The 49ers have started off the season clicking on almost every cylinder. An early-season hiccup in Minnesota has largely been voided after a punishing victory over the Jets in the Meadowlands in Week 4. The 49ers have looked extremely solid in most every aspect of the game in their three wins and looked alarmingly normal in every facet in their lone loss.
This is a team that is going to win games with the same basic formula that got them to within a botched punt return of the Super Bowl: set the tempo early with the run game, get an early lead and use their stifling defense and grinding running style to slowly choke the opponent to death.
When the 49ers can establish this motif early in the game and force teams into their style of play, it often looks pretty. Physical, relentless, punishing and pretty to watch for old-school football fans.
But the 49ers can look bad at times, like any other team, and this team certainly has not established itself as being head and shoulders above all other contenders in the NFL yet.
So let's examine the good, the bad and the ugly from the season so far. The 49ers have displayed varying amounts of each after their first four games.
If you forget about the Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings this article could simply be called The Good and no one would think differently. The 49ers have been very good on all sides of the ball in their three wins. But there are two things that especially stand out after four games: the defensive unit as a whole and the run game.
The defense has looked up to the task for the most part this year. On the strength of this week's manhandling of the Jets, it is safe to say that last week's defensive showing against the Vikings was an aberration rather than a harbinger of doom for what the future holds.
Dashon Goldson is quickly putting a sub-par 2010 season in the rearview by following up a Pro Bowl-caliber year in 2011 with an equally-physical start to this season. Donte Whitner is still struggling in coverage at times against tight ends but has compensated for this with sure tackling in the secondary and at the line of scrimmage.
The front seven is the fastest, best-tackling group in the NFL. hands down, and anything other than stellar play tends to stand out. Teams simply cannot run the ball with much efficiency at all against this unit and they proved in Green Bay and at home against Detroit that they can pull a linebacker off the field in favor of an extra defensive back and still stop the running game entirely.
Although Justin Smith has had a relatively slow start to the season, his continued ability to eat up double-teams has allowed Aldon Smith to continue to thrive alongside him. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis make up easily the best tandem of inside linebackers in football and Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks form a left side that is as good as it is underrated. There simply isn't anything not to like about the starting 11.
The 49ers are also running the ball with punitive authority—an authority that has made itself especially known in the fourth quarter of each of their three wins. Their virtual abandonment of the run was a huge factor in their one loss.
Coming into this season the backfield was thought to be perhaps a little too crowded. The addition of Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James was expected to take a few snaps apiece from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, but it's been those two for the most part who have pounded away at opposing defenses to the tune of 167 yards per game, good for third in the NFL.
With a healthy Jacobs this rushing attack could be the best in the league by a wide margin.
Against the Jets, the 49ers revealed several new wrinkles to a quickly-expanding arsenal of run plays. The emergence of Colin Kaepernick in the run game, combined with increased touches for fullback Bruce Miller, provides another way for the 49ers to eat up large chunks of yardage, but to do so along the ground, as is their preference.
This was already easily the most creative running attack in the NFL before Kaepernick further put defensive coordinators on notice.
This is a team that has consistently been able to succeed with a TE on a defensive tackle (Delanie Walker vs Ndamakong Suh), frequently puts two 320 pound maulers in at fullback and tight end, runs the antiquated fly sweep with success, has big physical linemen across the line who are athletic enough to work well moving into the second level and runs a wide assortment of sweeps, counters and traps along with numerous pre-snap shifts.
Add to this a quarterback who can come off the bench with legitimate 4.4 speed and the size to break would-be tackles, and this is a running game that can control the tempo in any game against any team.
Right now, this looks like a team that is an automatic to crack 145 yards on the ground each week regardless of the opponent, if they remain committed to the run. The loss to Minnesota revealed a serious weakness when they get away from the ground game.
Not much has been bad about the 49ers this year. But the loss to Minnesota did reveal a disturbing trend, one that has actually been apparent in their first two wins of the year as well. The 49ers are plain bad at scoring quickly and scoring often on offense.
This team struggles to produce on offense when forced to get away from the slow, methodical approach that their superior rushing attack lends itself so well to.
Against the Packers and the Lions, while the team advanced the chains and scored late when it needed to in order to keep the game out of reach, they had several opportunities to turn what were relatively close games into near-blowouts.
Put simply, there isn't a killer instinct of any kind in the passing attack right now, certainly not the kind of instinct that would make ol' Angel Eyes above proud.
Randy Moss has proven to be largely a shell of his former self and Smith has proved incapable of taking advantage of the few opportunities down the field that have presented themselves.
Against the Jets he missed several open receivers down the field who had a step or two on the defensive back. Despite the 49ers' commitment to the run, Smith should have been able to put up much better numbers against a depleted secondary. There are going to be times this year when Smith has to show that he can succeed when both the run and the underneath passing routes are mostly unavailable.
Against a team with a vulnerable secondary, it is disturbing to see Smith fail to take advantage and produce such pedestrian numbers. Passing for only 143 yards simply won't cut it in most of their games this year.
