One look at the score is enough to reassure San Francisco sports fans that all is well. This wasn't the St. Louis Rams the 49ers were humiliating on national TV. Granted, it was a home game and Matt Schaub was the opposing quarterback, but to see the defense hold the Houston Texans to just three points without Patrick Willis or Aldon Smith was nothing short of amazing.
But the vintage domination by the defense and the running game still leaves plenty of questions to be addressed. Is Colin Kaepernick the quarterback we all thought he was after Week 1? When will the 49ers offense be at full strength? Who does that to Tom Brady's hair?
It's likely we won't get all the answers anytime soon.
Let's start out with the good news: The defense hasn't regressed. They held the fort against a great Packers offense, and they kept the 49ers in the game against the Seahawks and the Colts. The reason for their low points ranking were a pair of late-game turnovers by Colin Kaepernick, which led to easy yet meaningless touchdowns for the opposition.
Clearly, the Niners learned their lesson after getting smacked around for consecutive weeks: Don't throw the football.
After an explosive effort to start the season, Harbaugh tried to turn the 49ers offense into something it wasn't: a passing unit. Facing a Green Bay team that had spent an entire offseason obsessing over the read option after they were destroyed in the playoffs, Colin Kaepernick was able to sit back in the pocket and run the same play over and over like an inappropriate five-second GIF.
Teams quickly figured out that the secret to stopping the Niners' passing scheme was to pay attention to Anquan Boldin. The offense stopped scoring. Incompletions mounted. And for the first time since Mike Singletary was on the sidelines, there was a sense of fatalism in the air and a few players started to cry.
I'm not saying that Kaepernick is incapable of becoming an elite quarterback. But with two of his most talented receivers on the PUP and Vernon Davis still nursing a sore hamstring, the 49ers will have to continue relying on him to do his Alex Smith impersonation and make throws only after Frank Gore has turned the defense into Costco food.
Will the 49ers offense improve this week and become as good as their defense was in scoring points on Sunday? Let's break it down.
One of the biggest weaknesses for the 49ers' young quarterback has always been his myopic field vision. It's limited the offense all season and was one of the reasons why the 49ers lost the Super Bowl. Three straight passes to a heavily covered Michael Crabtree from five yards out of the end zone. Somewhere John Taylor was saying to himself, "if the defense has three guys on one receiver then there's probably someone else to throw it to."
It's also worth noting that Kaepernick only connected with All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis 15 times in eight games after taking over as the 49ers starter. Given Vernon's propensity to get open anywhere on the field, that was a pretty bright red flag that everyone seemed to ignore.
No one's looking the other way this time around.
If you take away that pulsating 64-yard touchdown pass to Davis that broke the game open against the Texans in the second half, Kaepernick only threw for 50 yards to two different receivers: Boldin and superstar fullback Bruce Miller. His highest passing total in the last four games? One-hundred and sixty-seven yards in St. Louis.
The stats only get sh...crummier the longer you look at them. 49ers receivers not named Anquan Boldin have caught three passes for 27 yards in the last two games. And thanks to the arrival of modern technology (you know, the video camera), we know that there are open targets all over the field that Kapernick is not seeing.
The way he forces throws or scrambles out of the pocket even when he's under absolutely no duress shows either inexperience or a lack of trust in his offensive line. What's especially discouraging is how often he has his head down whenever he's running down the field. Occasionally he does find an open receiver, only to float the ball 10 feet over his head or drop it near a tube sock.
It won't get any easier this Sunday against the desert fowl.
Arizona will likely use Patrick Petersen in man-to-man coverage against Boldin, who has been helpless this season against quality defensive backs. He was held to one catch against Richard Sherman and had all of 22 yards last week facing Johnathan Joseph. Anquan will have to physically outplay Petersen at the line of scrimmage in order for Kaepernick to have a productive day throwing the football.
It's unlikely the Niners will be able to score points by just handing the ball to Gore. Yes, it's worked well in the last two weeks, but the defense can't keep generating four turnovers every game.
Currently, Arizona's run defense is second in the NFL and sixth in the league in sacks. The 49ers offensive line will need to set the tone early by creating holes for the running backs, and this will become easier to do if the D is forced to respect the pass.
While their numbers on the defensive side of the ball is impressive, the only time the Cardinals faced an elite offense this season was against the Saints, and they were lit up for 31 points. Hey, if some guy named Drew Brees could torch the Cards for three touchdowns, Kaepernick should have a field day on Sunday.
All levity aside, we won't know what Kaepernick is really about until we see him perform with the offense at full strength--which it hasn't been ever since the 49ers lost Mario Manningham last December in Seattle. A Crabtree-Boldin-Davis-Manningham receiving corps could be the most lethal in the league, and along with the running tandem of Gore-Hunter-James, plus the threat of Kaepernick running for 50 yards on every play, there may be not be a mathematical solution to stopping San Francisco's red and gold S.W.A.T. unit.
But the offense Kaepernick has now is more talented than he realizes.
Those of you who come here to read my thoughtful insight (you know, no one) might have noticed there aren't many suggestions for anyone else on the offense. That's because receivers can't improve their game if their quarterback isn't looking at them, kind of like how Frank Gore couldn't gain yards on the ground without getting any touches.
The success the 49ers have moving the ball through the air this Sunday depends precisely on whether Kaepernick can stay composed in the pocket and see everyone on the field. Instead of staring in the direction of one receiver after the snap, he should try challenging the defense by looking at where they're daring him to throw it.
If McDonald and Williams become valid receiving threats, Boldin and Davis will have an easier time catching the ball, and the entire offense will become more dangerous as a result. In that kind of scenario, look for Gore and Hunter to routinely put up 30-yard runs and Kaepernick to become the second-most valuable player to the 49ers after Carson Palmer.