No passing game, no problem.
That has been the motto of the San Francisco 49ers this season—at least for their past two games.
This team went back to basics again in Week 5 against the Houston Texans on Sunday night, reviving its stifling big-play defense and giving Houston a heavy dose of Frank Gore. Having to make up for a lack of a zip in the air, Jim Harbaugh and Co. have had to call on almost every other facet on offense for help, and those units have responded.
Whether it was Gore leading the Niners' offense, NaVorro Bowman leading the defense or C.J. Spillman leading the special teams and everything in between, it has been a total team effort in winning games these past two weeks. Compensating for San Francisco's lack of offensive talent, one could say it is reminiscent of the staff’s approach in 2011.
As the season progresses and more is revealed about this San Francisco team in its third year under Harbaugh, it seems appropriate to reflect on what we’ve seen and project what might be seen in the coming weeks.
Here is what we learned from the 49ers' performance on Sunday Night Football.
That the #49ers can win without a passing game is huge. But that won't work every week. Desperately need Crabtree/Manningham back.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 7, 2013
Prior to Sunday night's game, the vaunted 49ers defense had not been the swarming, big-play squadron we were getting used to. San Francisco is losing the defensive mystique that had made it unique in 2011 and 2012.
Teams grew to fear the 49ers defense, which decapitated opponents' run games, mugged skill players and constantly attacked the football.
Whether it was the big hits that jarred balls loose or daredevil cornerbacks jumping routes, San Francisco has been without those impact plays, ranking 24th in takeaways in 2013, per TeamRankings.
In Harbaugh’s first year in 2011, the Niners led the NFL in takeaways with an average of 2.4 per game. This year, they are averaging 1.2, which placed them in the company of teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars.
On Sunday night, the 49ers racked up three interceptions as part of their five takeaways against Matt Schaub and the Texans even though San Francisco's defense was incredibly shorthanded.
San Francisco was missing two thirds of its starting defensive line, half of its regular linebacking corps and a featured cornerback in its nickel package, which is a commonly used grouping. It is safe to say that 49ers fans weren’t expecting the bullying performance that they saw from their team.
It just goes to show that you don’t need superstars to play 49er football. it’s a mindset and a discipline, as ESPN.com noted in a Stats & Info tweet:
49ers: 7th time allowing 3 or fewer points since Jim Harbaugh became coach in 2011, most in NFL— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 7, 2013
Hey, all things considered, this was a big week for a 49ers team that has been hobbling much of the season.
On Sunday afternoon, the 49ers watched the NFC West favorite Seattle Seahawks get dealt their first loss of the season in falling to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Better yet, the Niners were then able to capitalize and get a win of their own on Sunday night to further tighten the division race.
Heading into Week 6, the ‘Hawks are 4-1 with close wins over the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans, a beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a win over San Francisco in Seattle, where the Seahawks are virtually unbeatable.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are 3-2 with victories over the Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans. Now touting a two-game win streak, San Francisco and Seattle are really not that far apart.
Odds are it will be neck and neck well into December, as Janie McCauley of the Associated Press tweeted:
At 30 years old, Frank Gore is a top-10 rusher in the NFL and about the only thing that seems to work offensively for the supposed Super Bowl contender 49ers.
Gore is a player who intimidates, and not a player who is intimidated. Superstars like J.J. Watt, Chris Long and Clay Matthews don’t even appear to be on his radar on game day.
Gore takes the handoff and proceeds to do his thing.
Averaging 5.0 yards per carry with three touchdowns, Gore’s effectiveness has been irrefutable at this point, so it will be nearly impossible for offensive coordinator Greg Roman to neglect him on game day from here on out. Gore's productivity level is the one thing keeping this 49ers offense afloat.
Until San Francisco can find a solution to its wide receiver woes—a solution that may never come—the Niners will rely on Gore as the centerpiece to its offense.
What a legacy that Gore continues to build for himself with a franchise that has had two of the all-time greats at quarterback and wide receiver, as Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle tweeted:
Career rushing yards: 33. Frank Gore, 9,209; 34. Ahman Green 9,205. #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 7, 2013
On Sunday, San Francisco was missing two All-Pro defensive leaders in Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis, who have both been mainstays.
The 49ers were also without newly appointed starting nose tackle Ian Williams, as well as cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Since both players were filling in for starters from last season, the 49ers were forced to delve even further down the depth chart this season.
It didn’t matter.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock emerged as the star of Sunday night's game. Meanwhile, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier adequately filled in at outside linebacker, Glenn Dorsey has continued to be a beast in the middle and inside man Michael Wilhoite is proving to be a pretty tremendous reserve linebacker.
That front office has been stellar in acquiring defensive talent in all shapes and sizes.
Officially, no sack for Michael Wilhoite. 10th tackle, though, to go along a PBU and a pair of special teams tackles. Busy night.— Brian McIntyre (@brian_mcintyre) October 7, 2013
The only San Francisco players who caught footballs on Sunday were tight end Vernon Davis, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and fulltback Bruce Miller.
That’s it. In five weeks of play, wideouts beside Boldin have combined for only 112 yards and no touchdowns.
Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton and Jon Baldwin have all continued to come up short, failing to provide a spark and perpetuating the instability in this receiving corps.
