5 Biggest Roadblocks to the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers face a tough road ahead of them if they want to be in uniform and standing on the sidelines with their hands over their hearts during the national anthem in New Orleans' Superdome on Feb. 3. At the start of the season, the 49ers were a trendy pick to conquer the NFC, if not the outright favorite to do so.
My, how things change over the course of just a few short weeks in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks have emerged as this year's version of the 2011 San Francisco 49ers: a team featuring a rushing attack and defense so physical and inclined toward wanton destruction that nobody without an ironclad will drawn up wants to face this postseason.
Not only that, but the Green Bay Packers are coming on strong, winners of nine of their last 11 and with the best quarterback in the conference in Aaron Rodgers playing his finest football of the year. And let's not forget the No. 1 overall seed down in Atlanta, who actually looks capable of winning a postseason game or three this season.
Along with all of the impediments to the Super Bowl residing in the NFC, the 49ers have issues on their own team that pose some serious threats to their success. No one likes people who point fingers and blame others for their own problems, so rather than examine each of the teams that stand in the 49ers' way, let's take a look inward for some genuinely hellish introspection and examine each of the factors wearing the crimson and gold that could stand in the way of the 49ers and a trip to Louisiana in one month.
Roadblock No. 1: Depth on the Defensive Line
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Justin Smith is kind of like opposable thumbs. You don't really realize how much you miss them or need them until you piss off the wrong guy, staggering debts start to mount and you find yourself locked in a dark room in some outback Indian casino after getting yourself caught counting cards at the blackjack table because you were cocky enough to start heckling the locals (which is never a good idea) and the dealer for being too stupid to catch onto your act, and now your thumbs are being screwed into a vise and smashed into hamburger meat and...uh, back to football.
When Justin Smith went down with a partially torn triceps and a detached bone spur in his left arm, the 49ers' defense immediately went into the tank. As important as Smith is to the success of the front seven, it should never come to this for an elite defense hoping to contribute to a franchise's sixth Super Bowl.
What we are just realizing now is something that the 49ers' coaching staff has known all year. There is a serious drop-off in production and pressure when Smith is not on the field. Which is why the three starting down linemen for this team have played virtually every snap in which the base defense is on the field.
As a result, not only are the 49ers forced to go with someone with little experience thus far in Ricky Jean-Francois, but the rest of the line is starting to erode, and erode quickly. Isaac Sopoaga is no spring chicken and Ray McDonald, as good as he has been this year, is slowing down as well due to so much time on the field.
With quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan looming ahead, this defense is going to be lit up like the Christmas tree I plan on drowning in high-octane gasoline later this week if it cannot get consistent pressure and collapse the pocket with regularity.
Roadblock No. 2: Inexperience at the Quarterback Position
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I like the move that Jim Harbaugh made this year. It was unceremonious and not without some legitimate risks, but I still like it. Harbaugh knows that Colin Kaepernick is the future of this team at the quarterback position and the future is now. By going to him when the first opportunity to do so with minimal controversy presented itself (due to injury rather than simply yanking Alex Smith after a poor game) Harbaugh was able to get his pet project invaluable time and experience before it was too late.
Barring a total collapse of monumental proportions, Harbaugh must have known that the team would make the playoffs. Regardless of what happens this season, he enters next season with his guy at the position and with in-game experience already under his belt.
As disastrous as this season could have turned out if Kaepernick had completely fallen on his face, he still had an ace up his sleeve in Alex Smith. Well, more like a suicide king up his sleeve, but whatever. The point is that next year could have turned out just as disastrous if Harbaugh went all in with Kaepernick then, while he had virtually no experience.
That being said, Kaepernick does not have the same postseason experience that Smith has. If he wins one game this postseason, he will have the same experience as Smith, but that's a big if. Kaepernick has shown flashes of brilliance in his short time at the helm, but he has also shown disturbing signs of inexperience that reared their ugly head in Seattle.
Kaepernick hasn't shown the same command of the huddle as Smith, and while he's remained poised in the face of adversity, he's created quite a bit of that adversity on his own. Good defenses in Atlanta, Green Bay and Seattle are going to throw the kitchen sink, the bathroom toilet and the A/C condenser unit at him this January, and whether he can handle that is still up in the air.
