One quarter into the 2013 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers stand at 2-2.
Coming into the year, that record may be a bit of a surprise for a team that has expectations no less than winning a Super Bowl. San Francisco was supposed to be one of the dominant teams in the league this year, yet their start has begged many questions.
Their seemingly unimpressive start may not be surprising after all. Before the season began, I wrote an article predicting the 49ers' full regular-season outcome. My conclusion was that San Francisco would finish with a 12-4 record by season's end after a 2-2 start.
The first four weeks have revealed a number of things about San Francisco. Some things may have been expected, others have come as surprises.
Nonetheless, the first quarter of the regular season gives us a chance to break down and evaluate all of the elements within the 49ers team this year. In this article, I grade every one of San Francisco's on-the-field units, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses.
The evaluation gives us a chance not only to look back at what has transpired, but what we can expect moving forward.
San Francisco's offensive line came into the 2013 season as one of the most dominant lines in the NFL. But after an impressive performance versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, the line fell flat on its face in Week 2 versus Seattle.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sacked twice by Green Bay compared to three times for 20 yards in Seattle. Numbers against Indianapolis in Week 3 were about the same.
Kaepernick hasn't enjoyed the same amount of protection that helped carry him through the latter half of last season. Combine the diminished protection with relatively few targets to work with and the passing game becomes a problem.
More of a problem has been the inconsistency with run-blocking. There were glimpses of this in Week 1 before it was fully revealed in Week 2. Given how important the running game is in the 49ers' game plan, the offensive line needs to be consistent on its run-block scheme. Fortunately, it appears as if running back Frank Gore has been able to pick things up over the past two games, hopefully indicating that the offensive line is doing its job.
Evaluating each member of the offensive line gives us further insight.
Tackle Joe Staley had some poor games run-blocking, yet he's shown improvement over the last two weeks. Center Jonathan Goodwin and guard Anthony Davis have not exactly been stellar run-blockers—ranking fairly low according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Fellow guard Alex Boone has been the most consistent player along the line, and hopefully the rest of this unit can rally behind him.
The good news is that it looks as if San Francisco's O-line is straightening itself out and should be on the up-and-up.
Yet looking back at what we have seen thus far, the term "needs improvement" clearly applies.
The Running Game
Much of this can revolve around Gore. At 30 years old, there could be plenty of questions surrounding whether or not he is slowing down.
I would say yes to some extent, yet I don't think it is as big of a problem as the numbers may have indicated.
Reflecting the previously noted description of the 49ers offensive line, one can deduce that Gore—and the rest of San Francisco's backs for that matter—have not been getting the openings they need to produce on the ground.
Gore posted 44 yards in Week 1 compared to a mere 16 in Week 2. In Week 3, he showed some improvement amassing 82 yards and then ran wild against St. Louis in Week 4.
Now he ranks eighth in the NFL with 295 yards and has a 4.8 average per carry.
If the offensive line was getting better, Gore reaped the benefits, and according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, he is just fine despite his age.
Kendall Hunter also deserves some recognition, as does fullback Bruce Miller.
So much of the 49ers' running success depends on the offensive line. When the O-line is working, the running game has done its job. There should be few complaints about that.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Without Anquan Boldin, San Francisco's receiving situation would be a mess.
Fortunately, however, Boldin is doing his job, and tight end Vernon Davis, when healthy, has also made significant plays.
Aside from those two, there have been relatively few contributions. Kyle Williams is clearly not a No. 2 receiver and has totaled only nine receptions for 87 yards up to this point. Quinton Patton now finds himself on the sideline with a broken foot, and San Francisco is resting their hopes upon the shoulders of former first-round pick Jon Baldwin, who was acquired before the regular season.
Marlon Moore has also been a non-factor thus far.
Rookie tight end Vance McDonald has had a nice debut thus far into 2013, totaling four receptions for 59 yards, but his blocking skills need work if he hopes to have a greater impact during the season.
As such, the 49ers have been able to rely solely on Boldin and Davis for any consistency. The Seahawks showed what can happen if Boldin is shut down effectively, and Davis, still recovering from his hamstring injury, will continue to be an important factor.
After four weeks, the 49ers have amassed only 801 yards through the air—good for 27th in the league. That is pretty bad.
San Francisco desperately needs to get more production out of its receiving corps. If Kaepernick is able to spread the ball around, pressure should be taken off Boldin and Davis.
Fortunately, the 49ers can count on the eventual returns of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree. Those guys will help, but the only question is when.
After Week 1, Kaepernick continued to look like the face of the franchise. After Weeks 2 and 3, fans were tweeting out their displeasure.
In Week 4, Kaepernick looked more like the game-managing quarterback the 49ers enjoyed with Alex Smith in 2011 and 2012. San Francisco steamrolled St. Louis en route to their second win of the season.
So what can we make of Kaepernick's 2013 campaign thus far?
A lot of it can boil down to the fact that Kaepernick is still relatively inexperienced. Remember, he has only started 14 games including the postseason. It is fair to assume that he still has plenty of learning to do, and perhaps fans are witnessing some of the growing pains this year.
His 81.0 quarterback rating will improve as the season moves on. The return of Crabtree, Manningham and Patton will also give him more weapons to work with.
