San Francisco 49ers: 5 Questions Team Still Must Answer in the Playoffs
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For as good as their 9-3-1 record would suggest otherwise, the San Francisco 49ers are a playoff team filled with question marks.
Not earth-shattering questions, but legitimate ones nonetheless.
One need only look to the regular season losses for evidence of what may arise in the postseason.
The 49ers inexplicably fell short against an inferior Vikings team in Week 3 after defeating the Packers and Lions—two reigning playoff squads powered by high-octane offenses. It was an ugly example of playing down to an opponent.
In Week 6, the Giants smashed the 49ers at Candlestick Park when sheer motives for postseason vengeance should have fueled a win. The coaching staff instead abandoned the run and got cute with the play-calling, which both led to losing the battle of the trenches and a rare turnover-filled day by Alex Smith.
The divisional rival St. Louis Rams may have unearthed the greatest concerns of all.
The first matchup resulted in a tie because of the inability of the 49ers D to hold a fourth-quarter lead against a Sam Bradford-led offense. Unnecessary penalties and deficiencies in coverage and run defense characterized this unfortunate outcome.
Just two weeks later against those very Rams, San Francisco’s offense couldn’t score for nearly three whole quarters and David Akers couldn’t make a game-winning field goal.
Throw in the debate of whether second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the right man to lead SF to the promised land and, yes, questions abound for this team.
But this article needs focus.
For our purposes, let’s tailor this evaluation to a few primary questions the 49ers must answer against each NFC team they’ll potentially meet in the playoffs based on the current standings.
Note No. 1: We realize that the team’s focus is rightfully on the regular season finales against the Patriots, Seahawks and Cardinals. That’s why we took the liberty of handling some additional “game-planning” for the coaching staff. Or something.
Note No. 2: Since reaching the Super Bowl would be an improvement over last season, we will omit any potential AFC foe and concentrate solely on obstacles in the form of NFC opponents.
5. Chicago Bears: Third-Down Conversions, Red-Zone Scoring Percentage
Culliver had great coverage here, but we had to at least try to find some shortcoming.
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Note: Marshall's TD was not the result of poor coverage by Culliver. That said, we still had to portray some negative aspect of a game filled almost entirely with positives.
The 32-7 shellacking Chicago incurred at the hands of the 49ers in Week 11 renders this portion of the analysis a bit difficult.
Kaepernick executed a near-perfect passing attack, the ground game went for a balanced 100-plus yards, the defense limited the Bears to 143 total yards and Aldon Smith set a Monday Night Football record with 5.5 sacks.
What could San Francisco possibly improve upon after dominating the former 7-2 Bears and NFC powerhouse in every facet of the game?
Call it nitpicking, but there were a couple areas in need of improvement.
The 49ers went just 4-for-12 on third downs. That measly 33.3 percent conversion rate is lower than their No. 21 ranked season average of 36.13 percent, which is already lower than the rates produced by all teams currently quailed for the playoffs—NFC and AFC.
Moreover, the 49ers scored in all six trips inside the red zone, but only three went for touchdowns against the Bears. Akers did convert all his field goal attempts, but touchdowns mean the difference between advancing and going home in the postseason.
San Francisco would be well served shoring up these areas against a Jay Cutler-led Bears or any other team in the playoffs.
4. Seattle Seahawks: Run Defense, Lack of Vernon Davis
The defense kept Lynch out of the end zone, but Beast Mode still racked up 100-plus.
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The Seahawks are another opponent the 49ers handled during the regular season.
Unlike Chicago, however, this was a grind-it-out battle that could have ended in favor of the Seahawks (SF won 13-6).
Frank Gore was spectacular with 131 yards off just 16 carries (8.2-yard average) and Alex Smith threw the go-ahead TD to Delanie Walker in the third quarter. The 49ers defense also held Russell Wilson to an awful 9-for-23 for 122 yards. It intercepted him once and sacked him twice.
There were also plenty of negatives.