Roadblock No. 3: David Akers
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One could argue that David Akers directly cost the 49ers two games this season, both of which were against St. Louis. Take a look at the standings. Notice anything? You guessed it. The 49ers finished one and a half games behind the Atlanta Falcons.
Take away a loss and a tie against the Rams and the 49ers suddenly have the same record as the Falcons. Their conference and inter-divisional records would also be the same and the 49ers, even with those two missed opportunities against Atlanta, have the better point differential. However, the Falcons, by virtue of their 34-0 embarrassment of the New York Giants, would have owned the better common-game record. But the point is that the 49ers would have had a much better chance at the No. 1 overall seed.
The most important point is, however, that Akers has fallen off the cliff, and hit every ugly branch on the way down. I may have messed up the analogy, but that's appropriate given whom we're talking about because Akers has messed up more often than not down the stretch. Now, Billy Cundiff is on the roster, which is like being forced to choose between a Democrat and Republican every four years. Either one is likely to screw things up if given the chance; it's just a matter of how.
The only way Akers can redeem himself is to hit a game-winning field goal in the playoffs, and the way he's kicking right now, he may not be given that chance, either because he won't be on the roster or because Harbaugh will like the team's chances more by simply going for it on 4th-and-23 from the 39-yard line.
Roadblock No. 4: Frank Gore and the Running Game
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Anyone who has been to a game at historic, picturesque Candlestick Park recognizes from the angle of the shadows that the above picture was taken near twilight. Appropriate, because Frank Gore is in the twilight of his career. Sure, he's a Pro Bowler this year, but anyone with half a brain knows there were several running backs more deserving than him and the recognition is superficial at best.
I hate writing all of that out because Gore has been my favorite 49er, by far, since he first donned the crimson and gold. His hard-charging, gopher-like running style is fun to watch and easy to appreciate. He's truly one of the all-time San Francisco greats, perhaps the greatest 49er without a Super Bowl ring and most likely the last to ever wear No. 21 in the City by the Bay.
But let's dispense with the pleasantries. The reality is that Gore is not the same runner he was several years ago. He still has the trademark vision and patience, but his feet are slowing down and the one knock on him (his lack of breakaway speed) is really starting to hamper him.
The fact is that he sees the holes open up with the best of them, but he lacks the burst to take advantage of them anymore. It's really shown up the last two seasons as he's worn down in the month of December and simply hasn't been the same player late in the season as he's been in the earlier stages of the year.
For a team with two running backs already done for the year (Kendall Hunter and Brandon Jacobs), a third who's only been active for a few games and doesn't have the build or style to effectively carry the ball 20 times a game (LaMichael James) and a quarterback with less than a year's worth of starts under his belt, an aging running back toward the end of his career isn't exactly an ideal thing to lean on in January. If Frank Gore can't find a way to rejuvenate himself, and fast, this could be a very short postseason for San Francisco.
Roadblock No. 5: Wide-Receiver Depth, Again
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Michael Crabtree had the game of his career against the Cardinals while lined up against Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson. He's going to need to produce similar efforts in the postseason for the 49ers, because the rest of the receiving corps is a major question mark.
Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are done for the year, two players who provided valuable speed and depth for the 49ers. Randy Moss is serviceable, but "serviceable" and "Randy Moss" are not two words a team with Super Bowl aspirations wants to see used together. Ted Ginn Jr. is, well...he's a decent punt returner. A.J. Jenkins looks completely lost on the field. He had, at the time, a critical drop against Arizona last Sunday and also looked clueless in terms of where to line up on at least three plays. He may have a bright future in the NFL, but his present in the league is about as bleak as it can get.
With a running game showing signs of age and a lack of depth, a young quarterback, a pair of tight ends who excel at everything but have questionable hands at times and a vulnerable defense, a lack of wide-receiver depth is the last thing the 49ers need at this point. But that's where they are now, dependent on a 35-year-old receiver, another who is having his best season as a pro but disappeared in the postseason last year, a rookie who is only on the active roster due to attrition and a punt returner who moonlights as a fourth receiver from time to time.
If this team falls behind early and needs to start throwing the ball all over the field to catch up, it is in deep trouble. Just like last year, this could be a problem that keeps San Francisco out of the Super Bowl once again.