San Francisco 49ers: Grades for Each Position Unit After the First 4 Games
Many fans and media members proclaimed the 49ers to be the best team in the NFL. However, life has not been so rosy for the 49ers since that first game.
In the fourth game of the year, the 49ers easily defeated the lowly St. Louis Rams, 35-11. Although it was a solid victory, the Rams are struggling and there are still many question marks about the 49ers.
The 49ers' upcoming game at home against a good Houston team will be a good barometer on their progress.
However, before we look too far ahead, let's look at the grades for each position unit over this first quarter of the season.
Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-high 412 yards against the Packers in the 49ers' first game of the year.
However, that success was fleeting, as opposing defenses have made it tough to throw since Week 1. Defenses are focused on Anquan Boldin and are also playing the 49ers' receivers with very tight press coverage most of the time.
Kaepernick has frequently not found anyone open, but he has also missed on a few passes.
Kaepernick has not reached 170 yards in any of his last three games. Over that span, he has completed only 41 of his 78 passes. He also has four interceptions and only two touchdowns in the past three weeks.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have also minimized the number of runs for Kaepernick. The fear is that he could get hurt, which would cripple the 49ers offense.
Almost completely gone from the list of plays being called are the read-option sequences that Kaepernick was so effective with last year.
The coaching staff has directed Kaepernick to try to stay in the pocket more and not expose himself to any big hits. Kaepernick will still scramble on occasion, but the called running plays are virtually nonexistent.
This takes a lot away from Kaepernick's offensive arsenal. In the NFL, you cannot play as effectively when the main focus is to avoid injury. In order for Kaepernick to achieve his maximum effectiveness, he must be allowed to utilize all his assets, and that includes designed running plays.
Kaepernick is big, strong and fast, so he can avoid big hits most of the time. It's rare to see an opposing defender get a clean hit on him when he's running.
In reality, Kaepernick stands a greater chance of getting hurt in the pocket on a pass play. A pass-rushing defender could hit him in the knees when he's planted and throwing the football.
It's time for Harbaugh and Roman to use Kaepernick in the best way possible to win football games. This means utilizing all of his assets, which means allowing him to run.
Quarterback Grade: C
Frank Gore had two very poor games to start the season. Against the Packers, Gore rushed for 44 yards on 21 carries. Then, the following week in Seattle, Gore only had 16 yards on nine carries.
Gore seemed to get things going early against the Colts, but after the first quarter, he rarely saw the ball. Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh opted to use the passing game, which did not work out well.
Against the Colts, Gore had 11 carries for 82 yards, a 7.45 yards-per-carry average. Indianapolis could not stop Gore on the ground, yet the 49ers inexplicably stopped giving him the ball.
Gore had his best game of the year last week against the Rams. He had 20 carries for 153 yards and looked great. On the season, Gore has 295 yards on 61 carries.
Gore's backup Kendall Hunter has 80 yards on 22 carries. He has been adequate, although he has not had a big impact on a game as of yet.
LaMichael James has yet to see much action. He has only three carries and has not gained a yard.
Running Backs Grade: B
Anquan Boldin is the only proven quality receiver the 49ers have available. Injuries to Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree have depleted the 49ers' receiving corps.
In the 49ers' first game of the year, Boldin had a monster game. He had 13 receptions for 208 yards and a touchdown. Although quite spectacular, this may have actually worked against the 49ers.
Opposing defenses routinely double-cover Boldin, making it hard for Kaepernick to find him open.
Defenses have also found a major flaw in the 49ers' wide receivers. They all are having a very tough time getting off the line of scrimmage against tight, in-your-face press coverage.
This defensive approach has disrupted the 49ers' passing attack, as witnessed by the fact that Colin Kaepernick has averaged only 148 yards passing in the last three games.
The 49ers have had little to no success establishing a second or third wide receiver. Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood and Jon Baldwin have all failed to impress. Promising rookie Quinton Patton broke a bone in his foot and will be out for a few weeks, inhibiting his progress.
Wide Receivers Grade: D+
Along with Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis has been the only real threat in the 49ers' passing attack. Davis sustained a hamstring injury against the Seahawks and was forced to sit out the 49ers' game against the Colts.
Davis was sorely missed, as his absence enabled the Colts' defensive secondary to direct even more of its attention to Boldin. Davis returned to play against the Rams and looked good.
In the three games Davis has played, he has 11 catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. These numbers are below expectations also. The 49ers need a healthy Davis to step up and make plays to help energize their offense.
The 49ers often employ two tight ends in their offensive sets. With the departure of Delanie Walker in free agency, Vance McDonald had gotten a big chance to step in and contribute.
Unfortunately, McDonald's production has been weak. In each of the 49ers' first four games, McDonald had only one catch per game. His total of 59 yards is also trivial.
The 49ers' third tight end, Garrett Celek, has one catch for 30 yards.
Tight Ends Grade: C-
The San Francisco 49ers have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. In their first four games, they have done a good job, although not great.
The 49ers were unable to run the ball effectively against the Packers and the Seahawks, but have made progress in the last two weeks against the Colts and Rams.