Week in and week out, the 49ers have twiddled their thumbs, hoping for a solution, but nothing ever materializes.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham, who is still out with a torn ACL and PCL, is eligible to return after Week 6, but he hasn’t practiced in nearly a year, much less participated in a full-contact game in the regular season. It seems that Manningham cannot return to the 49ers lineup soon enough, but even then, will it be the solution to all of their problems?
If the 49ers are serious about a Super Bowl, this is an issue they need to address. They won’t make it through the first round of the playoffs with their current bottom-dwelling level of production.
It is hard to believe this is the same Colin Kaepernick who shredded the top-rated Chicago Bears defense in his first start last season and then went on to outscore Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan en route to the 49ers' first Super Bowl berth in nearly two decades.
Kaepernick also turned in a surgical all-purpose performance over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in last years NFC playoffs.
Statistically, Kap has been one of the least-productive starting quarterbacks in the National Football League in 2013. There is not even the faintest resemblance to the lethal weapon we witnessed last year when pundits were saying had he the potential to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
This week brought no further signs of change.
While some hard running by Frank Gore and a strong defensive performance provided Kaepernick with a nice cushion on the scoreboard, he could not let it rip against Houston's defense in Week 5.
In theory, if 49ers tight end Vernon Davis did not make a meaningless 64-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick would’ve finished 5-of-15 for 49 yards and no touchdowns. He again could not find any of his receivers in what has been the storyline for him all season.
Matt Miller of Bleacher Report tweeted of Kaepernick's struggles against the Texans:
Could be by design, but Kaepernick hyper-locking in on 1st read. It's snap, drop, throw. He has to get through progressions.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 7, 2013
The #49ers winning doesn't excuse or dismiss that Kaepernick has been bad tonight, folks.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 7, 2013
Kap is not consistently making his way through all of his reads and trusting his guys to make plays. We know that San Francisco's receiving corps is hurt, but Kaepernick has not been taking chances.
The 49ers receivers have not had an opportunity to get touches or establish a rhythm with their quarterback, including tight end Vance McDonald and running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
When it comes to his performance and durability, there has been a litany of questions surrounding free-agent signee Nnamdi Asomugha.
On Sunday night, Asomugha missed his second straight game due to a knee injury. During that time, cornerback Tramaine Brock has lit it up. Now in his fourth year with the team, the reserve cornerback has been fluent within the system, knowing everyone’s assignments and when he can take his chances.
After contributing to a shutdown performance of Sam Bradford in Week 4, Brock went on to intercept Matt Schaub twice when he targeted Andre Johnson both times. Brock stepped up in a big way, finally providing the 49ers with a resolution at a position group that was looking for answers.
If, and when, Asomugha is activated again, Brock should be locked in at the No. 3 spot, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Tramaine Brock has taken over the No. 3 job with Nnamdi Asomugha (knee) out. And it does not appear he's going to give it back.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 7, 2013
It also raises questions in regards to how long Asomugha be with the team. He missed numerous tackles early in the season and hasn’t been the sharpest in coverage. If the 49ers get Eric Wright back this season, Asomugha could be the odd man out.
There has been really no effort on behalf of offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his staff when it comes to getting LaMichael James involved. He is one of the last remaining players from Trent Baalke’s dreaded 2012 draft class, but appeared to be the one with the most potential.
He is a scatback in the mold of Darren Sproles—a rare player who can be a highly productive weapon if properly utilized.
While Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter should be the undisputed one-two punch, the 49ers have to make an attempt to get James on the field. No one else is catching footballs and he clearly has game-breaking ability. His top speed and change of direction make him an ideal space player in today’s wide-open NFL.
His touches have been limited to kick returns and rare fourth-quarter touches in garbage time while running back Anthony Dixon has been getting the goal-line reps and working as the occasional sub in drives. It doesn't make sense that James, the 49ers' investment, is collecting dust on the bench.
How will he ever fully acclimate to the pro level if he never gets a chance to step on the field?
It is time to start questioning Roman’s intentions and what the 49ers plan to do with James.
Every week, it’s a new player.
This is clearly the 49ers' year to be stricken by injury, having already lost Michael Crabtree (Achilles) and Chris Culliver (ACL) in the offseason and leaving San Francisco minus a top-10 receiver and a top-10 cornerback there. Not to mention up-and-coming inside linebackers Darius Fleming and Nick Moody.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham is still completing his rehab after tearing two ligaments in his knee last season against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Niners then lost starting nose tackle Ian Williams to a broken ankle after Williams had gotten off to a great start to his NFL career. San Francisco has also been without key players like Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Nnamdi Asomugha, who have all missed games with injuries.
Last week, it was revealed that rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton suffered a broken foot, which will take roughly "four-to-six weeks to heal, according to ESPN.com. This clearly weakened a position that was already depleted by injuries and mishaps in talent evaluation.
Niners starting left defensive tackle Ray McDonald had to leave Sunday night's game with an arm injury. Backups Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs were left to fill in along the defensive line, and did a fine job, but the injury bug continues to bite the 49ers hard.
This entire team has been overcome with injuries, leading many to wonder if it can survive the season and make another deep playoff run.
Ray McDonald (right biceps) will undergo MRI tomorrow, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 7, 2013