Bumping their record up to 4-2 after a 1-2 start has been therapeutic and encouraging for the San Francisco 49ers, who seem to find themselves with an arduous test each and every week, having to make up for the loss of several NFL superstars and pivotal role players.
Trudging through extreme levels of adversity, the Niners are now two games above .500 after falling below the mark for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. This past week, the team also managed to win its third straight game, which is something the 49ers failed to do in their Super Bowl run last year.
During that process, they’ve addressed game-day issues and made improvements.
Noticeably, the penalties have dissipated, the big plays are back on defense, and two of San Francisco’s offensive stars are in the zone. Overall, you could say this was a very positive week for the 49ers organization.
With consecutive division wins, the 49ers are right there with the Seahawks, neck-and-neck in the division even after Seattle got off to a smoking hot start. They have worked toward closing the gap, continuing to hold teams back with hard-nosed defense, high-volume rushing and feeding Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
There isn't that much separating the two anymore.
Looking at the rest of the division, the Cardinals and Rams have been impressive, making strides under their respective new directions. These are two teams to keep an eye on, as they are both playing competitive football and will play San Francisco one more time this season.
After staying relatively unscathed the past couple seasons, this team finally caught the bug. It is now absolutely riddled with injuries. It’s been a continual thing, too, even after losing star contributors in Michael Crabtree and Chris Culliver prior to the season.
This past week, starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey went down with a hamstring injury, having to leave the game versus the Cardinals. And he was already filling in for Ian Williams, who is out for the season. This has San Francisco leaning on its third-string defensive tackle, Tony Jerod-Eddie, a 23-year-old undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M.
He has played well when asked to fill in, but starting week to week is another story.
Fortunately, the 49ers have reinforcements on their way, looking at getting two rookie linemen in Quinton Dial (toe) and Tank Carradine (knee) back from the non-football injury list. There is also a chance that Dorsey returns to his starting position, as Coach Harbaugh said on Monday that he is still being evaluated.
This week, the Niners also expect to get wide receiver Mario Manningham off the PUP list and cornerback Eric Wright off non-football injury. This should boost both sides of the football, respectively. Mind you, all of these players returning to practice does not mean they will be active right away.
What we do know, per league rules, is that once they begin practicing, the team will have three weeks to activate them to the 53-man roster. If any one of them is not called up in that set timeframe, he can be placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season or released.
With those being the options, the 49ers will have to make some very calculated decisions in the coming weeks.
Storylines to Watch
What Is to Become of LaMichael James?
It seems that the 49ers are fully purging themselves of their dreary 2012 draft class.
It began with first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, whom the team traded away to Kansas City, and it continued with linebacker Cam Johnson, who was shipped off to Indianapolis. Two others are no longer with the team, another player is on injured reserve for the second year in a row, and the two remaining on the 53-man roster have been listed as inactive on game day.
One of the notable recurring inactive players is running back LaMichael James, who has been a healthy scratch a couple times this season, even after redshirting for the majority of his rookie year. Even though the 49ers have a lack of explosive players on offense, their hand has not been forced to activate him.
He simply does not appear to be in the team’s plans right now.
It is not like he is an undrafted scrub, either. James is one of the most electric players college football had ever seen and has potential to thrive in today’s NFL, which is a space game. Moreover, San Francisco’s brain trust—cognizant of what it already had at tailback—invested a fairly high pick in him.
The 49ers continuing to ignore LaMichael James in their time of need is one of the more perplexing stories that nobody is talking about.
Are the 49ers Beginning to Get Hot?
Injuries and an identity crisis aside, the 49ers emerged from a tough first six games of the season with one of the best records in their conference and only one game behind first place in the NFC West. In the past few contests, they have allowed an average of 11.0 points per game, while scoring 33.7 of their own.
Riding a flashy three-game win streak into the lax part of the schedule is huge for San Francisco, especially with reinforcements on the way. All things considered, the team can really turn a corner here. It’ll face the Tennessee Titans (3-3) and Jacksonville Jaguars (0-6) before the bye.
If the 49ers can enter the off week at 6-2 (which seems very plausible) and gain Mario Manningham, Eric Wright, Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial for the back half of the schedule, the trajectory of this team will skyrocket—not to mention the add-ons of Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton.
What Must Improve
Trim Fat, Use Resources
The 49ers are doing well right now, but they can be doing better.
We discussed LaMichael James not being used, which is a significant factor here. But what has been even more dumbfounding is that it is Anthony Dixon that has essentially kept the second-year man handcuffed to the bench.
But whichever way you spin it, whether he is a runner or special teams player, Dixon is not a must-have on game day.
Over the past three seasons from 2011-2013, having never missed a game, his long runs each year have gone for nine, nine and six yards. He is currently averaging 1.9 YPC, which is pitiful considering he is running behind this O-line in garbage-time situations with a defeated team. If he were a gifted tailback, he’d be doing better than this.
Whatever the situation, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller should be taking his carries, if not James.
They don’t need him as special teamer either. Kassim Osgood, Dan Skuta, Eric Reid and C.J. Spillman have been tremendous gunners, providing the 49ers with everything they need on the coverage unit. Now, this is not a vendetta against Dixon, but S.F is lacking in areas and has made no attempts to improve.
If Dixon is the reason James is not active, it is hard to justify.
James can potentially contribute as a receiving option, a kick returner, a punt returner and a late-game rusher. Remember, he is the player they invested in, while Dixon is in a walk year. The 49ers are not allowing James to build a callus and become acclimated, which could hurt after 2013 because he won't be able to hit the ground running.
Moreover, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and wideout Marlon Moore are two more name players that don’t really need to be on this team. They have offered nothing and are wasting slots on the 53-man roster by being inactive or ineffective. San Francisco is set at corner and needs more playmaking ability on offense.
With the Niners gaining several notables back from the injury list and looking to activate others, they can create opportunities for other players and save money by parting ways with Asomugha and Moore.
Broaden Situational Play-Calling
Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers had multiple cushy chances in the red zone provided to them by the defense but failed to punch it in. Early on, they settled for a pair of field goals from Phil Dawson and turned it over on a third occasion when a tipped pass was intercepted.
It could have been 14-0 at one point—even 21-7 if S.F. had capitalized all three times.
However, the play-calling from Greg Roman has been very mundane, particularly in situations where there is limited field to work with. When it’s tight, he tends to lean on Kaepernick’s arm to get it done, rather than calling an inspired play that would work with Joe Schmo behind center.
For whatever reason, perhaps saving it for a rainy day, Roman refuses to access the unique part of the playbook. The section that includes misdirection runs, flawless route combinations and pick plays, zany packages, unbalanced lines and now the read-option.
Offensively, the 49ers also haven't attempted to create mismatches with tactics like pre-snap motion, oddball personnel groupings or overloading one side of the formation.
On top of that, Roman has also neglected the running backs at the wrong times. Go figure, when the 49ers finally did score in a goal situation on Sunday, it was Kendall Hunter firing through a gaping hole created by Alex Boone, Anthony Davis and Vernon Davis. They made it look easy.
But on a 3rd-and-16 with the game still close, Roman decided to call a run?
The 49ers require more balance and creativity from their offensive coordinator on game day, particularly when they have opportunities to score and sustain drives. Against a stiffer opponent, this might’ve cost San Francisco the game. They cannot continue to place stress on the defense and leave points on the field.