Riding a continual rise dating back to the 2011 campaign, it seems as if the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers have finally hit a wall. Handicapped by their own shortcomings, they are struggling to make the final transition to this new-look team, which is fundamentally different from those of years past.
From 2011-12, the personnel and philosophy were in near-perfect synchronicity, but that comfortable mesh seems to have dissipated in the offseason. Lack of confluence and direction has crippled this team over the past two games, and if you watched Week 1 closely, it was easy to see signs of weakness.
On top of this conversion—which is largely offensive—the San Francisco defense can be found somewhere on the back of a milk carton (allowing 28 points per game). The 49ers are also among the league-leaders in penalties, averaging 9.7 per game, according to NFL Team Rankings.
All the while, injuries are piling up beyond belief.
This, and more, have all contributed to the team’s 1-2 start in 2013, including its first back-to-back losses in the new regime. As the 49ers head into a shortened week with a Thursday night game versus the St. Louis Rams, here is a full-scale recap of everything you need to know.
Harbaugh: "There's adversity. There's an opportunity to stare it in the face and whip it. That's our approach." #49ers— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) September 23, 2013
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Well, the Seahawks are off to a hot start in 2013, going undefeated in the first three weeks of the season. They are extremely talented, but that isn’t to say the first quarter of their schedule wasn’t slightly catered to them. At Carolina, followed by back-to-back homes games versus San Francisco and Jacksonville in Weeks 1-3 proved to be a relative cakewalk.
Russell Wilson and Co. dropped a 40-burger on the visiting Jags, taking a two-game lead on every other team in the division.
Arizona stalled at the Superdome this past week, getting victimized by the New Orleans Saints and their new-look defense under Rob Ryan. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer completed only 51 percent of his passes, was sacked four times and tossed two interceptions to no touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham went agro on the Cards defense, absolutely running amok for 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Who knew that 5’9” safety Tyrann Mathieu would have a little difficulty defending the 6’7” tight end?
The Saints rolled and the Cardinals proved they’re still a work in progress.
Rams vs. Cowboys (Recap):
St. Louis has continued to put games on the arm of quarterback Sam Bradford, who threw nearly 50 times again this week (he has a league-high 141 attempts in three games played in 2013). Of course, in a shootout with the Dallas Cowboys, Jeff Fisher’s squad came up short. The firepower on the other side was just too much, and the Rams are still developing their identity.
A good sign for the Niners this week, which see the Rams on Thursday, is that St. Louis was absolutely abused on the ground by DeMarco Murray, who rumbled for 175 yards and a score on 26 carries. That front seven is built to rush the passer and cover in space, more than it is to stop the run.
Analysis: Normally 1-2 is nothing to hit the panic button over, especially when your team shares that record with 3/4 of the division. However, the 49ers are riddled with injuries, have seen the loss of another key player and are having an identity crisis on both offense and defense.
Matt Maiocco (CSN Bay Area) and Christian Gin (SF Examiner)
Seeing as how the 49ers are on a condensed week, a lot of the injury statuses of their players are up in the air, but the consensus seems to be that starting inside linebacker Patrick Willis will not be ready in time for Thursday Night Football at the St. Louis Rams.
San Francisco will also be without All-Pro sack king Aldon Smith, who was officially designated to the non-football injury list on Monday, currently seeking treatment at an inpatient facility following a DUI arrest, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.
He will be away from the team for an indefinite period of time, which could be a few weeks to a month or two, at the least. Frankly, the 49ers have to move ahead like he is no longer part of the 2013 team, which thrusts Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier into the lineup opposite Ahmad Brooks.
Storyline to Watch
What Must Improve
What is most alarming about this topsy-turvy start to the season is that a lot of the issues just aren’t fixable, specifically the injuries and Aldon Smith’s leave of absence. Given their nature, those are things that can’t be patched up from one week to the next and will continue to hurt the 49ers on game day.
With that being the case, can the 49ers do enough in other areas to be successful?
The 49ers have a quite a bit to tend to if they are going to rebound. Let’s take a look at a few things they can touch on that would really help this team get back into a rhythm and out of this flaming tailspin.
No. 1: Greg Roman Must Get on Track
Coach Jim Harbaugh's most daunting task this week will be delicately getting the message across to his friend and longtime colleague, Greg Roman, that the offense needs to completely adjust its play-calling.
