A dominating performance in the trenches, reestablishing their identity in a win against a division rival in Week 4 is exactly what the San Francisco 49ers needed following a rocky start to the 2013 NFL season.
This is a promising team that has recently been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Injuries, off-the-field issues, performance questions and more all drove this 49ers team to do some soul searching in a shortened week.
Coming off back-to-back losses against the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts, the Niners were in the midst of an identity crisis and in danger of compromising their ultimate goal—a Super Bowl—before the season even really had a chance to get started.
Yes, the 49ers really fell behind the eight ball that quick.
However, the resilient team that they are, characterized by head coach Jim Harbaugh, a.k.a "Captain Comeback," San Francisco managed to regroup and strike back.
Here is what we learned from the 49ers' Thursday night victory.
"They are who we thought they were"—a run-first team.
While Colin Kaepernick is a key piece to the puzzle, he is still developing and must be utilized properly in his formative years.
On top of which, this is a receiving corps that is substantially banged up and very much in a funk. Even Tom Brady, in a similar situation with no weapons, has been skating on thin ice for weeks. For the 49ers quarterback who has only started 14 games, it is unfair and irrational to lean so heavily on his arm.
Fortunately, on Thursday Night Football against a division rival, San Francisco rediscovered it could win games without the quarterback being the centerpiece of the game plan. The plan to run, play ball-control football and limit turnovers and penalties while setting up throws—particularly play action—are all key to the 49ers getting in a rhythm and sustaining drives.
Jamming it down the defense’s throat and allowing Kap to play a proficient style is the optimum formula.
Frank Gore: "We had to get back on track...that's playing smash-mouth football." #49ers— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) September 27, 2013
Not that it is anything to brag about, but it is quite amazing how much better 2-2 is compared to 1-3.
Obviously this is not exactly where the 49ers wanted to be after four weeks of play, but considering the circumstances, this is fairly uplifting. The team needed a bounce-back win after consecutive losses—the first under head coach Jim Harbaugh—and San Francisco made it happen on the road against a division opponent no less.
Moreover, the 49ers were well aware that the beginning of their schedule was a competitive nightmare. Five straight games that included four 2012 playoff teams and a tough-as-nails opponent they fell to once last year in the Rams potentially spelled trouble for the 49ers early on.
If they win against the Houston Texans next week at Candlestick Park, improving to 3-2, then they won’t be in bad shape heading into a soft part of the schedule. Given what they were up against, the record would make it look like the Niners emerged from the first five weeks relatively unscathed.
And sure, the Seattle Seahawks are firmly in front of the division looking like Super Bowl favorites, but they also played two sub-.500 teams from a year ago, one of which that had the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft and is a candidate to have the first selection next year.
It is not as lopsided as it appears.
Of the new faces that stepped up to the plate in a big way, the 49ers have to give it up to rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier.
The third-round pick out of Auburn was the central player to help replenish the pass-rush productivity left by Aldon Smith. By nature, Lemonier is an explosive downhill player who is incredibly disruptive in the box. On Thursday night, he did not look like a first-year player, defending the run and pass exceptionally well.
Lemonier finished with three tackles on the night, but the most impressive facet of his game did not show up in the box score.
Overall, he was breaking up the blocking schemes, redirecting traffic and applying pretty consistent pressure. It wasn’t at the All-Pro level that Smith performs at, but it was certainly enough where it’ll be interesting to see this guy develop and possibly catch a rhythm in this period of time where he is needed.
Besides Lemonier, 49ers defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey has answered the call of duty with Ian Williams (ankle) out for the season.
San Francisco prides itself on being tough in the trenches and utilizing that fierce 3-4 defense of theirs—which greatly relies on the nose tackle—to stop the run and create opportunities for the free-roaming backers. With Williams out, there was concern that the defense wouldn’t be fully functional.
Dorsey has performed well in back-to-back games, and with the emergence of Lemonier, this defense received a positive kick.
Barksdale is lying down cause Lemonier has been embarrassing him all night.— Erickson (@49erholics) September 27, 2013
Fans and analysts have been clamoring for Quinton Patton to get involved.
Four weeks in, with no Michael Crabtree and no Mario Manningham, and with Kyle Williams en route to the doghouse, there is no reason that the 49ers rookie wideout should not have made some sort of dent on offense yet. The opportunities have been there, but he has failed to connect with the quarterback.