The 49ers' pass protection has been adequate and is helped by the mobility of Colin Kaepernick.
This Sunday's game against the Houston Texans will be a stern test for the 49ers' offensive line, as Houston leads the league in fewest yards allowed, at 254.2 per game.
The Texans also have a fierce pass rush led by J.J. Watt, who led the league with 20.5 sacks last year.
The 49ers will know a lot more about their offensive line after this next game.
Offensive Line Grade: B-
The 49ers' defensive line suffered a major blow when nose tackle Ian Williams went down with a season-ending injury. Glenn Dorsey replaced Williams and has played well.
Dorsey was expected to provide valuable depth for defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. The injury to Williams robs the 49ers of that depth, and they must go one step lower on the depth chart.
Smith has played well, although the loss of Aldon Smith will inhibit him somewhat. Justin and Aldon worked extremely well together and now Justin must try to establish that same chemistry with Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier.
The 49ers' defensive line has had trouble shutting down the run at times. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 98 yards, leading the Seahawks in their Week 2 victory. Seattle accumulated a total of 172 yards rushing in that game.
The 49ers defense also struggled against the Colts. Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 95 yards, as the Colts' offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Indianapolis rushed for 184 yards in its 27-7 win.
In their most recent game, the 49ers' defensive front was successful in stuffing the Rams' running game. They had only 18 yards on the ground. However, before the 49ers' defensive line can revel in its improvement, we must remember that the Rams' rushing offense is terrible.
The 49ers' next opponent, the Houston Texans, feature Arian Foster, one of the top backs in the league. Foster will present a true test for the 49ers' defensive line and linebackers.
Defensive Line Grade: C+
At the start of the season, the 49ers' linebacker corps was arguably the top unit in the NFL. Unfortunately, Aldon Smith is attending a rehab program to address his substance abuse problems. He is out indefinitely.
Patrick Willis has battled injuries and missed the last game-and-a-half. The 49ers are expecting Willis back to face the Texans in their upcoming game.
The 49ers have received excellent play from NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. In the most recent game against the Rams, Bowman was all over the field. He was credited with six tackles, including two sacks and a forced fumble.
During the absence of Smith, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier will fill in. Skuta will play more in the base defense, while Lemonier will be inserted on passing downs. Lemonier looked good against the Rams.
In 2012, Smith was a Pro Bowl selection and First-Team All-Pro, so there is a decline when he's not in there.
Michael Wilhoite filled in for Willis and has done OK.
The linebackers' grade could be higher because they have had some outstanding moments. However, the front seven had too much trouble against the ground attacks of the Seahawks and Colts, keeping the grade where it is.
Linebackers Grade: B
The San Francisco 49ers' defensive backfield has shown improvement over last year. The 49ers are currently third in the NFL, allowing only 190.5 passing yards per game.
Strong safety Donte Whitner seems to have too much of the officials' attention. He has been fined for illegal hits this season.
Rookie safety Eric Reid has done a good job. His play in the secondary has made us begin to forget Dashon Goldson, who signed with Tampa Bay in the free-agent market. Reid leads the 49ers with two interceptions.
Corners Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have been solid, but the 49ers have questions with the fifth and sixth defensive backs.
Nnamdi Asomugha has been fighting a groin injury. Prior to the injury, he was not doing that well to begin with. Tramaine Brock played well against the Rams and could wrest the starting job away from Asomugha.
Craig Dahl provides quality depth at safety.
Defensive Secondary Grade: B+
Special teams were abysmal last year, so the 49ers have made a concerted effort to raise their level of play this year.
The 49ers acquired kicker Phil Dawson to replace David Akers, who had a poor year in 2012. Dawson has six attempts on the year and has converted only three. However, two of his misses were from beyond 50 yards.
Andy Lee is doing his usual strong job as the 49ers' punter.
The 49ers have improved their coverage units with the additions of Craig Dahl, Dan Skuta, Kassim Osgood, Ray Ventrone and Eric Reid.
The new rules minimize the number of chances the 49ers have to return kickoffs. Kyle Williams is back returning punts, and the best part of it is that he has not turned the ball over yet.
Special Teams Grade: B
The San Francisco 49ers have a good coaching staff, made up of solid professionals. However, in the two games the 49ers have lost, they were out-coached.
Against the Seahawks, offensive coordinator Greg Roman was unprepared to deal with the aggressive press coverage the Seattle defense put on the 49ers' wide receivers. There was little motion or formations designed to alleviate the pressure the receivers faced.
Seattle manhandled the 49ers' receivers and took them completely out of the game. If a player cannot physically beat his man, it is incumbent on the coaching staff to devise ways to free up the position players.
In the 49ers' game against Indianapolis, they were able to gouge the soft underbelly of the Colts defense. Frank Gore was off to a good start, but then barely even touched the ball after the first quarter.
Roman opted to go with the pass, which turned out to be a losing approach.
Gore was rolling and the offensive line was opening massive holes for him to run through. To go away from your best asset on offense was terrible strategy. It cost the 49ers the game.
Coaching Grade: D
Overall Grade: C