As long as the defense keeps the score close, the 49ers are not going to find themselves in a situation where they'll need to put 35 points or more on the board to win. But they look so poor at moving the ball down the field quickly, when forced to play catch-up or in third-and-long situations, that this offense might be challenged to put, say, 10 or 14 points on the board within the last five minutes or so of a game.
That is not an easy task for any team, really, but the 49ers look absolutely handicapped on offense in this respect. What was a weakness last year, and what was alleged to have been addressed this offseason, does not look improved at all. What seems to have happened is that the 49ers have instead found even more ways to gain five yards through the air.
The offensive line has pass-blocked pretty well for the most part, but they've looked considerably weaker when being asked to hold up long enough for a 7-step drop and longer routes to develop.
Smith has looked good with his decision-making, both pre- and post-snap, and his throws are slowly becoming more accurate. But when it comes to stretching the field and throwing the ball with accuracy and velocity to receivers 20 or more yards away, Smith has looked deficient at best.
Smith and the passing game will have to be extremely efficient and receivers will have to run well after the catch for this offense to succeed without the ability to exploit opposing secondaries on a regular basis.
Truth be told, there isn't much in the ugly category regarding the 49ers this year. Their only loss to Minnesota was ugly I suppose, but Minnesota looks like a team that is at least better than most gave them credit for at the start of the season.
The Vikings have a good young quarterback, a big, athletic tight end, a dynamic wide receiver/return man, an underrated defense and one of the best running backs in the game running behind an above average offensive line. That's a combination that gives them a puncher's chance against any team in the NFL, including the 49ers.
No, I wouldn't really term that loss "ugly." In fact, there really isn't anything of significance in the 49ers season that I would assign that term to.
However, in keeping with the Sergio Leone theme, let's examine il cattivo from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly".
Eli Wallach's character, Tuco, was known as a conniving, thieving degenerate capable of outsmarting most and willing to resort to violence more readily than those who could outmatch him with their wits. What about the 49ers displays on all of these "virtues"?
Jim Harbaugh and the coaching staff, obviously, all kidding aside, has shown the ability to outsmart the other team, take advantage of their weaknesses and resort to pure physicality and brute force when all else fails, much like Tuco.
I do not think for one second that it was purely coincidental that Colin Kaepernick and the 49er version of the spread option was unveiled against Tim Tebow and the Jets.
I highly suspect that Harbaugh, Roman and company wanted to prove a point, or rather several, to themselves, to the Jets and to the league as a whole, and Kaepernick was the vehicle to make that point known.
They essentially came out and said, "We can run the ball, we can gain large chunks of yardage on the ground, we can be more dynamic than anyone else in the league on the ground and we're going to prove it in a way that makes people stand up and take notice. Tebow, schmebow. Watch this."
It looked like the 49ers went into this week's preparation motivated in part by the anger lingering over last week's embarrassing loss, and the vengeance-minded staff decided to make the Jets bear the brunt of their frustration.
And it is a vengeful staff. This is a group of coaches that seems to thrive on proving people wrong and getting revenge on those who doubted them. Watch any of Greg Roman's post-game interviews after wins, especially wins featuring dominant, physical offensive play. There is a certain smugness and a definite I-told-you-so tone and inflection to his speech.
Harbaugh obviously relishes in rubbing it in against the opposition, to a pathological level, as evidenced by his two-point conversion attempt in the waning moments of a 55-21 blowout of USC while at Stanford.
The entire staff could hardly contain themselves after dialing up the perfect blitz-beating play to destroy the Saints' playoff hopes last year, with the memory of the Saints' blitz-happy embarrassment of the Niners in the preseason still fresh in their minds.
I don't know what the hell was behind last year's confrontation between Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz, but I'm certain it boils down to Harbaugh feeling slighted in some way and feeling that the win was appropriate revenge for said slight, with Harbaugh also letting Schwartz know who had taken revenge against whom.
Perhaps I'm letting my imagination run wild, but there definitely seems to be an edge to this staff, one that has rubbed off on the players.
Prior to the Packers game, there was doubt about their ability to stop the Green Bay passing attack. Instead, the game plan was perfectly tailored to take away the deep ball and force the Packers into the slower, more methodical war of attrition that the 49ers love to make teams engage in and that the Packers have largely avoided.
It was more of the same against Detroit.
The question last year was whether the 49ers could keep up with the vaunted Saints offense in the playoffs. Time after time what has been looked at as a weakness has turned out to be the strength in wins that are becoming less and less surprising. They repeatedly beat teams with the one weapon that was thought exploitable.
That isn't a random pattern but rather a sign of the team taking on the mentality of its coaching staff, the sign of very good coaching.
Against Minnesota, the staff may have become a little too guilty of hubris, much like Tuco, and paid the price for taking their opponent too lightly.
Against the Jets, they regained their sense of self and got back to what makes them who they are: a physically-punishing defense and an aggressive, stifling rushing attack, enhanced by deception and trickery at times and at others with pure force. It may be an ugly formula at times, but it works for the 49ers and, when it does, ugly can be a very pretty thing to watch.