After this past week, the San Francisco 49ers (5-2) have a very real streak on their hands of four consecutive wins, which is the third best in the league only after the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos.
It is safe to say that the team as a whole has had a return to 49ers football, which, at its core, is a fundamental, smashmouth-based philosophy with creativity and big plays peppered in. To know this resurgence is real is big for San Francisco.
Not to mention, it is great timing for a team that was quickly falling behind its division rival and perhaps doubting itself a bit.
But the 49ers have overcome in a big way, reasserting themselves as one of the fiercest competitors in the league. They’ve also accomplished this despite being outside their comfort zone. The team is still without several star players in the lineup, but it is definitely growing from this experience and learning more about itself.
With seven games now behind them, the evolution has been very apparent. The Niners have acclimated to their situation and settled into a familiar identity. So, following another dominating victory, here are a few takeaways as to the current state of the San Francisco 49ers.
Every single week since the September 26 game versus the St. Louis Rams, this 49ers defense—deeply short-handed for various reasons—has come out like a pack of wild dogs, foaming from the mouth and clawing at the opponent like they’re fighting to stay alive.
Having lost names like Aldon Smith, Ian Williams and Chris Culliver, while not having Patrick Willis and Glenn Dorsey at times, as well as a half-healthy Ray McDonald, it is a miracle that this defense has remained atop the league. The leadership, scheme, attitude and depth have made it so it could endure such losses.
The 49ers are pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run, not getting called for excessive penalties and are forcing turnovers again. They’ve put forth several complete performances that make you wonder how good this defense will be when Aldon Smith and Tank Carradine get in the lineup.
According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 49ers have scored 61 points (seven touchdowns, four field goals) on their past 11 takeaways. This aggressive approach by Vic Fangio’s defense has been a big reason for the team’s recent success.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News alludes to how Justin Smith has raised his game:
#49ers Justin Smith has a 2-sack game, so to speak, for first time since 2011 opener— Cam Inman (@CamInman) October 20, 2013
We’ve been pretty hard on 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman—not to say that it wasn’t deserved. He had a very rocky start to the NFL season, playing a substantial role in multiple stagnant performances by the offense. However, he seems to have gotten back in touch with this team’s strengths.
San Francisco has continued to pound the pigskin on the ground, playing a safe, ball-control style of football. The power rushing and jumbo formations have been prevalent on game day, and Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been overwhelmed with passing attempts to a wounded receiving corps.
Hats off to Roman for righting the ship and helping this team string together four straight wins. The top playmakers—namely Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin—are back in full swing, holding down the fort until the reinforcements arrive a few weeks from now.
Kyle Bonagura of NBC Bay Area can vouch for this assessment:
Greg Roman is on his game today.— Kyle Bonagura (@KyleBonagura) October 20, 2013
Throwing and running? NBC analyst and Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy called Kaepernick the “winning ingredient” Sunday, which is something we have not been able to say about the 49ers quarterback since Week 1 of the 2013 regular season.
On the field, he had been awfully skittish for a few weeks following the opener, which included two straight losses and the team’s first dip below a .500 record in the Jim Harbaugh era. A lot of that was due to the play-calling and a lack of offensive weapons, but Kaepernick has adjusted.
After winning their fourth straight game, the 49ers are now at 5-2, looking at the Jacksonville Jaguars, followed by a bye week.
Better yet, Harbaugh and Co. seem far more confident in their quarterback; not only allowing him, but enabling him to do the things that make him such a unique player at his position. For instance, there were several read-option plays called on Sunday, which led to keepers by the QB and eventually a 20-yard rushing touchdown by Kaepernick in the second quarter.
This kept the defense on its heels the entire game and helped Kap push the ball down the field through the air. He finished 13-of-21 for 199 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. However, he set up multiple scores for the team, including two rushing touchdowns by Frank Gore.
Mike Sando of ESPN.com highlights the proficient all-purpose level at which Kaepernick performed versus the Titans:
The 49ers really dug themselves out of the quicksand, improving to 5-2 after a 1-2 start to the 2013 season.
Coming into the year, it was known that San Francisco's roughest patch of the schedule would be in the first five games where they were set to face four playoff teams from last year and a division rival they failed to get a win against. They got out of that with a 3-2 record and built on it the past two weeks.
Beating up the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans did wonders for their positioning in the NFC West, as well as the conference.
Heading into Week 8, they’ll travel to Wembley Stadium in the UK to face the winless Jacksonville Jaguars (0-7). After which, the 49ers are set to return home to rest up and regroup during the bye. That should be a pivotal week as the coaches assess the roster and project additions and losses with players returning from their respective injury lists.
In Week 10, the 49ers will have a home game versus the Carolina Panthers, which won’t be easy, but it is a favorable transition coming back from the bye.
In fact, the only two matchups that really jump off the page when looking at the rest of San Francisco’s schedule are at the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 and versus the Seattle Seahawks in Week 14. And those will both be winnable games with the Niners having a healthier team in a groove.
