In Week 5, the San Francisco 49ers (3-1) return to the Bay Area to host the Buffalo Bills (2-2). The Niners look like one of the better teams in the league right now, competing in one of the NFL's tougher divisions in 2012.
The 49ers need a win just as badly as Buffalo, if not more so.
Coming back from a two-game road trip, the Niners will relish home field advantage and draw the Bills into a physical and cerebral battle. The 49ers open as 9-point favorites, via The Spread, but don't be surprised if this game is much closer.
We breakdown San Francisco's keys to victory in the following.
Take Advantage of a Battered Offensive Line
Entering this matchup, the Bills will be without two of their normal starting offensive linemen: left tackle Cordy Glenn and right guard Kraig Urbik. Buffalo will be shorthanded due to injury, and it could not come at a worse time. The team is gearing up for a road trip to Candlestick Park to take on a relentless 49ers defensive front.
Vic Fangio should scheme accordingly, in order to take advantage of this newfound weakness. The Niners can come away with a victory by breaking down Buffalo’s protections and attacking weak links in the line.
With who San Francisco has up front, they can win with combinations of only three to four rushers. Their ability to control line of scrimmage will help them stop both the run and the pass on Sunday.
Block and Tackle, Block and Tackle
The Niners can’t get lazy here, not for a second – fundamentals are too important.
San Francisco’s best games have come when they block and tackle well. Frankly, they lack the consistent big-play explosiveness on offense, and compensate by doing a lot of the little things well. This is why it seems the 49ers rely on fundamentals to win football games.
The 49ers need to play hard on a down-by-down basis.
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) October 3, 2012
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) October 3, 2012
It’s about playing smart football and never forgetting the basics.
San Francisco’s defense is more talented than it is complex. They are a line up and beat you sort of unit that doesn’t often feel the need to get creative in their assignments. Occasionally, they’ll send Carlos Rogers off the edge, but overall, it’s a relatively simple approach to defense.
However, Fangio may have a couple tricks up his sleeve for this one.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s carefree approach makes him mistake-prone. He is going to make mistakes, so the 49ers should simply allow him to do that. They can expedite the process by disguising blitzes—showing him one thing and doing another.
The Niners can mix and match coverages and send pressure from different places. I wouldn’t rule out a jailbreak blitz or two.
Once again, Buffalo is missing 40% of their starting offensive line, so disguised blitzes will affect them too.
Establish Balanced Offensive Attack
This is critical not only to San Francisco’s offensive success, but also their overall success as a team. When the 49ers establish a proficient, balanced attack, they are a deadly team capable of putting up 30 points a game.
It begins with establishing the run, which the Niners have done exceptionally well so far this season. Heading into Week 3, San Francisco has the No. 3 rushing attack in the NFL.
With the versatility in their offense, they can run inside, run outside, throw short or throw deep. The bottom line: they need to use the entire field to their advantage—horizontally and vertically. For the Niners, stretching the field will help the run game, and vice versa.
Let’s not forget, perhaps the most important factor here is the play calling.
Take Away Scott Chandler In the Red Zone
San Francisco has done a much better job at taking away the opposing team’s wide receivers, rather than their tight ends.
With Scott Chandler, the Bills have a 6’7” pass-catching tight end that Fitzpatrick likes to throw high to. 49ers fans should be less worried about Steve Johnson and more concerned with Chandler.
The Niners have to restrict this relationship in the Bills offense and not let it be an advantage. The linebackers have to play physical with Chandler right off the snap and knock him off his route, and disrupt the timing between him and his quarterback.
The safeties and inside linebackers need to have a sharp game. The Niners defenders need to make him sore just for trying to run through the middle of the defense.
Don’t Limit Self Offensively
One of San Francisco’s roadblocks in this new regime has been their inability to get past self-manifested barriers. This particularly applies to the offensive side of the ball, where the 49ers ride or die with their game plan.
The Niners cannot limit themselves on offense, especially if the game situation dictates they should change it up. The most recent example was in Week 3 against Minnesota, when despite being down for the duration of the game, the staff refused to deviate from their game plan.
If things aren’t working, then adapt—the strong do, and Coach Harbaugh should know this.
This is a particularly distressing issue that’s become insanely bothersome when creativity is otherwise an apparent strength of this staff. When this offense is firing on all cylinders, the play calling is aggressive, unique and methodical.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 3, 2012
Cherish Home Field Advantage
San Francisco is returning home to Candlestick Park in Week 5 after a two-week road trip. The team should fire out of the tunnel, ready to play for their fans. Instead of this being a challenge, they should turn it into a fun day at the ballpark.
The team can get the crowd into it with some big hits, splash plays and offensive ingenuity.
They should get pumped up, because the time has begun to count down on Candlestick Park with a new stadium being erected. The construction crew has come a long way already, as the new venue has begun to take shape above ground.
Check out this awesome time-lapse video of the future home of the San Francisco 49ers. There is room left for a few more legendary moments before the ‘Stick calls it a career.
Win the Turnover Margin
The ever-important turnover margin is a crucial deciding factor in a vast majority of football games. Part of San Francisco’s signature is their ability to take the ball away on defense and secure it on offense.
The Niners are all about aggressively attacking the football on defense. Whether it’s in possession of a player or in the air, you can bet San Francisco is going after it. The team dedicates an entire day at the end of their week to something called “Takeaway Thursdays.”
This helps both the offense and defense, which we have seen with the 49ers being a league leader in the turnover ratio since Harbaugh’s arrival.
However, a takeaway means nothing if you give the ball right back and fail to capitalize on other team’s mistakes. San Francisco has to be smart, take care of the rock and play opportunistic football.
Put Outside Linebackers in Position to Succeed
San Francisco’s defensive line—especially the ends—needs to help their outside linebackers get free. Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are quite the tandem, having combined for 6.5 sacks so far this season.
But Justin Smith and Ray McDonald need to absorb the edges and be disruptive enough to allow Smith and Brooks to get loose. Even if they’re not piling up sacks, constant hits and pressure on Fitzpatrick will do the 49ers a world of good.
Also, as stated before, Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik are ruled out for this week’s game. In an attempt to take advantage, Brooks can work to the inside and Smith can work the edge rush.
The Niners also shouldn’t rule out overloading sides.
Make Ryan Fitzpatrick Try to Win It
In three victories this season, San Francisco has gotten an early lead and held tight for the remainder of the game. The 49ers need to get out to a fast start, put some points on the board and get Buffalo unbalanced and panicky.
If that happens, Fitzpatrick will try to do too much and inevitably force throws he never should’ve considered. In turn, the Bills will be down even more points, and all but completely forced to abandon the run game. It could have a snowball effect, stifling the Bills’ game plan and any chance for a big road win.
They will be trying to take more and more deep shots, of which they won’t be able to because their offensive line won’t be able to protect long enough for routes to develop.
An early lead is a major to key victory for the 49ers.