San Francisco 49ers: 10 Things We Learned Through Week 3 of the Preseason
The San Francisco 49ers have completed three of their four exhibition games, and with only one week of training camp left, there are several things we are learning about this team.
Expectations are soaring for the 49ers, and the media attention on Colin Kaepernick is at an unbelievable high. In reality, Kaepernick has only started seven regular-season games, so one must wonder if the media-driven expectations are unrealistic.
With Kaepernick at quarterback last season, the 49ers advanced one step further than they did in 2011, when Alex Smith led the team to the NFC title game. A repeat appearance in the Super Bowl is a lofty goal and only a victory will satisfy the rabid 49er faithful.
As the preseason has unfolded, we have seen some interesting developments and are learning more about the 2013 version of the 49ers.
Let's take a detailed look at 10 things we have learned about the 49ers over these past few weeks.
All stats are courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
No. 10: Phil Dawson Is a Big Upgrade over David Akers
After setting records in 2011, David Akers had an abysmal season in 2012. The 49ers have replaced him with veteran kicker Phil Dawson, who is entering his 15th NFL season.
Dawson played the first 14 years of his career in Cleveland and made the Pro Bowl in 2012. At the age of 38, Dawson still has a strong leg and converted 29 of his 31 attempts last year. He has career accuracy mark of 84 percent.
Coming to San Francisco, Dawson will need to contend with the swirling winds of Candlestick Park, but he dealt with similar conditions in Cleveland.
Dawson looks primed and ready for the regular season, as he booted two 55-yard field goals against the Chiefs in the 49ers' second exhibition contest.
No. 9: Trent Baalke Is Man Enough to Admit His Mistakes
When GM Trent Baalke made A.J. Jenkins the 49ers' top draft pick in the 2012 NFL draft, many questioned whether the 49ers had selected Jenkins too early.
Over the past 16 months, Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh provided several glowing reviews on Jenkins and staunchly defended him.
However, the real story was that Jenkins rarely played and when he did, he did not produce. Jenkins was inactive for most of the games last year, and even after injuries to Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, Jenkins was still unable to make a contribution. He did not even catch a pass in a regular-season game.
The 49ers hoped that Jenkins, with a year under his belt, would work hard and improve heading into the 2013 season. Jenkins was unable to move ahead of the other receivers in training camp and actually lost ground.
Jenkins caught one pass in the 49ers' first two preseason games, an 11-yard reception, which he promptly fumbled away.
The 49ers grew weary of defending Jenkins and ultimately deemed that he couldn't play for them. He was traded to the Chiefs for receiver Jon Baldwin, who had his own issues in Kansas City. It was a trade of two first-round draft picks, both of whom had under-performed for their respective teams.
In making this trade, we see that Baalke is willing to admit his mistakes. He did not waste a roster spot on a player just because he was a high draft choice.
This bodes well for the future of the 49ers, as realistic evaluation of talent and of oneself is a key to Baalke's continued success as GM.
No. 8: Vic Fangio Needs to Employ More Blitz Packages
The San Francisco 49ers defense is one of the best units in the NFL. Head coach Jim Harbaugh gives coordinator Vic Fangio the reins and Fangio runs the defense.
After a very good season under Fangio in 2012, there are still some areas of the 49ers defense that need to be improved.
The defensive backfield has some question marks, and there's always a question of depth if one of the key starters goes down. However, the biggest area of focus has to be a consistently strong pass rush.
Toward the end of the 2012 season and playoffs, when Justin Smith was out and Aldon Smith played with an injured shoulder, the 49ers' pass rush was absent. The lack of a pass rush enabled opposing quarterbacks to exploit a porous 49er secondary.
This ultimately became the 49ers' demise. The fault does not lie entirely with the secondary, however. No defensive backfield, no matter how good it is, can stay with quality NFL receivers for five or six seconds.
The only way to slow down a good passing attack is with consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Sacks are great, but even if a quarterback is pressured and has to throw the ball before he wants to, it gives the defensive backfield an advantage. If the pass rush can stop the quarterback from comfortably stepping up in the pocket, that also makes it harder for the passing game to click.
Late in the 2012 season, the four-man pass rush was not getting enough pressure on the quarterback. When this happens, more blitz packages need to be utilized.
Blitzing is a risk, because if you don't get to the quarterback, your secondary is exposed. Nevertheless, without the pressure, an opposing offense will pick apart even the best secondary, and the 49ers are far from that level.
It was encouraging to see some blitzes called by Fangio in the exhibition games, and hopefully he will continue to mix them in once the regular season starts.
Strong pressure on the quarterback makes an average secondary good. A lack of pressure exposes vulnerabilities that are better left hidden.
