Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers are not quite back on top, but they’re definitely headed in the right direction. After falling to below .500 for the first time since 2010, the scarlet and gold were able to right the ship and string together two consecutive victories, putting themselves right back in the division race.
As bad as it looked at times, the 49ers survived the toughest stretch of their 2013 schedule—which included four 2012 playoff teams in five weeks—with a winning record. There is something to be said about that, especially with how shorthanded they were, while suffering an identity crisis on both sides of the football.
Moreover, the team is also continuing to learn more about itself as we get into the guts of the regular season. They are learning where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, who is ready to step up and who is not. If the 49ers can self-analyze and adapt, while getting healthier, this team can go on quite a run.
Looking for their third-straight win with the NFC West division rival Arizona Cardinals on the horizon, here is everything you need to know about the 49ers heading into Week 6.
The Seahawks were finally brought down to earth in Week 5, receiving their first loss of the season in a mugging by golden boy Andrew Luck and his Indianapolis Colts. It is worth noting that since 2012, Pete Carroll’s troop is below .500 on the road (5-6), which seems to be a challenge for them.
The 49ers, on the other hand, were opportunistic, securing a second straight win on a night when a little wind was taken out of Seattle’s sail. And just like that, San Francisco is back to within a game of first place. Though, they’ll face the Cardinals this week, which could surprise and leapfrog them if they’re not careful.
As Cardinals lead columnist Shaun Church pointed out in a recent article for Bleacher Report, inside linebacker Daryl Washington had a profound impact after returning from his four-game suspension. With the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and John Abraham, and the growth of cornerback Patrick Peterson, it is a defensive unit that can present issues for a struggling 49ers offense.
Patrick Willis and Nnamdi Asomugha have been the notable scratches the past two weeks, but appear to be on the brink of being activated again. Each of them have been listed as questionable in Weeks 4 and 5, coming down to game-time decisions.
Quinton Patton and Nick Moody were also expected inactives, as was Ian Williams, who has been on injured reserved for the season. However, starting defensive lineman Ray McDonald was a new addition to the injury report, having to leave Week 5 with a bicep injury.
McDonald is awaiting the results of an MRI, as per coach Jim Harbaugh.
Then there is Carlos Rogers (knee), Vernon Davis (hamstring), Mike Iupati (shoulder), Anthony Davis (shoulder, ankle), Joe Staley (hamstring) and Kyle Williams (knee), who have all been regulars on the injury list, via the team's official website. Not having them at 100 percent is certainly not helping a handicapped 49ers team.
The good news is that coach Jim Harbaugh finally delivered an update on the injured corps of players on Monday, which is quite a robust list.
For starters, the team expects to have rookie defensive linemen Tank Carradine (ACL) and Quinton Dial (foot) off the non-football injury list and practicing next week, which is a substantial gain for that particular unit, considering it is fairly banged up.
According to Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, San Francisco’s second selection, Carradine, was a top five talent in the 2013 draft.
Seeing as how Aldon Smith is still taking his leave of absence, and the 49ers are in need of assistance rushing the passer, Carradine could provide that spark. His forte is beating his man and getting to the quarterback, which is a trait that tends to show up right away.
Continuing on down the list, wide receiver Mario Manningham, who tore two ligaments in his knee last December in Seattle, will possibly begin practicing next week. Joining him may be also be veteran cornerback Eric Wright, who the 49ers signed as a free agent late this offseason and stashed on the non-football injury list.
Crabtree, who underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles on May 22 continues to be on pace to return in mid-to-late November, Harbaugh said.
“He seems to be on track for that,” Harbaugh said.
Crabtree is starting to run as part of his rehabilitation. Harbaugh said he keeps close tabs on Crabtree’s rehabilitation.
The big news is that Crab is on schedule, looking like a lock to return before December, which is the last month of the regular season. That would see to it that he suits up for some tough ball games late in the schedule (at New Orleans, at Washington, vs. Seattle and vs. Atlanta), while also allowing him to catch a groove into what is hopefully a playoff run.
Moreover, the fact that Crabtree is beginning to run and do on-field drills (away from the team) is a terrific sign.
In what was a ghastly injury, the 49ers might not actually be without their star wideout for too much longer. The team is staring down at timetable of roughly a month, which includes games versus the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, with a Week 9 bye separating the last two games.
This is splendid news for a 'Niners team that has been limping badly at the wide receiver position, yet has already gotten over the worst hump in their schedule. If San Francisco can forge ahead in the fashion that they have in the past two weeks, feeding off team-first football, Crabtree can provide a great late-season boost for the offense.
Not to mention Manningham, and all the others.
On the day Harbaugh reported all this to the local Bay Area media, Michael Crabtree posted a video from his Instagram account of himself doing ladder drills.
All told, fans can begin to get excited because the cavalry appears to be on its way.
