Grading the San Francisco 49ers' Positional Units at the First-Quarter Mark
The San Francisco 49ers rebounded from a lackluster effort against the Minnesota Vikings to blank the New York Jets, 34-0. The victory moves the 49ers to 3-1, one game behind the undefeated Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West.
The NFC West looks to be the trendy pick as the league's toughest division. The four teams in the division, Arizona, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle have a combined record of 11-5, the best in the NFL.
The teams in the NFC West are all on the upswing and have some of the toughest defenses in the game. The 49ers must come ready to play and not have any more letdowns, like we saw two weeks ago in Minnesota.
After four games, the 49ers have displayed some excellent football, but have also had some ugly moments. Let's take a closer look at each positional unit on the team and assess their level of play. I will also provide a first-quarter grade for each group.
Alex Smith had an outstanding game against the Packers
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Smith has completed 76-of-113 pass attempts, a very solid 67.3 clip. His yards per game is a pedestrian 179.3, but he has thrown five touchdowns against only one interception. Smith's passer rating is 98.1, which places him seventh in the league.
The one thing we have not seen much of is Smith throwing the deep ball to Randy Moss. Even if the pass is incomplete, a few attempts at this would move the safeties back, giving the 49ers more room to operate in the 10-15 yard range, where Smith is much more comfortable.
With the arrival of head coach Jim Harbaugh, one thing cannot be minimized. Smith has improved dramatically and in the 22 games he has started, the 49ers are 17-5. It may not always be pretty, but Smith is doing enough to keep the 49ers on the winning track.
Smith has shown excellent leadership and has a strong grasp of the 49ers' offense. He has learned not to force the ball and risk interceptions, instead taking what the defense gives him. This conservative approach by Smith can be frustrating, but with the 49ers' defense, it does win games.
Smith worked with former MLB pitcher and throwing guru Tom House on his mechanics and delivery this offseason. While this has helped his accuracy, there is still room for improvement in this area.
The 49ers have also utilized Colin Kaepernick very effectively in certain situations. Playing mostly in a wildcat formation, Kaepernick is able to use his outstanding athletic ability and has already made some excellent runs.
Although he has thrown only one pass, an incompletion to Randy Moss, Kaepernick gives opposing defenses something else they need to prepare for. He has 67 yards on six carries, including a long of 30 yards and one touchdown.
I look for continued creativity from offensive coordinator Greg Roman and we should start seeing more of Kaepernick in certain packages. He is still a far less polished quarterback than Smith, but Kaepernick's athleticism and running ability gives the 49ers another excellent offensive dimension.
Quarterbacks Grade: B+
Frank Gore is healthy and off to a good start this season
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The San Francisco 49ers have one of the best ground attacks in the NFL. They are led by Frank Gore, who is now in his eighth season with the 49ers. At the age of 29, Gore shows no signs of slowing down.
Gore has rushed for 326 yards and three touchdowns on 66 carries. His 4.9 yards-per-carry average is also excellent. In addition to leading the way on the ground for the 49ers, Gore is an excellent blocker and is very proficient at picking up the blitz.
Kendall Hunter, Gore's understudy, has also played a role in the Niners' rushing attack. He has carried the ball 26 times for 120 yards, a 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
Hunter provides a good change of pace in the 49ers' backfield. He has excellent speed and elusiveness. The solid play of Hunter takes a lot of the load off of Gore. The 49ers are hoping that by easing the burden on Gore, he will stay healthy and be fresher for the postseason.
Fullback Bruce Miller does a fine job blocking and is also a good receiver out of the backfield.
Running Backs Grade: A-
Michael Crabtree leads the 49ers in receptions
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The San Francisco 49ers knew they needed to upgrade their wide-receiver corps this offseason. Among the 49ers' wide receivers, only Michael Crabtree had over 20 catches in 2011.
GM Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh were intent on strengthening this area, and they made several moves to fortify the position.