No. 7: The 49ers Lack Confidence in Their Backup Quarterbacks
When the 2013 training camp opened, the San Francisco 49ers thought they had their backup quarterback in Colt McCoy and their third quarterback in Scott Tolzien.
McCoy and Tolzien have not played well in the 49ers' exhibition games. The hold on their once-strong roster spots has diminished.
Rookie B.J. Daniels has also put himself into the mix. Daniels is an outstanding athlete and was seeing time in a variety of roles. Daniels is very raw and the 49ers are unlikely to entrust the offense to him if Colin Kaepernick is injured.
With their options at the backup quarterback spot looking very uncertain, the 49ers signed Seneca Wallace and have brought him in to compete for the job. Wallace was not even on a team last season, so his entrance into the picture shows just how concerned the 49ers are about their backup quarterbacks.
With only one preseason game remaining, head coach Jim Harbaugh is looking for one of these four quarterbacks to seize control of the backup job.
No. 6: The Kickoff and Punt Coverage Units Are a Work in Progress
The San Francisco 49ers' coverage units were shaky all last season. There were many times when opponents were just a hair away from breaking a big return.
On many occasions, we witnessed a major vulnerability in their coverage teams. The 49ers were saved by a shoestring tackle or a penalty, but were very close to allowing the big return that would hurt them.
Then it finally happened. In the Super Bowl, Jacoby Jones took a kickoff back all the way for a 108-yard touchdown return. It turned out to be a pivotal play and made up the margin of victory for the Ravens.
It came as no surprise that the 49ers made several moves to upgrade the coverage units. They brought in Craig Dahl, Dan Skuta, Marlon Moore, Raymond Ventrone and Kassim Osgood, all excellent special teams players.
Nick Moody, who was also known for his coverage ability on special teams while at Florida State, was a sixth-round draft selection.
It was hoped that these players could team with current 49ers special teams stalwarts C.J. Spillman, Anthony Dixon and Bruce Miller to bolster the kickoff and punt coverage teams.
For many players who are on the bubble, their performance on special teams will determine their fate. Other than Miller, none of the aforementioned players are starters, but all have a good chance to make the 49ers' roster.
The 49ers showed that they still need to improve this area, as they allowed a 104-yard kickoff return and a 52-yard punt return by the Chiefs in the second preseason game. Against Minnesota, they also allowed a 30-yard punt return to Bobby Felder.
Special teams coach Brad Seely has been lauded as one of the best in the business, but the 49ers' recent poor performance has to be a concern. It will be up to Seely to improve his coverage units, lest it cost the 49ers at a critical juncture, as it did last season.
No. 5: There Are Still Question Marks in the 49ers' Secondary
The San Francisco 49ers' defensive secondary has several major question marks.
Can Nnamdi Asomugha perform at a high level after two very poor seasons in Philadelphia?
Asomugha is battling Tramaine Brock for the all-important job of the fifth defensive back. Chris Culliver, who performed this role in 2012 with mixed results, is lost for the season with a torn ACL. This means Asomugha or Brock must step into that role and play effectively.
Early on, Brock seemed to hold an edge, but Asomugha has been improving as training camp progresses. The battle is very close and the decision appears to be leaning in Asomugha's favor.
Strong safety Donte Whitner, who is not nearly as good in pass coverage as he is against the run, needs to improve. Now entering his eighth NFL season, it's unlikely that he can improve all that much, if at all.
Whitner's presence is important, however, as he will be a mentor to rookie safety Eric Reid.
Reid will replace Dashon Goldson, who departed via free agency. These are big shoes to fill, and the question is whether Reid can adequately handle the starting job.
Goldson earned his second Pro Bowl selection last year and was also named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career.
After playing very well in 2011, Carlos Rogers had a down year in 2012. Now 32 years of age, one must wonder if Rogers has lost a step or two.
The secondary is filled with question marks, which is why it is incumbent on the 49ers to generate a strong, consistent pass rush. If the 49ers can get good pressure on opposing quarterbacks, it will hide a lot of the deficiencies in the secondary.
A strong pass rush is the most important component of a strong 49er defense. Failure to bring consistent pressure will expose a very suspect defensive backfield.
No. 4: Major Holes Remain at Wide Receiver
Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin were expected to form an outstanding tandem at wide receiver for the 49ers. Unfortunately, Crabtree sustained an Achilles injury and will not play until very late in the season, at the earliest.
Boldin, who will be 33 years of age in October, is still a fine receiver. Last year, he caught 65 passes for 921 yards and four touchdowns. Boldin also torched the 49ers in the Super Bowl with six receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown.
The 49ers' problem is with Crabtree out and Mario Manningham also injured, there are no other proven players at the position. The key for the 49ers is to find a second and third wide receiver to go along with Boldin.