Williams and Patton were the top two prospects that San Francisco was counting on to fill in behind Anquan Boldin at wide receiver.
There has been zero production from them or any other receivers at this point, which will remain a problem for the foreseeable future. Manningham is not slated to return until after Week 6 sometime, and Crabtree will not be able to suit up until late November at the earliest.
Dishonorable Mentions: LaMichael James (RB), Phil Dawson (K)
Quinton Patton appears to have supplanted Kyle Williams as the team's No. 2 WR. Jon Baldwin in on third down, too.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) September 27, 2013
People will argue against this until they are blue in the face, but facts are facts; Frank Gore is one of the league’s most productive tailbacks and has been for the better part of a decade.
His running style may not be as appealing to new-era football fans—which are enamored with top speed, acceleration, change of direction or excessive power—but he gets the job done as well as any back in the league. When it comes to Frank Gore, it is about vision, elusiveness and executing the play design, which is meant to optimize the run.
Gore gets this scheme, he is a fearless runner, and defenses habitually underestimate him.
Even at age 30, the 49ers star tailback will continue to eat up NFL defenses as long as offensive coordinator Greg Roman provides him with touches.
Frank Gore's night looks done. He's on the bench of a 28-3 game. He has 153 rushing yards, tied for 5th highest total of his storied career— Cam Inman (@CamInman) September 27, 2013
Stemming back to mid-to-late 2012, the 49ers really got away from this concept in their evolution to a big-play offense.
Captivated by the idea of Colin Kaepernick behind center, San Francisco began slinging it all over the yard, playing a reckless style, if you will. It is more of a high-risk, high-reward approach.
The risk? Well, putting the ball in the air and not winning the turnover battle ultimately resulted in closer games and, in some cases, fatal losses.
In addition to that run-and-gun style of play, these high-scoring affairs resulted in more pass-blocking assignments for the 49ers, as well as more pass coverage for their defense. At that point, the false starts, holdings and pass interference calls all began to pile up.
By eliminating, or at least reducing, turnovers and penalties, San Francisco put itself in a much more favorable position.
The efficient style of football we witnessed against the Rams in Week 4 is exactly the kind of play that is defining of a disciplined Jim Harbaugh-led team and precisely what the 49ers need to do if they are to endure all of these injuries.
Colin Kaepernick came into this season with a chip on his shoulder. We know that.
The leaguewide awe of his ability as a runner combined with those doubting his ceiling as a pocket passer seems to have affected Kap's game. Perhaps Jim Harbaugh and his staff have also advised the dual-threat quarterback to play a safer brand of football. Either way, it is clear that his eagerness to blow past the defense has tapered.
The read-option has hardly been a featured wrinkle this season, and when utilized, there have been virtually zero keepers by the QB.
On top of that, Kaepernick is not scrambling when lanes have been provided for him. There is a chance he fears the big hit or is, again, trying to prove that he can win games with his arm. He has been awfully indecisive at times, looking like he is combating his own inner-monologue mid-play. This has ultimately resulted in missed opportunities.
While Thursday was a step in the right direction, Kap still needs to find that killer instinct that originally won him the starting job in the first place.
The 49ers have so few offensive playmakers, it seems.
With the passing game in flux and Colin Kaepernick struggling to find capable pass-catchers who have dynamic ability after the catch, combined with Kendall Hunter's spurts of big-play ability behind Frank Gore, San Francisco would be wise to integrate the relief back as more of a receiving threat in the immediate future.
Not only can he function as a bailout for Kaepernick, working as an option out of the backfield, but Hunter can operate from the slot and pick up yards in the middle of the field. Greg Roman and Co. can also devise ways to get him the ball on screens, wherein he'll have a convoy of blockers to lead him downfield.
The truth is, Hunter looks way too good to hide behind Gore for a good duration of the game. That said, the onus is now on the 49ers coaching staff to get creative and find unique ways to get him involved without necessarily taking No. 21 off the field.
Last year Kendall Hunter suffered an Achilles tear. This year he's outrunning defenders to the endzone. WATCH - http://t.co/qQEwzycgGB— NFL (@nfl) September 27, 2013