Don't Get Caught In The Hype, It's Too Early to Call 49ers NFC's Top Team

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Don't Get Caught In The Hype, It's Too Early to Call 49ers NFC's Top Team
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers destroyed the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, but fans would be wise to hold off on the champagne. 

Sure, the Bears were one of the NFC's top teams, record-wise, but beating the Jay Cutler-less team within an inch of its life doesn't automatically make the 49ers the best team in the conference.

The white-hot New Orleans Saints loom on the horizon. 

There are two things I'm specifically concerned about in this upcoming game. If the team buttons these issues up, then we can start talking about the 49ers as the top team in the NFC. 

 

Run Defense

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
This trio hasn't been as dominant up front this year as it was in 2011.

Last season, it was a given that the 49ers would shut down opponents' running games. The team only allowed one 100-yard rusher and three total touchdowns in 2011, but we've seen a different story unfold in 2012. 

Through 10 games, the 49ers have allowed three players to rush for over 100 yards (Ahmad Bradshaw, Marshawn Lynch and Steven Jackson), have allowed an average of 94.3 yards per game (as opposed to 77.3 yards per game a year ago) and have already allowed three touchdowns.

The biggest reason for this lack of dominance is that the two stalwarts in the middle—Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga—have been getting pushed around this year more than we saw in 2011.

Here's one play that perfectly illustrates the duo's decline, from the team's Week 10 tie against the St. Louis Rams. We come in at the 12:28 mark of the first quarter, so both sides are as fresh as possible.

NFL Rewind

The Rams are in an offset single-back formation with two tight ends. 

The right guard and center get off the line and into the second level without a struggle, which allows them to engage the linebackers before Jackson is even out of the backfield. 

NFL Rewind
NFL Rewind

J. Smith gets swallowed up and eventually pancaked by Roger Saffold, while Sopoaga gets decleated by tight end, Lance Kendricks. 

Sopoaga. Decleated. By a tight end. That should never happen.

Jackson ended up gaining 10 yards on the play, and he had to be brought down by Ahmad Brooks, the outside linebacker.

This wasn't a one-time aberration, either. Sopoaga, in particular, has been getting pushed around on running plays on a regular basis this season. 

The Saints have been getting back to basics lately—running the ball early and often—and the 49ers can expect a heavy dose of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas. 

The Giants gave the NFL a blueprint for defeating the 49ers. If the team's defense doesn't drastically improve against a determined rushing attack, teams like the Pats ans Saints will abuse the secondary once Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson start peaking into the backfield to help out with the run.

 

Consistency

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
The 49ers shouldn't be letting teams like the Rams compete on their level.

Consistency has been an issue for the 49ers all season long. Until this burgeoning team starts playing with the same kind of fire we saw on MNF on a weekly basis, I'm not sold on its chances to win the NFC this January.

Here are a few areas of concern I have regarding consistency:

  • Greg Roman has completely abandoned the running game twice this year, and wouldn't you know it, the 49ers lost both games. 
  • The team's pass-rushers have disappeared for games at a time, though Aldon Smith has certainly come on strong of late. 
  • Carlos Rogers has had a few games this season where he's been a liability in coverage.
  • Vernon Davis has disappeared in the passing game for games at a time.

With road games against the Saints, New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks still looming, we're about to find out if the 49ers can rise up and become the best team in the NFC.

Don't get me wrong, when the 49ers are running on all cylinders, there isn't a team in the NFC that can beat them. That said, we've only seen this team playing up to its potential about 70 percent of the time in 2012.

There is still much work to be done for the 49ers to ascend to the top of the NFC. These final six games are crucial tests this team must pass in order for it to earn that honor.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 and check out my weekly NFL picks at Pickfactor.com

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