In the mix are Kyle Williams, Chad Hall, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood, Lavelle Hawkins and Austin Collie. Rookie Quinton Patton has been slowed by a finger injury, but saw his first action against the Vikings and played well. He led the 49ers with four catches for 35 yards and one touchdown.
Moore, the former Miami Dolphin, got the start against the Vikings and had three receptions.
The 49ers gave up on former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and also cut Ricardo Lockette. In the trade of Jenkins to the Chiefs, the 49ers acquired Jon Baldwin, a first-round draft selection in 2011. Baldwin is also in the mix for a starting job.
Unless the 49ers can come up with a solid second and third receiver, opposing teams will double Boldin and also tight end Vernon Davis. This will make it very difficult for Colin Kaepernick to have consistency in the passing attack.
No. 3: Eric Reid Is the Real Deal
Eric Reid has been very solid in the exhibition season. He has shown the ability to make big hits and also has done a good job of tackling in the open field.
Reid got the first start of his career against the Vikings and fared well. Although there were no spectacular plays, he was steady and did not make any glaring mistakes. Vic Fangio and the 49ers' defense will take that type of game from Reid.
Reid appears to have won the starting free safety job, and although there will undoubtedly be some growing pains, he has done the job, thus far. Things will get tougher for Reid in the 49ers' season opener against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
On the 49ers' schedule this year are Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. In addition, the 49ers will face Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks twice. Reid will be tested early and often, but he has shown the ability to learn quickly and has handled everything very well, up to now.
Reid will become the first player in the past two 49er drafts to become a starter. He has earned the job and will likely hold this starting position for years to come.
No. 2: The 49ers Must Avoid Injuries to Key Players
There are a handful of players the San Francisco 49ers cannot lose to injury if they hope to make another run at the Super Bowl.
Obviously, Colin Kaepernick is the most important. He is their star quarterback, and without him, the 49ers will be in trouble. The 49ers are so concerned about life without Kaepernick that they signed Seneca Wallace this past week. Wallace did not even play last season.
Colt McCoy got a lot of action against the Vikings and fared pretty well. He completed 11 of his 15 attempts for 109 yards. Although McCoy threw one interception, he actually played well (stats courtesy of 49ers.com).
The 49ers also cannot lose Frank Gore. He is the heart and soul of the 49ers offense, and without him, they would have to go to a committee type of approach to fill his shoes.
Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James do not have what it takes to be every-down backs, and their combined value falls below what Gore gives the 49ers. They are also smaller backs and could not take the constant pounding that Gore absorbs.
In 2012, Gore carried the ball 258 times for 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns. In addition to being an excellent runner, Gore is an outstanding pass-blocker and does a great job picking up the blitz.
With Michael Crabtree out, the other player the 49ers can ill-afford to lose on offense is wide receiver Anquan Boldin. He is the only proven threat at the position, and his reliability is something that Kaepernick will count on.
Defensively, there are two critical combinations that cannot go out at the same time. Justin and Aldon Smith form the bulk of the pass rush and, in tandem, are two of the best defenders on the right side of any defense in the league.
The 49ers' pass rush was virtually non-existent in 2012 when Justin went out with an injury and Aldon was hindered by a bad shoulder. The 49ers need these two to stay healthy.
Finally, the inside linebacker tandem of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are essential to the 49ers' success. The 49ers could probably live without one of them for awhile, but if both Willis and Bowman were to be out at the same time, it would spell disaster.
Michael Wilhoite is a capable backup and can help fill the void at one of the two inside linebacker spots, but the 49ers do not have a second linebacker that can step in without a major drop-off if both Willis and Bowman are out.
Willis and Bowman are the best pair of inside linebackers in the league, and the 49ers' defense would be severely compromised without both of them.
Keeping star players healthy is vital to success in the NFL and the 49ers must hope that these seven players remain healthy.
No. 1: The 49ers Defense Will Keep Them in Every Game
The San Francisco 49ers' first-team defense has been extremely impressive in the preseason. They are the team's strongest unit and will keep the 49ers in every game this year.
The 49ers allowed an average of 17.1 points per game in 2012, which ranked second in the league behind Seattle. The 49ers also ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed at only 294.4 yards per game.
The 49ers defense looks even stronger this season. The pass rush has been strong, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has also implemented some blitz packages to keep the opposing offense guessing.
The strong pass rush helps the 49ers' defensive backfield, which was exposed late in the 2012 campaign.
The 49ers' run defense is excellent, and that level of play should continue. Expect Fangio to utilize more of his depth this year, as the defense wore down as the season progressed.
The 49ers offense during their championship years always got the headlines, but they always had a very solid defense. 2013 has started out the same way, with the media abuzz around Colin Kaepernick.
However, it will be up to the 49ers defense to play consistently well. The defense is looking great and has the ability to lead the 49ers back to the Super Bowl this season.