What is interesting, however, is the apparent fact that Kaepernick hasn't utilized his legs as a weapon as much as we saw him do a year ago. Last season, Kaepernick ran when given the opportunity. In 2013, there have been a number of chances where he could have taken off, a few of which could have been for significant gains.
Still, Kaepernick has 140 yards rushing on the season, ranking fourth among quarterbacks.
It's not the time to be sending out angry tweets. Kaepernick will be fine. He has not been great thus far, but like anyone with tremendous potential and the right coaching staff behind him, Kaepernick should live up to expectations.
San Francisco's defensive line has actually been one of its strengths thus far into 2013.
Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey—yes, Dorsey—have combined to do a good job thus far. Smith may not be as dominant as he was a year ago, but he already has eight tackles and nine assists. He's also tied with McDonald for a team-high 14 quarterback hits.
Dorsey has been a nice surprise after initially losing out the starting defensive tackle job to Ian Williams during the preseason. Now Williams is out for the season and Dorsey has the chance to live up to his first-round draft status.
It is hard to fathom, but Dorsey is the highest-rated defensive player on San Francisco's roster according to Pro Football Focus. He has been excellent against the run and has done a decent job in the pass rush as well—something that was a weakness during his Kansas City tenure.
The linebacker corps was once a dominant strength in San Francisco, yet 2013 has provided some adversity for the unit.
Entering the season, the team counted on stellar years from Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.
Aldon Smith is now out for the foreseeable future thanks to his recent off-the-field issues, and Willis is recovering from a groin injury.
The bad news is that San Francisco will miss the services of Aldon Smith and Willis—provided Willis misses any more time.
The good news is that the 49ers linebackers have done a solid job in filling the void. Bowman had a tremendous game against the Rams in Week 4, and backup Dan Skuta did a nice job filling in for Smith. Depth player and pass-rush specialist Corey Lemonier also had a nice game versus St. Louis.
Smith and Willis will eventually return, and the 49ers can also count on the rookie debuts of Cornellius Carradine and Quinton Dial in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, this unit has done as much as it possibly could have given the circumstances.
Surprisingly enough, the 49ers secondary has actually been pretty good over the first four weeks, contrary to the struggles this unit endured in the postseason last year.
In 2013, the 49ers have allowed only 762 passing yards, ranking fourth best in the NFL. That is pretty good considering they have had to face the likes of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers has had a good start to the season. So has Tarell Brown. Nnamdi Asomugha also did a good job as the No. 3 corner over the first three games, having just three balls caught against him for 63 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
When Asomugha missed Week 4, Tramaine Brock filled in nicely. Brock is vying to take over the No. 3 spot.
Rookie Eric Reid is looking like the real deal, indicating that San Francisco was smart to move up in the first round to draft him. His concussion aside, there are so many signs that he will be a special player this year and for seasons to come. His two interceptions lead the team.
Safety Donte Whitner—or Hitner if you want to go there—has also been solid despite the hit against Rams wide receiver Chris Givens in Week 4.
The good news for the 49ers is that their secondary is looking like more of a strength than the weakness it was a year ago. Of course, much of the credit could be given to the defensive line's pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the fact that they have done a good job thus far bodes well.
This unit needs to keep doing what they are doing. I like what I have seen and hope that trend continues.
San Francisco needed to improve its special teams play after 2012, and it appears as if it has done so. Kicker Phil Dawson has only a 50 percent completion rating on six attempts, but all of his misses have come from beyond 40 yards, including one from 71 yards out.
It is safe to say that the 49ers would like him to make some of those longer kicks, but the sample size is too small at this point to draw any realistic conclusions about his effectiveness.
Punter Andy Lee is fine. There is not much to worry about here.
The coverage units have also done a fair job. Craig Dahl, C.J. Spillman and Raymond Ventrone have all done well within the unit.
The 49ers are averaging only 19.7 yards allowed in kickoff returns, which ranks seventh in the league.
While Kyle Williams may not be doing much as a receiver, he still has a role as the team's punt returner.
While grading each unit provides a glimpse into what has happened with the 2-2 49ers thus far into 2013, it cannot possibly tell the entire story.
Injuries have played a key factor this year. In addition, San Francisco has fallen flat against two tough opponents in the first four weeks.
Some of the 49ers' defensive statistics—most specifically, points and rushing yards against—have been skewed due to the inability of San Francisco's offense to sustain drives. This keeps the 49ers defense on the field longer, which, in turn, results in a tired defense. Tired defenses tend to give up yards and points.
Examining both Weeks 2 and 3, one can see how both Seattle and Indianapolis ran away with the game during the latter parts of the respective second halves.
Some of the coaching decisions could be looked at with question. For example, why did San Francisco abandon the run against the Colts during the second half of its Week 3 matchup?
These questions and grades will continue to loom large as the 49ers move forward and kick off the second quarter of the 2013 season against a tough Houston Texans team looking to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to the Seahawks.
Fortunately, many of the disappointing trends that were revealed seem to be working out for the better. The 49ers are getting some key players back in uniform, and overall, San Francisco looks to be righting the ship.
Overall, the 49ers get a C grade for the first four games. If a 2-2 record is viewed as "average," the grade is deserved as well.
Fortunately, this is merely a progress report. The real grade comes at the end of the season.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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