The San Francisco 49ers (4-2) are beginning to catch their stride, learning how to win games without all of their assets available to them.
In this evolutionary process filled with trial and error, the 49ers have experienced a masterful return to brute playmaking defense, while bringing classic weapons in Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to the forefront of the offense again. It also does not hurt that this team has one of the best offensive lines in football and more All-Pros than most.
And at the end of the day, it is all driven by Jim Harbaugh.
With him, the Niners will always be competitive and have a fighting chance. In a game against the Arizona Cardinals that S.F. had to have, Harbaugh's crew showed up big and rolled with the punches, in what was quite an entertaining back-and-forth battle.
In a game that had a little bit of everything, here is what we learned from the San Francisco 49ers after Week 6.
49ers tight end Vernon Davis is looking like one of the most dynamic weapons in the NFL this year.
“Elite” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the NFL, perhaps too much.
But when you discuss offensive weapons, one of the most defining features of an elite threat is consistency and the ability to take a game over. That is what 49ers Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis did on Sunday, building on one of his best regular seasons in his career to date.
Davis had a monster game, single-handedly carrying the 49ers passing offense.
With eight receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, he accounted for over 71 percent of Colin Kaepernick’s passing yardage and 100 percent of his touchdowns in Week 6. He now has 404 yards and six touchdowns on the year, even after missing time with a hamstring injury.
It looks like his big postseason performances are beginning to permeate into the regular season, especially now with a big-armed quarterback.
#49ers Vernon Davis’ 180 receiving yards is tied for the third most by a TE in the NFL in the past 20 years.— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonESPN) October 13, 2013
When it comes to the secondary, Eric Reid is looking like the 49ers' building block of the future.
Hats off to linebacker Corey Lemonier, safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tramaine Brock.
Three young defensive jewels who have played lights out after having to step in for proven players like Aldon Smith, Dashon Goldson and Chris Culliver.
Each of these marquee performers from last year is unavailable to the 49ers, resulting in significant changeover on the defensive side of the ball.
Nevertheless, these fairly raw and untested players have not only avoided being liabilities, but they’re looking like assets.
Lemonier has been in full-blown attack mode, finally being set loose as the pure pass-rusher the 49ers believed they were getting when they traded up to draft him in the third round out of the University of Auburn.
In his third game as a featured player, he accounted for a sack, a safety and a forced fumble, and he’s just getting warmed up.
Meanwhile, rookie safety Eric Reid, the No. 18 overall pick in the draft, is looking like a surefire candidate for defensive rookie of the year honors. He has been a tackling machine, delivering clean, tone-setting blows and helping tremendously when it comes to run support.
Reid also came away with his third career interception, already matching Goldson’s total from the 2012 season. It was his second near pick-six this year.
Then there is third-featured cornerback Tramaine Brock, who has been steadily contributing on the back end of a top-rated pass defense. With down performances by Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, it was actually Brock who was the best-looking corner out there on Sunday.
He wasn’t picked on and didn’t have his name called for any of the wrong reasons.
The depth on the defensive side of the football—particularly this organization’s ability to scout and build that facet of the team—is truly remarkable. All of these guys have not only stepped up this year, but look to have the makings of longtime players for this defense.
49ers rookie safety Eric Reid has been an absolute beast this season.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) October 13, 2013
Whether it is Kyle Williams or Jon Baldwin, the wideouts can't get going in San Francisco.
Big depth change: The 49ers started Kyle Williams instead of Jon Baldwin this Sunday, but it made little difference.
The two combined for two grabs for only 23 yards and no scores. Overall, the supporting cast of wideouts has continued to fail this offense, not even accounting for even one big play in six weeks of games.
Outside of Anquan Boldin, the unit has been completely ineffective, and opposing teams know it. For defenses, the easiest part of these games against the 49ers has been limiting their passing attack. Facing lesser receivers gives coordinators more flexibility with their scheme and play-calling.
They can be more aggressive.
As of recent, it’s really leaked into Boldin’s performances, affecting how productive he can truly be.
Against his former team, the Cardinals, Boldin only had three catches for 28 yards of his own, held out of the end zone for a second straight week. While it's true that his numbers on the season are not terrible, it is clear that they were drastically inflated by a dominating debut in Week 1.
Had Vernon Davis not had the explosion he had versus Arizona, the 49ers might’ve fallen back to down .500 again. It is unclear whether San Francisco will ever get an impact play or two from its flock of unknowns. It seems bleak.
But against turnover-prone teams, the Niners have been able to sneak out wins the past weeks. It’ll be interesting to see if they can continue to limp by with what they have until Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree return to the lineup from the PUP list.
Kyle Williams with his first reception since Week 3. #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 13, 2013
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman might be holding this offense back.
San Francisco was so dominant, defensively, that it is sort of a surprise that it didn’t win this game by a lot more. The 49ers were swarming, forcing turnovers and getting after the passer, while exposing Carson Palmer as the weakness.
These takeaways turned into optimal opportunities for the 49ers, putting them in position to score points early and run away with it, but they could not capitalize. Set up with back-to-back goal situations, the offense only came away with a pair of field goals, making it 6-0 instead of 14-0.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick also turned it over on the unit’s third attempt, tossing an interception to Cardinals safety Yeremiah Bell on a pass intended for fullback Bruce Miller. It was a questionable series that lacked any real sense of creativity or diversity in ball distribution.
