San Francisco 49ers: Improvements Needed Across the Board Following Ugly Loss
Well, that was sure one ugly loss for the San Francisco 49ers. Wasn't it? They were beaten in all four aspects of the game, including coaching. For some reason, it just appeared that the 49ers left their game plan in Santa Clara.
This was, by pure definition, a trap game. The Minnesota Vikings outplayed San Francisco in every possible way. At some point in the first half, it became increasingly evident that the 49ers defense never got out of bed, still had the pajamas on and didn't get the sleep out of their eyes. How else do you allow Christian Ponder and the Vikings offense to convert 7-of-14 third downs, most of them of the long variety?
Coverage wasn't too weak. It was more about a lack of a pass rush against what is quickly becoming a solid Minnesota offensive line. When Ponder did face pressure in his face, he was able to find an open seam in the back end of the 49ers defense.
In total, that was one of the worst defensive performances I have seen from this team in quite some time. It is amazing to believe that the 49ers yielded three touchdown scoring drives of over 80 yards. That isn't the defense we have come to know in the last couple of seasons.
Offensively, it wasn't much better. Frank Gore was having some success running the ball early, but the 49ers decided to go away from the run in lieu of a dink and dunk offense that we came to despise under Jimmy Raye years before. In reality, Alex Smith cannot throw the ball deep if you don't give him the opportunity. From what I saw, the play-calling represented a myriad of ineptitude.
Don't hang this loss on Smith, either. His interception came with less than three minutes left and down by multiple scores. He was just trying to make something happen. The fumble was broken pass protection in the truest form of the term. In short, Smith isn't to blame for this loss. Well, I guess it could be stated that everyone on the 49ers roster were to blame for the loss, just don't take it out on the improved quarterback.
Frank Gore fumbled, David Akers had a field goal blocked, Dashon Goldson had two personal foul penalties called on him, and Jim Harbaugh's coaching staff weren't up to task.
It is what it is.
As I stated last week, power rankings mean absolutely nothing in the National Football League. The major issue I had with the press that San Francisco received after their win against the Detroit Lions was the players actually reading the press clippings. It appears that happened to nearly every single player on the 53-man roster.
San Francisco lost a game in September against a vastly improved football team on the road. This isn't the end of the world. They are still 2-1, and have a lot to look forward to. Instead of reading these clippings, their players now need to get down to brass tacks and fix the issues that seemed to plague them on Sunday. It really is that simple. The coaching staff needs to get into the heads of the players, and not let them get too low after an embarrassing loss. The NFL season is fluid; play like this again and San Francisco could be in real trouble next week against the New York Jets.
The 49ers didn't just become a bad team after defeating both the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. This game is probably the exception to the rule moving forward, nothing else.
With that in mind, there are a couple different aspects of the game that stuck out to me beyond everything else.
Absolutely non-existent on Sunday against Minnesota. Christian Ponder wasn't sacked a single time, and was only hit twice. That just isn't going to get it done when your 3-4 defensive scheme is predicated on pressure from the front seven.
Even more alarming is the fact that Justin Smith, a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate entering the season, was going up against rookie Matt Kalil. Smith was pretty much manhandled all game long. The veteran has yet to record a sack through three games.
It was also expected that San Francisco was going to get some push along the interior of the defensive line. This did not happen. Marginal guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco held their own against the likes of Smith and Ray McDonald. Definitely not a good sign there.
Aldon Smith also seemed to be in coverage more than we saw in the first two games of the season. While this is an aspect of the game he does need to be involved in as a starter, Smith's bread and butter remains going after the quarterback. To have only one hit against Ponder is alarming.
Re-watching the game, it appears that the 49ers attempted to put the game in Ponder's hands instead of attacking the line of scrimmage. Schematically, it was a disaster, if you ask me. San Francisco went against their strengths, and the results were about as bad as we have seen in the Jim Harbaugh era.
We all know that the 49ers' secondary is only going to be as good as their pass rush. This can be stated for every single team in the National Football League that runs a traditional 3-4 defense. How good would the Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens defenses be if they were unable to generate a pass rush from the front seven? We saw this firsthand with the Green Bay Packers last season, who had one of the worst pass defenses in the modern history of the league despite having both Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams in the secondary.
