With a record of 9-3-1, the 49ers currently occupy the No. 2 seed in the NFC, but a hiccup or two down the home stretch could bump this team all the way down to No. 5. And with a Week 16 matchup on the road against the 8-5 Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers must batten down the hatches and prepare for an all-out war down the final stretch of the regular season.
Here are the two biggest areas of concern for the 49ers as they prepare for the playoffs.
It's easy to take a look at the stats and think that the 49ers have an exceptional secondary, but the film doesn't lie. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have both been subject to exploitation this season.
The reason the 49ers have the No. 2 pass defense in the NFL is that the front seven does such an extraordinary job of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and dominating the middle of the field with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.
When the cornerbacks are tested on the outside by quarterbacks with big arms and high confidence, they've been burned.
Case in point: In the team's first meeting against the St. Louis Rams earlier this season, Sam Bradford hit Danny Amendola on an 80-yard strike down the right sideline that was ultimately called back on an illegal formation penalty on Roger Saffold.
Penalty aside, Rogers got burned badly on this play. Amendola fooled him by faking a quick out, then just roasted Rogers as he streaked down the right sideline, and Bradford hit him in stride for the bomb.
The 49ers were playing a three-deep zone with Brown, Donte Whitner and Rogers, and Amendola easily ran past Rogers to get open over the top of the zone—something that should never happen.
Brown has incurred a few blatant pass interference penalties of late, too, as he attempts to stop big plays from happening after he gets beat deep.
When the playoffs roll around, quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will have opportunities to take some shots downfield, and unless Brown and Rogers do a better job of staying with their man, the 49ers will keep getting burned.
Not-So-Special Special Teams
We all know that David Akers hasn't performed up to the standard he set last season. He's been as reliable as ever on short kicks, hitting 16-of-17 from 39 yards and in. Where Akers has struggled this season is from 40 yards and out, hitting just seven of his 15 attempts.
But Akers isn't the biggest concern I have heading into the home stretch and beyond. What truly worries me is the lapses we've seen from the coverage teams—especially on kickoffs.
We don't have to go far back in time to find a glaring error in kickoff coverage, either, as Marcus Thigpen gashed this unit for 56 yards in Week 14 early in the third quarter—right after Frank Gore put the 49ers up by 10 points on his one-yard touchdown run.
Akers kicked the ball into the end zone, but Thigpen returned it from about six yards deep.
The 49ers' coverage team flows to the right side of the field from their perspective, and by the time Thigpen cuts back to his right (49ers left), there are hardly any defenders on that side of the field.
Chris Culliver, in particular, gets out of position not once, but two times, allowing Thigpen to put the Dolphins in excellent position to respond with points of their own—which they did.
Special teams players are coached just like defensive players to stay in their gaps. When players go outside their area of responsibility, big plays open up.
One lapse like this in a playoff game could be the difference between a win and a loss, and Brad Seely's group needs to improve drastically before the postseason arrives.
Note: All screenshots courtesy of NFL Rewind and All-22.
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