Clearly there is a lot to be said about Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers right now, and we’re only entering Week 3 of the regular season. This is a team that has seen high highs and low lows already, putting on an offensive clinic in Week 1 only to be blacked out seven days later.
Defensively, the 49ers put the clamps down on a recent league MVP, and then bled out the following week.
Sitting at .500 after sneaking by the Green Bay Packers to start the 2013 campaign, Matt Miller’s No. 1 power-ranked team is coming off one of its uncharacteristic games against the Seattle Seahawks on the road, getting flat-out embarrassed by a division rival in front of the entire country.
For a second week in a row, star quarterback Colin Kaepernick was relied on to carry the team, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman failed to draw up a balanced attack, perhaps a little over enthused with the new situation behind center.
On top of which, the 49ers are now committing more penalties, not protecting the football and have obvious weak links in the secondary.
Heading into a telling Week 3 game against the Indianapolis Colts at Candlestick Park, here is what we know so far about the Niners.
Rams at Falcons (Recap)
After getting a win against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1, the St. Louis Rams went on the road to face the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. They were a long shot to steal a victory against Matt Ryan and Co., but the important takeaway was that this is a team that continues to look better and better under coach Jeff Fisher.
Quarterback Sam Bradford is also not to be written off just yet, having thrown for 352 yards and three touchdowns in a strong effort. Unfortunately, there was just too much firepower on the opposite sideline, and St. Louis is not quite where it wants to be yet (but the team is getting there).
Cardinals vs. Lions (Recap)
Arizona is another club in the NFC West that has taken a step in the right direction, yielding better results this year than in seasons past. Weaseling out of the John Skelton-Kevin Kolb conundrum was very cathartic, and bringing in Carson Palmer—even if he is not the answer—all of a sudden made this team competitive again.
Larry Fitzgerald is back in business, and the defense has been reinvigorated.
The Cardinals were able to bounce back from Week 1 and pick up their first win of the season against Calvin Johnson’s Detroit Lions. They played it tough for four quarters, showing they are beginning to believe again.
Heading into Week 3, the Seattle Seahawks are now in front of the division, winning back-to-back games to start the 2013 season. Meanwhile, the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals are in a three-way tie at .500. The sample size is small, so this is not indicative of the season—anything can happen.
However, in the end, it should come down to Seattle and San Francisco.
One of the more crippling injuries was the one to nose tackle Ian Williams, who was the victim of a devious cut block that teammate Patrick Willis deemed “uncalled for,” via 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
His broken ankle will see to it that free-agent signee Glenn Dorsey is the new weekly starter in 2013. This makes Williams the third featured player the 49ers have lost to injury, joining Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver.
The next on the list is free safety Eric Reid, who has had an Pro Bowl-type beginning to his NFL career, which abruptly came to a screeching halt in Week 2. After recording his second interception and continuing to be a tone-setter on the back end, Reid collided with Seahawks wideout Sidney Rice, resulting in a head injury.
The concussion symptoms kept him out for the remainder of the game. This will be a situation that is closely monitored through the week, as Reid will have to go through the league-mandated protocol before he is cleared to play.
Vernon Davis, Ray McDonald and LaMichael James are also dinged up but should be expected back sooner rather than later. At this point, it’s hard to ignore that San Francisco has taken some serious nicks to the roster, which could affect its chances of a run this season.
What Must Improve
No. 1: Offensive Game-Planning (Pt. I)
One of the most vital things any team can do is have an understanding of what it is—its strengths and weaknesses, which includes how to attack and how to safeguard one's self from being exposed.
Beginning the 2013 campaign, the 49ers have completely abandoned their bread and butter, which is power rushing. They’ve neglected several players on offense, getting away from their true identity and trying to become something new a little too quickly, experiencing growing pains in the process.
This is largely due to the insertion of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
In the process, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s fervor over his new passer has caused him to disregard what made this offensive unit so special and so unique. Outside the personnel, the innovativeness with creative traps, tight end whams, pulls, unbalanced lines and so forth all contributed to a dynamic ground attack.
It worked wonders. They also have a lot invested in it, from this mauling O-line, arguably the best blocking tight end in the league and a prolific attack by committee. In turn, they were able to control the clock, protect the football and set up the pass.
This new one-dimensional attack by Roman is handicapping the full capacity of this offense.
No. 2: Offensive Game-Planning (Pt. II)
Continuing on the point of emphasis regarding the offensive game plan, the 49ers cannot proceed in 2013 with such a concentrated attack. With Kaepernick passing on first, second and third down, targeting only Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, this offense won’t be very hard to stifle.
Outside of getting the ground game going, San Francisco needs to take a more hands-on approach to integrating new players in the passing game, whether they are wide receivers, tight ends or running backs. Ball distribution will only vault this offensive unit to the next plateau.
