San Francisco 49ers Midseason Report Card for Every Positional Unit

Joseph AkeleyAnalyst IOctober 23, 2012

San Francisco 49ers Midseason Report Card for Every Positional Unit

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    We're about halfway through the 2012 NFL season, which means it's time for teams to check their midterm grades.

    Overall, the San Francisco 49ers have to be pleased with their report cards after seven games. They've played stingy defense and featured a bulldozing running game, both of which were on full display in a win against the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday Night Football that put San Francisco in sole possession of first place in the NFC West.

    But not every positional unit has performed up to expectations.

    The following slides present grades for San Francisco's positional units.

     

    Note: Grades are based on how each unit is performing in comparison to other teams' units. For example, San Francisco's quarterbacks have had their struggles, but they'd receive a higher grade than Arizona's quarterbacks for having better stats, a better record, etc.

Quarterbacks

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    Alex Smith has posted a 93.9 passer rating and has guided the 49ers to a 5-2 record.

    Yet, he seems to regressing after a hot start. 

    In four of his last five games, Smith has averaged less than seven yards per attempt.

    Still, for the season, Smith has done a nice job taking care of the ball (tied for 20th in interceptions thrown), and the 49ers have been one the most dominant teams in the NFL (fifth-best point differential in the league).

    This all begs the question: Does Smith deserve credit or are the 49ers winning in spite of Smith with an incredible defense and running game?

    And if you believe the latter is true, then should Smith be benched in favor of Colin Kaepernick?

    The ex-Nevada star has shown big-play ability in his limited snaps under center this year. 

    Concerns about Kaepernick's lack of experience and ability to read defenses are warranted, but what if he is the answer to all the 49ers' offensive problems?

    It's unlikely that we'll find out this year. Smith is 18-5 in his last 23 regular-season starts, and I doubt Harbaugh will make a change as long as the wins keep piling up.

    Overall, Smith has been OK. He played great against the Packers, Lions and Bills, but he also has thrown four interceptions in his last two games, including an abysmal three-interception performance against the Giants.

    To improve this grade, Smith will have to play with more consistency, and the 49ers offense will need to improve on its scoring average of 23.6 points per game (16th in the NFL).

    Grade: C+

Running Backs

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    Every year, I expect the mileage to catch up to Frank Gore, and every year, he proves me wrong.

    Statistically, Gore is having his best year since his 1,695-yard season in 2006. Gore is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, leading the way for San Francisco's rush offense ranked second in the league in yards per game.

    Kendall Hunter has performed admirably as the San Francisco's No. 2 running back. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry, a yard more than he averaged last year.

    Expect the 49ers to start giving Brandon Jacobs carries with the intent to preserve Gore as much as they can before the playoffs.

    Grade: A

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

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    There's really no excuse for Vernon Davis having zero catches in a game. The Seahawks shut out the 49ers' biggest receiving threat, but the attention he got opened things up for Frank Gore in the passing game (five catches, 51 yards) and the running game (16 carries for 131 yards).

    So it goes for San Francisco's wide receivers and tight ends.

    Alex Smith doesn't look down the field nearly enough, and the team's passing numbers are suffering because of this (Smith ranks 28th in passing yards per game).

    Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Kyle Williams all consistently get separation, and I don't believe they deserve much of the blame for the weak passing numbers.

    In fact, Smith is on pace to post his best yards-per-attempt average of his career. 

    If anything, this is the most talented receiving corps Smith has ever had, and it will likely remain underutilized as long the 49ers continue to run the ball and play defense as well as they have.

    Grade: B

Offensive Line

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    Going into this weekend's game, San Francisco's offensive line is ranked No. 1 in adjusted line yards, a stat measuring run-blocking dominance by Football Outsiders.

    The running game has had dominant blocking in every direction, ranking second in outside runs to the left, first in runs up the middle and third in outside runs to the right.

    As good as the 49ers have been run-blocking is about as bad they've been in pass-blocking.

    San Francisco entered Week 7 with the second-worst adjusted sack rate in the NFL.

    Much of this can be attributed to Alex Smith's preference to hold onto the ball and take a sack instead of releasing a pass into coverage.

    Still, for the 49ers offensive line to get the highest grade, it must improve its pass protection in the second half of the season.

    Grade: A-

Defensive Line

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    The defensive line has been a minor disappointment this year. It struggled at the point of attack against the Giants and Seahawks in back-to-back weeks. Overall, the 49ers are allowing 98.9 rushing yards per game, 22.6 more yards per game than they allowed in the 2011 season.

    San Francisco defensive linemen have contributed little to the pass rush, accounting for just half a sack (by Ray McDonald). This means Justin Smith has a bagel in the sack department, but he still draws double-teams often and leads the 49ers in stuffs with four.

    I should mention that the run defense still allows only 3.8 yards per carry, which is tied for ninth in the NFL (as of Monday).

    Though the run defense has taken a small step back this year and the sack totals have plummeted, it's still hard to be too concerned when the defense is ranked second in points allowed per game.

    Grade: B-

Linebackers

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    Aldon Smith has 5.5 sacks, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are both among the top 10 in tackles and San Francisco's defense ranks second in points allowed per game.

    This grade must be an "A," right?

    Well, not so fast.

    I mentioned on the defensive line slide that the run defense has regressed a bit, and the linebackers have to take some blame for that.

    Also, the 49ers pass rush has managed only 11.0 sacks this year, tied for 24th in the NFL.

    With just three sacks, Ahmad Brooks needs to step it up in the second half to bump this grade up to an "A."

    Grade: B+

Secondary

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    Is the secondary San Francisco's best defensive unit?

    Through seven games, it would be hard to refute such a claim.

    The 49ers have allowed the least passing yards per game (173.4) in the NFL. More impressively, San Francisco has also allowed the least yards per attempt (5.9).

    Possibly the secondary's best performance came last week against the Seattle Seahawks. Even when Russell Wilson had time to throw, his receivers were being blanketed by Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. Wilson finished with just 122 passing yards in the game.

    The 49ers secondary isn't forcing as many turnovers as it did last year, but the defense is stopping teams on third downs 65.6 percent of the time, which is the seventh-best mark in the NFL. 

    And possibly the most underrated part about the secondary is its ability to tackle. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are one of the top tackling safety duos in the league.

    Grade: A

Punter and Place Kicker

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    Andy Lee is off to a rather poor start to the 2012 season. The 49ers overall are 16th in net punting average.

    David Akers has missed five field goals, but he's yet to miss from inside of 40 yards.

    Expect San Francisco's special teams to play much better in the second half of the season.

    Grade: C-