In a year that his team was hyped as a surefire Super Bowl contender, did head coach Jim Harbaugh envision a .500 record for his San Francisco 49ers to start the 2013 season? No, but the NFL is quite the capricious beast, and that’s where this team is at as it prepares for another dogfight in Week 5.
After all, it is still early, and teams are still sliding up and down the power rankings. The only sure thing seems to be Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who have been lights out this season. As for the NFC, it appears to be wide open, with the exceptions of the steamrolling New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks.
If San Francisco can carry over the head of steam it picked up in Week 4’s victory against the St. Louis Rams, the team can reaffirm its status as championship contenders. That said, there are going to be roadblocks along the way—the 49ers are not quite there yet, even after this past win.
Here is what we know about the 49ers heading into the Sunday night game versus the 2-2 Houston Texans.
The Seahawks are currently the best in the West, leading in points for and points against by a wide margin. Fortunately, the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams do not appear to be threats to win the division this year, leaving San Francisco to duke it out with Seattle. This latest win helped the 49ers close the gap slightly, but they'll need the 'Hawks to drop a game soon.
On an injury-riddled 49er team, few players have risen to the challenge and made things happen, which is disappointing since San Francisco has made no transactions to correct these problem areas, relying instead on the “next man up” philosophy.
But those who have stepped up deserve recognition as we head deeper into the season.
Glenn Dorsey, DT
Built like a storage freezer, Dorsey has taken over for the injured nose tackle Ian Williams and emerged as the second-highest-rated defensive tackle versus the run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He leads the NFL at his position with eight stops, an impressive number for his position. His play is especially valuable as the 49ers look to reclaim their defensive identity.
He has also racked up two sacks, tying him for third on the team behind only Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. That's not too shabby for a fill-in who came into the lineup without big expectations.
Besides not having notables like Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham or Chris Culliver, as well as rookies such as Tank Carradine, Marcus Lattimore and Quinton Dial, the 49ers have been bruised and battered all over the roster.
Key contributors like Vernon Davis (hamstring), Anthony Davis (shoulder), Frank Gore (knee), Kyle Williams (rib/knee), Ray McDonald (ankle), Mike Iupati (shoulder), Justin Smith (shoulder), Jonathan Goodwin (elbow) and Carlos Rogers (knee) have been regulars on the team’s injury list, missing time in practice and not performing at 100 percent.
Hardly anyone is fully healthy.
Then there is Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Staley, who received a scare when his leg was caught awkwardly under a collapsing pile of 300-pound bodies against the Rams. Aldon Smith is also on the non-football injury list, currently taking a leave of absence from the team to seek treatment for alcohol and drug-related issues.
This being the case, it is not a surprise that the 49ers have failed to crack the top 10 in offensive and defensive categories this season.
On the bright side, 49ers beat writer Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee recently reported that the veteran wide receiver Manningham (ACL, PCL) is “on track to resume practicing in two weeks.” Still, how much No. 82 will be able to contribute and when is a bit of a foggy situation.
Injuries are killing San Francisco's chances on a weekly basis.
Storyline to Watch
With the injury to Quinton Patton, Marlon Moore's recent deactivation and Kyle Williams being leapfrogged on the depth chart, the player to watch on the San Francisco 49ers is wideout Jonathan Baldwin, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The former first-round pick was recently acquired in a trade that sent A.J. Jenkins out of town, so there is an investment here.
San Francisco is still actively looking for a contributor to fill in opposite Anquan Boldin, at least until Manningham returns to the lineup. Baldwin appears to be the last option that the 49ers have yet to fully explore. After that, the offense might have to look into activating undrafted rookie free agent Chris Harper, who was claimed off waivers after being cut by the Seahawks.
What Must Improve
No. 1: Ball Distribution
Now that the 49ers have gotten back to running the football, the next thing they can do to open up this offense is to spread the ball around. This has been an ongoing issue, but one the staff has failed to correct in the first four weeks of the season. So it remains a bullet point in this article.
Outside of Boldin, Davis and Bruce Miller, the Niners need to find ways to get their lesser-known skill-position players the football. This will open up the passing game, which has failed to get in rhythm this season.
It has been a constant struggle, yet the 49ers have not gone out of their way to use scheme to their advantage. Precise route combinations, pick plays, screens, clear outs and checkdowns to the outlet receivers are all high-percentage ways to deliver the ball to a player in space.
Whether it is a multimillion-dollar wideout or an undrafted free agent running back, these methods give any receiver a chance to make a play in the game.
No. 2: Need A Little Luck
Unfortunately, some things that need fixing are just out San Francisco’s control.
Injuries have been prevalent at 49ers headquarters this year, as you can see by the report above. There is nothing the team can do to slow this decimation of its starting lineup—all it can do is wait for the tide to turn. Eventually the ball will start bouncing the Niners way in close games (at least 49er fans can hope).
Sometimes fate can be the difference between 13-3 and 8-8.
No. 3: Big Plays
Big plays have eluded the 49ers so far in 2013.
Entering Week 5, San Francisco is averaging just 19.8 points and has strung together only 12 passing plays of 20-plus yards, both of which are near the bottom of the league. If they want to get back to being a top seed in the postseason, the 49ers need to remedy this.
Colin Kaepernick throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL, but it does not appear as if the 49ers have designed ways for him to get the ball downfield this season. It should have been raining nine routes in S.F. this season with Davis and Kyle Williams, but they’ve been locked up.
Whether it is play-action set up by the run, taking advantage of a busted coverage or simply giving a receiver a chance to make a play on the ball, Kaep and the Niners have to bring back the threat of the downfield play.
This will open more things underneath, which include a lot of West Coast elements like high-percentage passes on slants and crosses as well as using the backs as receiving outlets. Again, it all comes down to the 49ers fielding a more dynamic and filled-out attack.
With the running game going, the 49ers need to be able to threaten teams horizontally and vertically.
No. 4: Kap Needs the Killer Instinct
More decisiveness from the 49er quarterback is needed for this offense right about now. It would particularly help sustain drives and establish a rhythm earlier in games. He’s been hesitant to pull the trigger and take off with the ball when there is running room.
Before all the hype—and before his starting position was a sure thing—Kaepernick played to win. He threw strikes, ran for yards and generally embodied big-play explosiveness, which was the spark that ignited this offense.
Even if a player's mechanics are fine, his mentality can make a difference. Kaepernick needs to again strike fear into opponents on a week-to-week basis.
From a game-planning perspective, perhaps Kaep can take the lead in encouraging the Niners coaching staff to integrate more read-option plays. But, in the passing game, he also needs to give his receivers a chance to make things happen.
No. 5: Consistent Fundamentals and Play-Calling
The win over St. Louis was a great bounce-back effort for the 49ers, if only because it showed them once again playing fundamental football. On offense, they ran the rock and didn’t risk turnovers by putting the ball in the air so much. On defense, they tackled well, finished assignments and got creative with their blitzes.
The club played a smart, efficient game, one it could be proud of and one it can look to as a schematic going forward.