This banzai approach the 49ers have been going with early on isn’t challenging defenses, but rather allowing them to zero in and clamp down tight. The Boldin and Davis show from Week 1 is not going to work week to week, and the coaching staff witnessed what happened when they leaned on it against an elite defense.
It won’t cut it.
Involving more players—whether it is getting them the ball with simple slants or screens—will open up this passing game and make it much, much harder for defenses to game-plan for. They will have to dedicate their time to studying more players and won’t be able to overcommit help to taking away one guy.
No. 3: Should Perrish Cox Replace Nnamdi Asomugha?
Reports from training camp combined with his crisp preseason performance led folks to believe that former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha might be a serviceable defensive back once again. After all, the 49ers were only asking him to be a situational No. 3 guy behind Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
Two games into the season, Asomugha has missed four tackles, which is the second highest in the league, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus. On top of which, he has also been a serious liability in coverage, which puts strain on the rest of the secondary to pick up the slack.
He looks to be a shell of his former self.
On the other hand, the 49ers have been utilizing cornerback Perrish Cox more and more, who was a one-time starter for secondary coach Ed Donatell, back during their time together in Denver with the Broncos. While nothing is imminent, this switch could very well happen if Asomugha continues to be dead weight.
This should be the focus going forward.
No. 4: Get a Second Wide Receiver Going
Outside of Boldin, the only other two wideouts to register catches on the season are Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore, who have combined for eight grabs for 81 yards and no touchdowns so far.
The catches they have made have not really been spectacular or game-changing in any way. Opposing teams have still yet to feel any semblance of a receiving threat opposite Boldin or even a third guy in the slot.
If the 49ers are going to go with a rotation at the No. 2, then go with a rotation but don’t ignore their side of the field. The coaching staff needs to relay to Kaepernick the importance of spreading the ball around and to ultimately establish another threat at wide receiver until Mario Manningham can return.
Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton seem like viable candidates, but they need to get touches.
The rookie for Louisiana Tech has only had 17 offensive snaps in two games versus the Packers and Seahawks. Meanwhile, Williams played 55 in his first game and Moore has gotten more involved. The Niners need to take advantage of Patton, who seems like a big play waiting to happen.
The pro readiness and quarterback-wide receiver chemistry we witnessed in preseason makes it seem like he should have a bigger role on offense. The coordinators need to write him into the game plan and see what pops. Maybe then they will be able to find that true No. 2 opposite Boldin and balance out this passing offense.
No. 5: Be Proactive Getting After the Quarterback
Are the 49ers a one-trick pony when it comes to the pass rush?
Look at how the Chicago Bears make up for lack of talent outside Julius Peppers by mixing it up with scheme and getting the defensive backs involved. The Packers have done the same to a degree. The Pittsburgh Steelers with their amoeba looks, or the New York Giants with their NASCAR package—all of these teams make an extra effort to rush the passer.
San Francisco has survived on Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and the Texas stunt, which won’t always work with the way teams have invested in the left side of their offensive lines. In the division alone, the Seahawks and Rams have Russell Okung and Jake Long protecting the blind side.
The 49ers need to show more looks; whether they are in the form of hybrid packages, or if it is sending the inside linebackers on twists and late green dogs or even overloading one side. The Niners can also go ahead and utilize the Smith brothers on opposite sides to collapse the pocket.
But they haven’t tried these things.
Two new wrinkles that should have materialized this year was more blitzing from the slot, along with the integration of rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier. San Francisco’s offseason was indicative of the Niners trying to become more revered in that regard, but two weeks in, there have been no steps in that direction.
Opposing offenses have to respect this pass rush, and the first step toward making that a reality is by disguising blitzes and making teams believe it can come from anywhere at any time.
No. 6: Clean It Up
Penalties and turnovers are killing the 49ers this season, which is totally out of character for any team under coach Jim Harbaugh. As soon as he arrived on the scene, this was a huge point of emphasis. He preached ball security and smart, fundamental play that resulted in a lot of crisply played games.
Knowing they were taking on a restoration project, the coaches and players made sure they didn’t beat themselves.
In Sunday night’s beatdown at CenturyLink Field, courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks, the Niners gave the ball away a whopping five times (they only had 10 turnovers in all of 2011, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle). They also committed 12 penalties for 121 yards, which was only six yards short of Kaepernick’s passing total.
It also surpassed the team’s net rushing yards.
Even though the bullying 49ers have since been targeted and picked on, they have to keep their cool on game day. And when it comes to mental errors like a false start or pass interference, these are things that need to be wiped away or it’ll continue to affect games, essentially putting all that prep work in the trash bin.
In the process of evolving into an explosive Super Bowl contender, things like ball security and general discipline went to the wayside. The 49ers need to find themselves again. If they can combine the proficient style from 2011 with the big-play upside of 2013, then San Francisco will be the favorites again.