The 49ers made headlines by signing future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, who sat out all of last season. Prior to joining the 49ers, Moss had 954 career receptions for 14,858 yards and 153 touchdowns. This year, Moss has eight catches for 88 yards and one touchdown.
Moss had a reputation of being hard to deal with and a malcontent if he was not seeing the ball. Harbaugh met with Moss and the two seem to have a mutual respect and an excellent working relationship. Moss has been a very positive presence on the team and has been a mentor to the 49ers' younger receivers.
The 49ers also signed Mario Manningham, who had played four seasons with the New York Giants. Manningham has moved into a starting role and has 15 receptions for 160 yards. In addition, Manningham has carried the ball on two end-around runs for 57 yards.
The addition of Moss and Manningham to go along with Crabtree is a significant upgrade over 2011. Spot players Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr. provide depth.
The 49ers also selected wide receiver AJ Jenkins in the first round of the most recent draft. Jenkins is a work in progress and is still learning. He is unlikely to see any meaningful action until the second half of the season, at the earliest.
The 49er wide receivers have combined for 46 catches this year, averaging 11.5 receptions per game. In contrast, the 49ers averaged only 7.9 wide receiver receptions per game last year. Crabtree leads the group this year with 21 catches for 198 yards.
Wide Receivers Grade: B
Vernon Davis scores against the Lions
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Head coach Jim Harbaugh has always made getting the tight ends involved a big part of his offensive system. Now in San Francisco, Harbaugh has two fine tight ends, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
Davis is one of the best tight ends in the league. He combines size and speed, which makes him a very tough cover. He is too fast for most linebackers and too big for a safety.
Davis is a favorite target of Alex Smith and he has 15 catches for 197 yards. He leads the team with four touchdown receptions.
Davis is also an excellent blocker and plays a key role in the 49ers' running game. He has also developed into a team leader and is well-respected by his teammates.
Walker is valued as more of a threat in the passing game than as a blocker. He has excellent speed and has even been used on kickoff returns in past years. Walker has four catches for 39 yards through the first four games of the season.
Rookie Garrett Celek is the 49ers' third tight end and is used mostly on special teams.
Tight Ends Grade: A
Anthony Davis is developing into a solid offensive lineman
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The San Francisco 49ers' offensive line is beginning to come together as a cohesive unit. As a group, they are big and physical. Their biggest asset is that they are devastating run blockers.
The 49ers boast three first-round draft picks on the line: left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis. The center is veteran Jonathan Goodwin, whom the 49ers acquired as a free agent prior to last season.
The biggest individual improvement has been with Davis. Now in his third season with the 49ers, he is beginning to dominate.
A strong run blocker, Davis had enormous difficulty as a pass protector early in his career. He has improved his footwork and overall technique and is now playing well in all phases of his game.
The lone newcomer to the line is Alex Boone, who a reserve tackle during his first two seasons. Boone has stepped into the starting role as the right guard. He is a beast of a man, standing 6'8" and weighing in at 300 pounds.
The offensive line does need to be more consistent with their pass protection. They have allowed 12 sacks this year, and we have also seen Alex Smith under duress on several other pass plays.
Offensive Line Grade: B
Justin Smith earned All-Pro honors in 2011
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The San Francisco 49ers' defensive line is led by Justin Smith. He was a First-Team All-Pro and also earned his third Pro Bowl selection in 2011.
The other starting defensive linemen are Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald. Both are strong against the run, but not dynamic pass rushers. Sopoaga was injured against the Vikings and was replaced by Ricky Jean Francois.
The 49ers' defensive scheme mandates that the linemen stuff the run and occupy blockers. This allows the 49ers' outstanding linebackers to make plays all over the field.
The 49ers' defensive line has not provided as much of a pass rush as defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would have hoped. Through four games, the 49ers have just eight sacks and only Ray McDonald has one-half of a sack for the defensive line.
Defensive Line Grade: B
NaVorro Bowman has a big interception against the Packers
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The San Francisco 49ers have, arguably, the top linebacker corps in the NFL. The inside linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman is the best in the league.