By going with a pass-heavy approach, he has gotten away from this team’s strengths and set it up to fail. As we’ve seen so far, Roman’s offensive model in 2013 has proven to be feeble and could’ve easily resulted in an 0-3 start in a season that had all the promise of a Super Bowl run.
Harbaugh needs to get his OC to tap back into that creativity, emphasize the run game and ultimately lay up the quarterback to take shots. Moreover, they want to enable this rugged group of maulers on the O-line to do what they do best, which is knock guys off the football and get to the second level.
Balance, flow and creativity on offense are essential—not putting it on Kap’s arm.
Greg Roman has not been a smart game planner the last two weeks. #49ers. Get back to power running game with play action.— Ryan Riddle (@Ryan_Riddle) September 22, 2013
No. 2: Return to Fundamentals
As soon as Jim Harbaugh put his foot in the door at 4949 Centennial Boulevard, he made it known that proficiency was the name of the game.
On game day, his team would play a clean brand of football, and no matter what, they would not beat themselves. Over time, the team held pride in knowing they would likely win the turnover margin, refrain from committing penalties and be the better blocking and tackling team.
As the 49ers have evolved, including changeover to the roster, they’ve gradually slipped away from those flagship beliefs. Whether it is too much leeway or a failure to reinforce the weight of things like ball control and smart football, it has resulted in several out-of-character performances by the team.
They have to protect the football better, quit getting called for foolish penalties and follow through on assignments. If San Francisco can do these things and start out-hitting its opponents again, the 49ers will be in every game.
You combine runs like that from Gore and the type of fundamental tackles made by 49ers' defense -- and you've got a damn good season ahead.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) September 17, 2012
No. 3: Colin Kaepernick's Mentality Must Change
Heading into the season, there was an awful lot of pressure on Kaepernick to not only pick up where he left off, but to be far better than he was. And rightfully so. He certainly looked the part, leading this team to a Super Bowl and flaunting a skill set that was enough to send Alex Smith packing for Kansas City.
After blowing up the box score in Week 1, roaring past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, Kap has since endured a bit of a statistical regression. Yet, despite the recent dip in his performance, his talent hasn’t diminished, nor has the staff’s belief in his ability to succeed.
So, to pinpoint where the problem lies…
Apart from not being utilized properly by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the 49ers quarterback has been overly fearful of making a mistake, which has led to hesitation and general indecisiveness on his part. As a dual threat with inherently more options, this becomes an even bigger problem.
He has more to think over, with data receptors in his brain firing and telling him to do all different sorts of things.
At times, he is running scared or overly fidgety in the pocket, often bailing on the play with his legs before it has a chance to develop. And when he is out in the open, and there is room to run, he hasn’t asserted himself for fear of getting hit or wanting to prove that he can win with his arm.
Overall, the killer instinct hasn’t been there.
The difference in 2013 is that Kaepernick is not playing to win; he is trying not to lose.
Kaepernick is still way too quick to leave the pocket at times: pic.twitter.com/tmDsHGvhpY— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) September 24, 2013
No. 4: Defensive Performance
Proceeding with Carlos Rogers and trusting veteran washout Nnamdi Asomugha to fill in for an injured Chris Culliver, it is hardly a surprise that the secondary unit turned out to be the Achilles' heel of the defense. People raised an eyebrow to this group in 2012, and it had more losses than gains this past offseason.
The play on the back end has been shoddy and penalty-ridden for three games, and as a unit, they have been dreadful when it comes to run support.
On top of that, the 49ers' front seven—which is the blood and guts on their defense—is not successfully stopping the run or rushing the passer. They’ve allowed a total of six rushing touchdowns in three games, which is currently the worst in the NFL. For the Niners, this is like entering the Twilight Zone.
It gets worse…
Per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, their only source of sacks just checked into rehab, which means their pass rush may have just gone from bleak to non-existent. It is going to be awfully tough for the team to supplement the level of production that they were used to getting from Smith, even by means of a committee.
So, all in all, this defense is not tackling well, the splash plays have not been there, they’re struggling to stop the run, opposing quarterbacks have all day to throw and they are getting out-muscled. It’s safe to say, everything on defense needs attention.
Aside from stupid and dangerous, very bad timing for Aldon Smith with the 49ers d-line already compromised.— Ann Killion (@annkillion) September 20, 2013