Marshawn Lynch rushed for over 100 yards (scary 5.3-yard average) against the vaunted San Francisco front seven. And Smith, while throwing the game-clinching score, completed just half of his 14 passes to players other than running backs.
Worst of all, zero landed in the hands of Vernon Davis. He wasn’t even targeted.
For one, the 49ers cannot allow a power back and Seattle’s offensive line to control the trenches. NT Isaac Sopoaga and linebackers Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks faltered in run defense. They just cannot fail at what they normally do best.
Secondly, SF must absolutely incorporate Davis more into the game plan. Seattle’s defense is stellar, but no NFL unit should ever completely eliminate the most dynamic tight end from the game.
Kaepernick proved he can hit Davis outside the numbers and deep down the field (see: Bears matchup). On the other hand, Smith never neglected Davis to the extent Kaepernick has for the past three games (three catches, five targets, 19 yards, zero TD).
If the 49ers square off against the Seahawks for the third time this season, both the coaching staff and Kaepernick need to make Davis the focal point of the passing game, if not offense as a whole.
Relying on a depleted Gore and defense that has proven vulnerable against “Beast Mode” will not suffice for a playoff win.
3. New York Giants: Offense, Defense, Special Teams—Everything
Victor Cruz and his infamous "salsa celebration."
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Well, well, well—where do we even begin with this unmitigated 26-3 disaster?
On offense, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman elected to alternate between Smith and Kaepernick throughout the game.
Smith would drive the team down the field, Kaepernick would come in for a play without having established any rhythm, and Smith would return to clean up the mess only to fail himself due to being unnecessarily pulled in the first place.
These back-and-forth shenanigans occurred to the detriment of everyone involved: it placed Kap in impossible situations, the offensive line couldn’t keep up, penalties were committed, sacks were incurred, Smith went into a tail spin and drives ultimately stalled by way of an assortment of turnovers.
The 49ers abandoned their bread and butter—that being a fully potent rushing attack—and tried to out-cute…err…out-scheme a no-nonsense Giants team.
Furthermore, New York absolutely dominated in the trenches—running the ball, creating sacks and forcing turnovers in the process.
Its ferocious defensive line collected six sacks for negative-48 yards and snagged three interceptions. Giants running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson gutted San Francisco’s defense with 148 yards, two 20-plus yard gains and a touchdown.
And WR Victor Cruz—veritable 49ers kryptonite—hauled in a touchdown for an early 7-3 lead for the Giants.
Finally, aside from punter Andy Lee, the 49ers special teams’ efforts amounted to a colossal failure.
Returners Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn did little to spark San Francisco. Ginn was even less effective and, with Williams out for the season, offers a gloomy future for the 49ers return game.
Akers missed a 43-yard field goal on the team’s very first drive. He then missed a 52-yarder at the end of the first half that would have reduced the deficit to four. More importantly, it would have put a little momentum in the San Francisco locker room.
Wilson provided the final dagger with a 66-yard kickoff return at the beginning of the second half. It set up a Giants touchdown and officially put the kibosh on any hopes of winning the 49ers may have had.
How about we just stop there.
In summary—to use an English professor’s favorite transition—everything went wrong for the 49ers in their battle with the Giants earlier this season.
For them to secure victory in a potential playoff matchup, the 49ers must stick with a quarterback, establish the run, stop the run, stop Cruz, win the trenches, pass protect, sack Eli, make a field goal, employ a WR, utilize Vernon, exploit the Giants secondary and win the turnover battle.
In a word—perhaps just play some good ole smash-mouth, meat-and-potatoes, Harbaugh-style of football.
San Francisco fans shudder at the thought of anything close to what occurred the first time around.
2. Green Bay Packers: Pass Protection, Penalties, Defending Punts
Illegal block in the back notwithstanding, Cobb burned the 49ers for a punt-return TD.
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As with the win over the Bears, the 49ers defeat of the mighty Packers in Week 1 of 2012 established their NFC supremacy.
Green Bay returned to the field following a 15-1 regular season, but an embarrassing one-and-down exit in the playoffs. It wished for nothing more than to assert itself as top dog once again.