In 2011, Willis was selected to his fifth Pro Bowl and earned First-Team All-Pro honors for the fourth time in his career. Bowman was also a First-Team All-Pro, his first such selection. The dynamic duo are playing top-caliber football once again and leading the 49ers' excellent defense.
Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks as a rookie last year, has moved into a full-time starting job at one linebacker spot. He leads the 49ers with 4.5 sacks and has also played well against the run. Smith has to get more comfortable in pass coverage, even though he is usually in the role of pass rusher.
The unsung hero of this group is Ahmad Brooks. He is a solid all-around player and has also contributed two sacks.
The entire 49er defense had trouble containing the Vikings' Christian Ponder, in the third game of the year. It was the first time in recent memory that the 49ers have allowed a quarterback to hurt them on scrambles and dictate the pace of the game.
The 49ers' linebackers are the strength of the team. Outside of the Minnesota game, the linebackers are playing well and are a major reason why this defense is allowing only 16.3 points per game.
Linebackers Grade: A-
Carlos Rogers scoops up a fumble and returns it for a TD
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The 49ers kept their core defenders in place following a spectacular 2011 season. The continuity of the defensive backfield has helped this unit.
The corners are solid with Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. At safety, the 49ers are led by playmaker Dashon Goldson and veteran Donte Whitner.
One of the biggest improvements I have seen in the defensive secondary is with the 49ers' nickel and dime packages. Chris Culliver is much improved as the nickel back. With most teams utilizing three wide receivers on several offensive sets, Culliver sees plenty of playing time and is responding very well.
In the offseason, the 49ers also acquired cornerback Perrish Cox, who missed the 2011 season due to legal issues. Cox is an upgrade over Tremaine Brock, who was the 49ers' dime back.
The defensive backs have combined for only one interception, so their takeaways are down from last season. However, the 49ers have already faced Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford, two of the top quarterbacks in the league. The 49ers defensive secondary has more than held its own.
Defensive Backs Grade: A-
David Akers booted a 63-yard field goal earlier this season
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In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers had dominant special teams play. Their special teams repeatedly gave the 49ers an advantage in virtually every game.
Special teams proved to be an integral part of the 49ers' success last year. Both kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee were First-Team All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl honorees.
Kicker David Akers set a record in 2011, converting 44 of his 52 field goal attempts. This season, Akers is 9-of-12, including a record-tying 63 yard field-goal.
Punter Andy Lee has been playing with a broken finger, which causes him pain when catching the ball. This has not caused Lee to mishandle any snaps, which is doubly important since he is the holder for Akers.
Lee is averaging 46.3 yards per punt, and has eight inside the 20-yard line, with only one punt finding the end zone for a touchback.
The return game has been decent with Kyle Williams handling punt-return duty, while Ted Ginn was hurt. Ginn played against the Jets and if healthy, he moves Williams to the bench. Kendall Hunter and Williams are handling the kickoff returns and doing a good job.
The 49ers' coverage units have some issues of consistency. They have given up a touchdown already this year and return averages have increased. Although still strong, the overall play of the special teams is below that of last season.
Special Teams Grade: B+
The 49ers Are 3-1 Heading into This Weekend's Game Against The Bills
Jim Harbaugh shares some wisdom with Alex Smith
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The San Francisco 49ers are 3-1 and trail the division-leading Arizona Cardinals by one game. At this point in the season, the 49ers are well positioned, as long as they can avoid the type of lapses that occurred against Minnesota.
The other advantage the 49ers have over their opposition is their coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio runs the defense and he's one of the best in the business.
On offense, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are creative and keeps the opposing defense off balance. The 49ers also have excellent position coaches who the players believe in and learn from.
Expectations are flying high right now for the 49ers and rightfully so. They are one of the best teams in the league and anything less than a Super Bowl will be a disappointment.
Overall grade for the first four games: A-