Storyline to Watch
On Monday afternoon, following another lifeless showing from the San Francisco receiving corps, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported that the 'Niners were indeed in contact with the Cleveland Browns, inquiring about a trade for wideout Josh Gordon:
NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport followed up with a tidbit that the 49ers might be able to pry Gordon away from Cleveland for a second-round pick. With that being the initial asking price, GM Trent Baalke might even be able to get him for less.
Clearly, the 49ers have a dire need at the position and plenty of capital to finagle the star receiver away, which just so happens to be on the market at a bargain. Baalke could theoretically push this deal through at any moment, and still be fine with the salary cap and have more than enough draft picks heading into 2014.
The concern with acquiring Gordon is his off-the-field plights, ability to learn the system midseason and having to cut an extra player, which is going to be hard to do already with so many players returning from their respective injury lists.
Nevertheless, the production has been very minimal among the wide receivers, and virtually non-existent if you take away Anquan Boldin.
What Must Improve
No. 1: Ball Distribution
Only three players caught footballs this past week, and that was tight end Vernon Davis, wideout Anquan Boldin and fullback Bruce Miller. This has been a perpetual issue for the 49ers, week in and week out, as they struggle to get just one more name involved in the passing game.
While San Francisco is scarce on receiving talent, it is getting harder to defend the one-read label that has been circulating about Colin Kaepernick. He did not distribute it well last year, often targeting Michael Crabtree, and has since failed to provide his corps of receivers with chances to make plays on the ball.
If Kap is a one-read quarterback, at least for now, offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to adjust and design new players as that first read. Roman can also use more bunch formations, screens and pick plays to free up on these D-list receivers, hopefully allowing them to make an uncontested catch with room to run.
If the 49ers want to keep this win streak alive, there needs to be more effort on behalf of Colin Kaepernick and Greg Roman.
No. 2: Play Calling
Over the past two weeks, the play calling by both defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been much improved, largely since they’ve had to compensate for losing players.
Fangio has called much better. There are more creative game plans on the defensive side of the ball since having to make up for the loss of his star pass-rusher, a perennial All-Pro inside backer and a top-featured cornerback. As a coordinator, Fangio has been in attack mode from the first blow of the whistle these past two weeks.
Not only has it been taking offenses by surprise, but it also appears that the 49ers defensemen have responded, very much enjoying this gung-ho approach.
Looking at Weeks 2-3, in contrast to Weeks 4-5, it is clear that Roman’s play calling also changed and improved overall, but there were times where it was like he was asleep at the wheel. He really needs to be more consistent drive-to-drive, so the offense can develop a rhythm over the course of the game, as well as improving his clarity when it comes to situational football.
By not recognizing what works, and failing to try new things and get creative, Roman has hindered the full capacity of this offense.
And again, if the 49ers are going to hold back and refrain from acquiring an outside talent to help at wide receiver, Roman needs to work overtime, hatching a plan to get another pass-catcher involved. Otherwise, the ugly truth about him might be that as great a run-designer as he is, his pass plays are simply inadequate.
No. 3: Open Up This Three-Headed Attack
With the addition of LaMichael James to the 49ers tandem of rushers from 2011-12 (Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter), general manager Trent Baalke built up this enticing myth of the three-headed rushing attack coming to San Francisco, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Given the voluminous profile of this trio, it seemed like enough talent and skill diversity to beat teams single-handedly, just by running it.
However, on game day, it has been 90 percent Gore, backed by Hunter with a little Anthony Dixon mixed in. Since No. 21 is tearing it up, there is no reason to suggest he needs to lose time, but he appeared winded in games. Carrying this team to victories without a passing game can be exhausting—especially since Gore is earning extra reps as the primary pass protecting back.
That said, the 49ers need to relegate Dixon to special teams, as well as find a complementary balance between Hunter and James. Both are highly explosive players, which warrants each seeing more time in an offense that just hasn't had big plays this year.
And ultimately, the goal would be to use these three runners to turn this into a tireless, multifaceted rushing attack that has no virtually limits.
With a true feature back and two pocket rockets, they can run inside the tackles, outside on the edges and catch out of the backfield.
Since there are three of capable runners that come from backgrounds of being the workhorse back, and that they’re always eager to get in, they’re rarely fatigued. And with the volume of San Francisco’s ground game, they can get two of them on the field at the same time, using misdirection or multiple receiving outlets.
And this is just to get started.
There is a lot that Greg Roman has yet to explore. And with a healthy LaMichael James chained to the bench, he is not doing this offense any favors, limiting one of their more naturally explosive players.
No. 4: Keep Tramaine Brock as the Third Cornerback
This should go without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway: Tramaine Brock is a better option than Nnamdi Asomugha.
This is not an overreaction to a single performance—it is just the way it is. With Brock in the lineup, the 49ers secondary played better with a familiar veteran who was fully healthy and comfortable within the system. They have gone 2-0 with him replacing Asomugha, who the team was 1-2 with.
As a fourth-year pro who has been with the team since 2010, Brock is a younger and more dynamic option, and finally appears to be maturing into himself, whereas Asomugha’s career is winding down.
He has played better football at this point in the season and deserves a spot alongside Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.