San Francisco 49ers Progress Report: Where Do Things Stand Heading into Week 10?
The 49ers should be well rested and healthy considering they are coming off of a bye in Week 9.
Heading into this week's matchup against the visiting St. Louis Rams, San Francisco boasts the NFL's No. 2 defense and the league's No. 1 rush offense. The Niners sit atop the NFC West with a two-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks.
Right now they appear to be in the driver's seat with eight games remaining, four of which will be at Candlestick Park. Two of those home games are divisional contests, as the 49ers look to build on their 2-0 record against NFC West teams.
Seattle was the first division rival to fall two weeks ago, and the Arizona Cardinals proved to be overmatched just one week ago on Monday Night Football.
Let's take a look at just where Jim Harbaugh's club stands as it prepares to host the Rams.
At the halfway point last year, the 49ers defense would have been the hands-down choice here. However, Vic Fangio's unit has regressed a bit this year and the clear-cut favorite is San Francisco's rushing attack. Without a strong rushing attack, it's hard to say where the 49ers would be at the halfway point.
According to Pro Football Focus, Joe Staley and company have been far and away the best run-blocking offensive line in the league. PFF has them graded out to a plus-73.6—the second-most efficient offensive line in the NFL is Minnesota with a plus-30.7.
A 42.9-point gap doesn't need any explanation. Every starting offensive lineman for the 49ers has a positive run-blocking grade—as do both tight ends, the starting fullback and two backup offensive linemen. Out of the 23 offensive players PFF graded, only Randy Moss had a negative run-blocking grade.
With the offensive line playing so well, running back Frank Gore is on pace to have one of his most productive years. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry and is on pace for 1,308 yards—the second-highest total of his career.
Most 29-year-old running backs don't experience the kind of success Gore has had this year.
If you break down the 49ers statistics even further, you realize that they are on pace to outperform their own rushing numbers from a year ago. If the season ended today, San Francisco's 168.6 yards-per-game average would be the highest total since the Jets averaged 172.2 yards in 2009.
While the 49ers don't have many problem areas, one facet that hasn't been as productive this year as in 2011 is the pass rush. At the end of last season, PFF had graded San Francisco's front seven as the most dominate pass-rushing unit in the NFL.
Through eight games this season, it is just 16th in terms of pass-rushing efficiency. As a team the 49ers have recorded 15 quarterback sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 76 quarterback hurries. If you project those out to the end of the season, they will finish with 30 quarterback sacks, 36 quarterback hits and 152 quarterback hurries.
All three categories are well below the Niners' 2011 totals. After Week 17 last year, they had notched 42 quarterback sacks, 58 quarterback hits and 208 quarterback hurries.
That begs the question: whose production has fallen off this year?
The most notable names would be Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Aldon Smith's sack numbers are still high, but his quarterback hit and hurry numbers are down. He also hasn't been getting to the quarterback as frequently on a per-snap basis.
I feel he may be less productive this season for two reasons. First, he is an every-down player this year, which has caused him to be more gassed during obvious pass-rushing situations. Not to mention he is also seeing more double-teams due to his breakout campaign in 2011.
Like Aldon Smith, Justin Smith is also seeing more double-teams this year. Unfortunately, the players around him aren't stepping up like they did before. What has happened to Isaac Sopoaga as an interior pass-rusher? The 49ers defense runs through Justin Smith, and when he's not rushing the passer effectively, no one is.
San Francisco is in position to make a strong push deep into the playoffs again this year, but the 49ers will need to bring the heat if they want to advance to the Super Bowl.
Rising: Mike Iupati
In addition to Joe Staley having an All-Pro-caliber year, LG Mike Iupati is having one as well. Heading into Week 10, he hasn't allowed a single quarterback sack and has only allowed two quarterback hits and four quarterback hurries. He is also the second-highest rated guard in all of football. And he's only 25 years old.
Falling: Brandon Jacobs
Some of you may ask, why is Brandon Jacobs on this list? He's on here because he hasn't found a way to get on the field yet. He hasn't even logged one snap on offense.
What has he done to find himself in Coach Harbaugh's doghouse? It will be interesting to see if the 49ers offense finds a way to use Jacobs during the second half of the season.
Rising: Chris Culliver
When looking at game film, it would be hard to make a case for Carlos Rogers as San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback. Chris Culliver has improved to the point where I'm comfortable saying he is the best defensive back Fangio's defense has.
Opposing quarterbacks have thrown at him 36 times—only completing 14 passes for an absurd quarterback rating of 28.7. He has picked off two passes this season as well and hasn't allowed a touchdown pass since the playoffs in 2011.
Falling: Perrish Cox
It was a nice thought to give the kid another chance, but Perrish Cox hasn't proved he belongs on the 49ers roster. In spot duty he has allowed 11 completions on 12 attempts, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 112.8 when throwing at him, and their completion percentage is 91.7 percent.
I have a feeling he may not be back at the start of 2013.
Outlook Heading Into Week 10
As the 49ers get ready to host St. Louis on Sunday, they should be focusing on the same game plan that has gotten them to 6-2: lean on the ground game as much as possible and keep Alex Smith on a favorable pitch count.
The Rams have improved against the run over the past couple of games; however they are still allowing 105.4 yards per game, which is very good news for San Francisco's backfield.
Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher have never coached against each other before, yet Coach Harbaugh is 2-0 against the Rams. All-time the 49ers lead the season series 62-61-2. One surprising stat is that St. Louis actually has a winning record (25-24) against San Francisco at Candlestick Park.
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