In short, San Francisco needs to generate a more consistent pass rush if their secondary is going to hold up.
That being said, the back end of their defense was absolutely horrible against Minnesota on Sunday. Outside of Dashon Goldson's two personal foul penalties on the Vikings' game defining third quarter touchdown drive, they were out of sorts all game long. Again, this could have had something to do with scheme. However, I was extremely displeased to see the 49ers utilize off coverage a majority of the time against Percy Harvin and company. This enabled Minnesota to beat the 49ers underneath on a consistent basis throughout the game.
By my estimation Goldson, Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers all have more negative plays than positive ones. The only 49ers defensive back to play halfway decent was Chris Culliver, who continues to shine in his second season. Why go against what has been working over the course of the last 20 games? This is the question I have for Vic Fangio and the 49ers defensive coaching staff.
Wasn't Jimmy Raye Fired in 2010?
This question might be a little tongue-in-cheek, but it is definitely worth asking. Alex Smith isn't going to complete any deep passes if the offensive game plan continues to call for the dink and dunk passes. Simply put, you need to give him an opportunity to beat defenses over the top at least two or three times a game. This did not happen against Minnesota on Sunday.
It just looked like the 49ers were content with throwing the ball four yards and seeing if their receivers could rack up the yards after catch (YAC) statistics. As I mentioned in an earlier article, San Francisco doesn't possess players as comfortable doing this as we saw in the 80s and 90s. Sorry, but there isn't a Jerry Rice or John Taylor on this roster.
The idea was clear. To attack a supposedly weak Minnesota secondary, that struggles tackling, by throwing the ball underneath and moving the chains that way. How many times did you see Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis or Randy Moss run 15-yard out patterns? I didn't think so. San Francisco needs to return to what worked in the first two games of the season, and not pretend that Crabtree's fourth quarter performance against Detroit is going to be consistently successful.
Limit Smith to One or Two Reads
Smith seems to be most comfortable when he is able to go through just a couple of reads and release the ball relatively quickly in the pocket. With his improved accuracy, this seemed to work damn well against the Packers and Lions. San Francisco seemed to go away from this against the Vikings.
It isn't that Smith cannot handle multiple read sets. Rather, the 49ers personnel on the outside, as well as Smith's improved skill set, seems to indicate that one or two read progressions work much better. San Francisco had success with this against the New Orleans Saints in the postseason last year, but got away from it against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. See a pattern here?
Give Gore the Damn Rock
San Francisco is 38-21 since the start of the 2006 season when Gore rushes the ball more than 15 times in a game. They are 26-6 during that span when he rushes the ball at least 20 times. Now, I fully understand that the veteran running back might not be capable of shouldering over 20 attempts on a consistent basis at this point in his career. That really isn't the point, though.
Why did San Francisco go away from the run down by only seven points in the second quarter? That made absolutely no sense to me. Overall, Gore averaged nearly 5.3 yards on 12 rushes.
The 49ers need to continue giving Gore the ball throughout the duration of a game, no matter how the game is going. Of course, you are going to need to put the ball up when down multiple scores in the fourth quarter, but don't do this early in the game when down by just one score. Simple math dictates that San Francisco wins when Gore is made a focal point of the offense. No reason to change that just because Smith has improved a great deal in the passing game since the end of the 2010 season
These are issues that need to be fixed in relatively short order. Remember, we are not talking about a 49ers team looking to just get into the playoffs. Instead, their primary focus should be capturing home field advantage throughout the postseason. Any type of losing streak will pretty much put an end to that discussion.
More importantly, San Francisco needs to actually show up for EVERY football game, and take no team for granted. I am pretty sure that Harbaugh and company will be drilling that into the heads of the players this week in Youngstown, Ohio.
The major issue is that this should have been a focal point heading into the Vikings game. Instead, San Francisco didn't show up, and they were blown away by an inferior opponent.
Time to move forward and take this loss for what is was, a learning lesson.
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