So, if you haven’t watched this team lately, it’s time to check back in. The 49ers are on a tear and showing no signs of slowing down.
Those that closely monitor the team might’ve caught wind that the 49ers have sat one of their top draft picks from 2012 for 16 out of a possible 22 games. Once again, running back LaMichael James was a healthy scratch, riding the bench and very likely not pleased about it.
Earlier this month, James took to Twitter to express his dismay with the entire situation, namely his non-involvement, via CSN Bay Area. “Some things I just don’t understand at all,” he said. “I don’t work at State Farm, I’m not trying to be insurance."
Nevertheless, the entire coaching staff, including head coach Jim Harbaugh, feels this is the best course of action at this particular juncture. Even though the running back is healthy and read to play, he does not seem to be in the team’s plan in the immediate future.
Evidently, the team believes Kendall Hunter is the better No. 2 option, which was never in question because he has been a phenomenal backup as soon as he arrived as a rookie in 2011. No, the catch is that the 49ers believe third-string tailback Anthony Dixon is a must-have on Sunday.
He does contribute on special teams but isn’t an top-tier contributor in the ways that C.J. Spillman, Kassim Osgood, Dan Skuta or even Darryl Morris have been.
Furthermore, if the 49ers are having difficulty activating James right now, what is it going to be like when Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Tank Carradine, Eric Wright and Quinton Patton are all ready to return?
If not now, when?
Jim Harbaugh on LaMichael James' role w/ #49ers: "There will come a time, like last year, where he is fully in the mix ...— Mindi Bach (@MBachCSN) October 14, 2013
General manager Trent Baalke was watching this game from the booth, very likely focused on the secondary, knowing in the back of his mind that it is a sect of the team that is going to be remodeled this offseason.
Tarell Brown is in a contract year, Carlos Rogers will have a high salary that the team may want to move on from and Donte Whitner will be a free agent. The play from those three has been solid, but none can really be locked in as a top-five priority deals that need to be done.
This could be a very different-looking secondary, with the exception of Chris Culliver and budding superstar safety Eric Reid.
Though, in the midst of his in-game evaluations over the past few weeks, it is safe to assume that Baalke has noted of the play of Tramaine Brock. The team’s fourth-year cornerback, formerly an undrafted free agent from Belhaven, was originally brought in when Baalke was VP of player personnel.
He managed to stick around through the organizational turnover, which included three tough training camps under Harbaugh.
As if the coaching, talent and experience finally fused in his fourth year, Brock has broken through a wall, now playing at a high, high level. In the same mold as defensive tackle Ray McDonald and linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers cornerback looks to be ready for the big job.
Brock, also in a contract year, may be able to play himself into a new contract with San Francisco following this breakout performance. He currently is tied for a team-high three interceptions and has only played in half of the games.
PICK! Brock has changed this defense, big time! #49ers— Damon Bruce (@DamonBruce) October 20, 2013
Two of the 49ers’ longest-tenured players, tailback Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, have again been at the forefront of this offense.
Not only that, they have both channeled these superhuman embodiments of themselves, currently playing on a completely different level—arguably the best of their respective careers. They’ve really been able to make plays at will and do so with little else on the offensive side of the ball.
They’ve bombed defenses on the ground and in the air and haven’t had the benefit of surrounding playmakers to take the pressure off. Boldin’s spurts has been fairly erratic, the rest of the receivers and Vance McDonald have not been factors, and Hunter isn’t getting but five touches a game, tops.
It’s been the Gore and Davis show.
Together they’ve made everything work, and with the way the rest of the schedule plays out, it looks like they can carry this team until Manningham returns, followed by Crabtree. The team is also expecting to get Patton back toward the end of the season, perhaps for the playoffs.
Whether or not the 49ers would be able to endure this was gaping hole in the roster was a serious question heading into the season. But after Week 7, it seems that Gore and Davis are in the zone enough where San Francisco can get by without other playmakers.
That being said, when the team does start getting guys healthy, this might be one of the more filled-out offensive units in the National Football League.
Frank Gore now ranks 3rd in franchise history with 67 career TDs (56 rushing, 10 rec., 1 return). (@49ersPR)— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 21, 2013
Out of Jon Baldwin, Kyle Williams and Osgood, not one of the wide receivers beside No. 81 was able to register a catch on Sunday. This has been a perpetual trend for San Francisco all season, which has been connected to a number of potential trade options for wideouts this season.
Whether it was Josh Gordon, Hakeem Nicks or Kenny Britt, the 49ers have remained firm on their stance to forge ahead with what they have.
Oddly enough, it does not even look like the Niners are making an effort to get any of the unknowns involved. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was just using them as route-runners to detract from where the ball was actually going. It does not seem like the staff expects any of them to step up at this point.
Why would they?
There have been no indications of progress—just flat stat lines each and every week.
Instead, the staff is working on ways to emphasize the roles of Boldin, Davis and Gore, which is a far better plan. They can carry the load, and they are not going to experience growing pains. Not to mention, they are each “trusted agents” in this offense, as Harbaugh would say.