With the game still close, a run on 3rd-and-16 drew the boo birds out in San Francisco.
While the 49ers were able to pull out a win, one has to wonder what this game would’ve looked like had the defense not been a rock. In the end, it adds to the questions swirling around Roman and his total ability as an NFL offensive coordinator, which is namely his play-calling.
You guys think Greg Roman gets too cute with his play calling.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) October 13, 2013
The 49ers are wearing thin at defensive tackle.
If you haven’t seen San Francisco’s injury list, it is probably because you have not had time to commit to such a lengthy read. You could start a weekly book club just to discuss the content of it.
Early on Sunday, the 49ers went ahead into the next chapter.
Starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey went down with an injured hamstring and was sidelined for the rest of the game. That would thrust Tony Jerod-Eddie into the lineup for a majority of this contest.
Jerod-Eddie entered the 2013 season as a third-string defensive lineman, parked behind Ian Williams (foot) and Dorsey (hamstring) on the depth chart. He played fairly well considering the circumstances. But then, even he went down, having to be replaced by Demarcus Dobbs.
Guard Mike Iupati also had a scare, appearing to strain a shoulder injury that he has been dealing with this season. He had to step out for part of the game, leaving veteran backup Adam Snyder to fill in at left guard.
The medical turmoil on this roster is extending beyond reality into the realm of paranormal—just beyond scientific explanation. It is incredible to watch how unlucky this team is when it comes to injuries.
That could be a big injury for the 49ers. Glenn Dorsey has played very well. Now, Tony Jerod-Eddie enters the game.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 13, 2013
For a young, inexperienced quarterback that is currently in a funk, it was definitely an impressive feat for Colin Kaepernick to move to an 11-5 record, after only his 16th start. The win this past weekend over the Cardinals made him 2-0 against that division opponent, while continuing the growth process.
It seems like the best solution to Kap’s slump is time.
Time in games, which provide him with a mixture of live-fire situations, ultimately allowing him to evolve as a decision-maker. Time to jell with his weapons and offensive line. And time for his top-two playmakers, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, to heal up and return to the lineup later in the season.
Kap was running a bit more—not a lot, but he actually took his opportunities when they presented themselves. He went on to have completions to Vance McDonald, Jon Baldwin and Kyle Williams, although they each only had one apiece. Kaepernick also threaded the needle on a few occasions, making pinpoint throws down the field.
Most importantly, he identified the hot hand and went for it:
#49ers Colin Kaepernick had a perfect rating (158.3) when targeting Vernon Davis in first half (7 of 9, 171 yards, 2 TD).— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 13, 2013
Wins and big touchdowns will help him get his confidence back. It is important for Kap to utilize the totality of his skill set, which is incredibly dynamic. Not only can he be one of the league’s best passers, but he can become one of the most dangerous offensive weapons around.
This past week was another step forward for Kap re-establishing his identity.
With another dash in the win column, the Niners continue to inch closer toward the Seattle Seahawks for first in the NFC West, only one game behind. Even though it looked far apart a few weeks ago, teams around the league are beginning to find their regular-season form.
And despite being riddled with injuries, the 49ers are currently riding a nice three-game win streak—something they failed to do in 2012—which includes a road win and two victories over division opponents. They have found a way to circumvent their issues and play off team strengths.
Only the ‘Hawks and Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints have better records in the conference. Below these five clubs, there is a bit of a drop-off, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers (3-2). After a rocky start, things are starting to look up for the 49ers.
Going forward into Weeks 7 to 9, this team will face the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, which will be followed up with a much-needed bye week. Besides having to travel for both games, including one to Wembley Stadium in the UK, this is as easy as it gets.
And with the off week, the 49ers will be able to reassess the team, while potentially regaining key players from their respective injury lists.
Greg Roman said it's "possible" Mario Manningham will practice next week. #49ers— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 10, 2013
What does San Francisco plan to do with LaMichael James, if anything?
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and running back LaMichael James were healthy scratches this past week against the Arizona Cardinals.
Having Asomugha on the bench is not terribly surprising, nor is it crippling, especially since the recent assertion from Brock. He has played very well as the third option, which is heavily featured in the nickel package. No. 4 corner Perrish Cox has also performed for this defense.
Asomugha was not the worst, but he was very inconsistent on the field, and it appears the 49ers don’t trust him enough. Monetarily, it also makes sense to keep him inactive. Per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the 49ers save $6,250 in per-game roster bonuses each time he sits.
And again, Brock’s inspiring play affords the team that luxury.
The more surprising inactive was James, San Francisco’s second-round pick from the 2012 draft. He continues to be a non-factor for the team. The 49ers have not written him into any of the game plans and appear to have no use for him. This is not to say that James is not talented; it just shows that the team is operating with a mindset that just does not involve him.
It is one of the more perplexing stories out there right now.
For an offense that is notorious for a lack of playmakers, the coaches are not taking full advantages of their resources by allowing one of the more dynamic young bodies on the roster to be handcuffed to the bench. Moreover, it is an investment they made that they have almost completely ignored, going on two years.
To be a fly on the wall at 4949 Centennial Boulevard.