Unfortunately, the 49ers devised a phenomenal game plan.
The defense counteracted the Aaron Rodgers-led aerial assault. It made the offense one-dimensional, brought consistent pressure, disguised coverage, forced an interception and kept the dynamic collection of receivers out of the end zone until the final minutes.
On the other side of the ball, San Francisco’s offense executed in a thoroughly efficient manner.
Smith completed 77 percent of his passes, threw two touchdowns, caused zero turnovers and spread the ball around to his playmakers. Michael Crabtree amassed seven catches and both Davis and Randy Moss grabbed a TD.
Gore accrued 117 yards and a TD on a mere 17 carries, while Kendall Hunter added 41 more yards of his own.
This game also marked the last time Akers connected effectively from distance. He nailed three field goals from 40-plus, including a record-tying 63-yard bomb.
The 49ers nearly did everything right in this tone-setting NFC battle.
Alas, gridiron matchups—even of the winning varietal—aren’t all peaches 'n' cream.
Left tackle Joe Staley allowed three sacks in a rare unproductive performance. Premier pass-rusher Clay Matthews beat the blind-side protector for 2.5 QB takedowns.
Randall Cobb, Green Bay’s electric return-man, took a punt 75 yards to the house at the beginning of the fourth quarter. A non-call on an ostensible illegal block in the back was the only saving grace for this special teams breakdown.
Additionally, the offense converted just two of its nine third-down attempts and the team as a whole was at fault for eight flag-inducing errors. That was one more than San Francisco’s already deplorable fifth-most penalties committed per game in the NFL.
If and when these two teams meet again en route to the Super Bowl, the 49ers must do a better job of eliminating Matthews’ pass rush and Cobb’s lethal return game and play a more disciplined game overall.
1. Atlanta Falcons: Winning the Big Game
Kaepernick is the starter, but a shadowy, uncertain future lies ahead for the 49ers.
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Let’s move in a different direction by posing a hypothetical scenario of greater significance in this final question-and-answer analysis of the 49ers.
With the support of a dominant defense, clutch special teams and effective rushing attack, Alex Smith helped lead San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game in 2011. He orchestrated an offense that made smart decisions, committed few turnovers and scored meaningful points in crucial moments.
His perfect game-winning touchdown strike to Davis capped a courageous comeback against a favored Saints team in the divisional round. Smith’s overall play proved that he could be the guy—at least for a time.
However, Smith’s inspiring run did end a game before the Super Bowl. He didn’t necessarily lose the game against the Giants, but he certainly didn’t win it either. He won a playoff game, but lost a second.
So, with Smith currently riding the bench, let’s agree that Kaepernick will remain the starter for the remainder of 2012. Let’s agree that he’ll be the field general for the 49ers’ upcoming postseason campaign.
It only follows, then, that the fundamental question San Francisco must answer is can it win a playoff game with Kaepernick at quarterback? And taking it a step further, can it win a second playoff game, an NFC Championship Game, with Kap at the helm?
The only way the 49ers can answer this question against the Atlanta Falcons—let alone play them at all—is indeed in the NFCG (based on current playoff standings).
But this is of course a more overarching question that deals with the bigger picture. It investigates whether an unproven second-year quarterback with a higher ceiling can outperform an eight-year veteran with a 20-6 record over the past two-plus seasons.
While it wasn’t our intention to lead this analysis anywhere near the realm of “quarterback controversy,” it was, at the end of the day, inevitable.
Jim Harbaugh deemed it so beginning when he drafted Kaepernick in 2011, continuing when he developed the Nevada product into an NFL quarterback, and now that he has officially inserted Kap as the starter over Smith.
Whether you reside in Team Kap or Team Alex, this storyline will dominate the narrative of the 2012 San Francisco 49ers from here on out.
Will the fans and organization find an answer to this all-consuming question specifically by way of the Falcons? Perhaps.
But that really is beside the point.
It comes down to whether it lies in the affirmative by way of any team, and the dire implications for the 49ers if it doesn’t.
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