What a bounce-back game for the San Francisco 49ers in Week 4. After the Minnesota Vikings stole their lunch money in Week 3, their performance was everything we expected out of a Jim Harbaugh-coached team. Everyone knows that a Harbaugh-led team doesn't suffer defeat two weeks in a row.
Offensively, San Francisco returned to its roots. The 49ers ran the football with purpose and drive. Not a single rusher eclipsed the century mark. Instead, they used every outlet possible to gain positive yards on the ground.
Nine different players carried the ball out of the 49ers backfield. Frank Gore's 56 yards set the pace as they pounded out 245 yards behind their massive offensive line. Sunday's rushing performance was the third time the 49ers had rushed for over 200 yards since Coach Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), San Francisco has the best run-blocking unit in all of football. Not one of their offensive linemen has a negative run-blocking grade through the first four games. No other team can say they have accomplished that feat so far this season.
Look for a strong rushing attack this weekend, as Buffalo has been atrocious on defense.
What else will the 49ers need to knock off the Buffalo Bills? Let's take a look at what a potential game plan could look like for Sunday's game.
When the 49ers Are on Offense
When you're squaring off against one of the league's worst defenses, you really have the opportunity to pick your plan of attack.
The Bills are 23rd against the pass and 28th against the run. Their big-name free-agent acquisitions have yet to show up this season. Neither Mario Williams nor Mark Anderson have been worth the lucrative contracts they signed.
Williams has only registered a total of 12 quarterback pressures. One has been a sack, two have been quarterback hits and the rest have been hurries. Don't let those numbers escape you, because Anderson has been even worse. He only has one less total pressure, yet his play against the run has been horrid. Out of 60 4-3 defensive ends, PFF has graded him as the 12th worst.
So let me get this straight: For $13.3 million in 2012, the Bills have been rewarded with 23 quarterback pressures. It sounds like Williams and Anderson will be bigger thieves than Kevin Kolb at this rate. And yes, I'm aware we are only four games into the season, but is it too late to tell everyone "I told you so"? Who really thought Williams would play at the highest level possible for Buffalo?
If you did, I feel bad for you. It happens every year: A big-name free agent leaves his previous team, signs with a new team and then goes down as a free-agent bust.
To take advantage of the lackluster play of the multimillion-dollar defensive line, we will need to see plenty of outside-power running plays.
Here is a good example that shows us just how San Francisco uses their blockers on the offensive line. As you can see above, the 49ers are in 22 personnel and will be running to the strong side of the formation. Notice how only Randy Moss is in the game at wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to put Moss in the game on run downs as a decoy.
When the ball is snapped, look how quickly the blockers get on their blocks, even fullback Bruce Miller and left tackle Joe Staley. They both have second-level blocks on this play, and it doesn't seem to phase them one bit. Staley pulls quickly to the middle of the field so know defender can get through the A-gap. Miller has the duty of sealing LaRon Landry off the edge.
The run eventually picks up 11 yards and a first down. The biggest thing they didn't do two weeks ago against Minnesota was run the ball enough. It's entirely possible that they could get behind early, as Ryan Fitzpatrick has big-play potential when given time. So, if the 49ers do indeed get behind, they shouldn't panic.
Their recipe to success is a controlled running game that sets up the play-action pass. If they stick to that same recipe for success on offense, there's no reason this team won't put up another 200-plus-yard performance on the ground.
When the 49ers Are on Defense
On offense, Buffalo is a much more sound team because of its backfield. Whether it's Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller at running back, this group is dangerous. They have one of the best young offensive lines in the NFL. Center Eric Wood really sets the tone for this group. I would have no problem putting him in a top-five list of current centers—he's that good.
San Francisco's pass rush is so dominant that it might be in Buffalo's best interests to try and keep the ball safe by running it and not turning it over.
Turnovers have been a big problem for this Buffalo offense. Through four games, it has given the ball away 11 times. Seven of those giveaways fall on the shoulders of Ryan Fitzpatrick. He needs to be more careful with the ball.
And if that running game never does get going on Sunday, he will need to take controlled shots. Because if he doesn't, Carlos Rogers and the 49ers secondary will make him pay. They have already taken the ball away eight times this season, and three of them have been interceptions.
Let's take a look at how the Browns defense shut down Fitzpatrick. They ran a lot of man-to-man press on the outside, which helped extend the plays, as it forced the wide receivers to get off their jams.
On this play, Fitzpatrick has a beautiful pocket, yet you can see that his first two options aren't open. The tight end has tight man coverage towards the middle of the field and the left wide receiver has a cornerback in his hip pocket. It has become something I've noticed more and more as I watch film of the Bills: They struggle playing against press coverage.
When San Francisco couples that style of press coverage with its phenomenal pass rush, it thrives. There hasn't really been a game where a wide receiver has gotten the best of the 49ers secondary. The only player who has really been productive is tight end Kyle Rudolph, and he didn't always see safety coverage.
So, it's imperative that this defense tightens up in efforts to stop the passing attack. Fitzy will be slinging as always, but the opportunities to make him pay for his bad decisions should be plenty. I predict Vic Fangio's defense will intercept him three times and return one for a score. That's how well Fangio's secondary is playing right now.
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