchdown run in the season opener against the Green Bay Packers. Then it was that beautiful time-consuming, fourth-quarter drive against the Lions. Smith hit Crabtree on three first down-producing completions on third down, before hooking up with Vernon Davis to give the 49ers a two-score advantage.

The common theme? While the 49ers might let opponents hang around,  they are going to knock them out when it counts.

Now, as the unquestioned best team in the NFL, San Francisco must not let up. Instead of questioning the awful officiating like some teams around the league are doing, the 49ers need to continue taking the game in their own hands in crunch time.

Jim Harbaugh has indicated that he would love for Muhammad Ali to join the  49ers on the sidelines at some point this season. Well, his team might want to take a page from the book that is Ali. When you have your opponent on the ropes, go for the knockout.

We have seen this in each of the first two games and it must continue.

I have no reason to believe it won't.


Passing Efficiency

The 49ers are one of only six teams that is completing more than 70 percent of its passes. Maybe I should put it like this. Smith is one of only six quarterbacks completing more than 70 percent of his passes. Either way, that is a far cry from what we saw at this point last season. 

More importantly, nearly 46 percent of Smith's passes have gone for first downs. That ranks him second in the NFL behind Matt Ryan and right ahead of Cam Newton. 

San Francisco is averaging one point for every 14 yards its gains on offense. That is a mind-boggling statistic. Let's take a look at some of the other offensive juggernauts in the NFL and how they compare to the 49ers. 

While San Francisco only ranks 26th in the NFL in passing yards at fewer than 200 per game, those yards have been much more productive than the passing yards gained by most other teams in the league. 

The reasons for the 49ers' early success in the passing game is pretty simple. Smith has the second-best quarterback rating in the league at 115.9, again behind Ryan. And a whopping 46 percent of his completions have moved the chains. If the 49ers keep this type of efficiency, defenses are going to have a hard time stopping them.

Put it this way. Complete 70 percent of your passes and have nearly half those completions go for first downs and you are in good shape on the offensive side of the ball. 


Continued Improvement on Right Side of the Offensive Line

Alex Boone and Anthony Davis have performed pretty well through the first two games of the season. What was a question mark heading into the season could turn into a strength as the season progresses. 

Those two youngsters have done a bang-up job as run-blockers.  San Francisco is second in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.7). More importantly, the 49ers have 13 carries of 10 or more yards, six behind either Boone or Davis. 

Now it is up to these two unproven players to become more consistent in pass protection. Davis kept Cliff Avril of the Lions off the stat board last Sunday, but he did allow a sack to Ndamukong Suh when the 49ers offensive line went with an unbalanced formation. While you can't blame Davis for that, it is worth mentioning. 

Joe Staley and Mike Iupati will do their jobs more often than not on the left side of the line. If San Francisco can get more consistent play from Boone and Davis, the offense is going to be that much more dangerous. 


What Does It All Mean? 

I have received a lot of grief for relying on statistics from the previous season when drawing a conclusion about a specific part of the 49ers' game. However, where else am I supposed to look? They  are the best way to progress or the lack thereof, at least until five or six games have been played.

On that note, it is also hard to gauge where a team stands after two games. What you can look at is trends, strength of the opponents and what happened in each game. When you take into account that the 49ers have played two teams that combined to go 25-7 last season, it is pretty impressive what they have done thus far. 

This applies to all four aspects of the game: offense, defense, special teams and coaching. In short, the 49ers have dominated against two teams that were pegged as title contenders entering the season. 

As their schedule gets a bit easier with the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills as their next three opponents, San Francisco is well on its way to maintaining its status as the best team in the NFL. 

Again, this doesn't mean anything. Success for a team that is supposed to contend for the Super Bowl is to be expected. Franchises that exist as front-runners year in and year out expect greatness, they don't hope for it.

Moreover, they don't take certain teams for granted and treat each game as if it is the st important of the season. Simply put, San Francisco must take this mentality and run with it. 

If the 49ers play the way they have in the first two games for the remainder of the season and progress in the areas I mentioned above, it is hard to envision any team being able to stick with them on a consistent basis. 

Still, it is important to remember that we are entering the third week of the season. Being ranked No. 1 at this point in the season means absolutely zilch. 

That's my take. Tell me what you think. 

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