In case you were wondering, the 53 men that made up this San Francisco 49ers ballclub last year—a team that was only five yards away from a Lombardi Trophy—did not win three straight games during the regular season, much less four.
Yet, that unit brushed its shoulders off and walked away with an 11-4-1 record, plus home-field advantage in the NFC divisional round. Even then, with five non-wins, it was still enough to catapult the team into Super Bowl XLVII in Louisiana.
That being said, it does speak to the growth of this team since; very noticeable progress even during this season, especially after tossing a couple gutter balls in two of the first three weeks against the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts.
After pulling out a fourth straight win and improving to 5-2 in 2013, the 49ers finally appear to be hitting their stride, entering a select category of a few elite contenders that are winning on a regular basis right now. This last win over the Tennessee Titans was a convincing one, too.
Still undermanned—without offensive weapons and multiple defensive mainstays—the 49ers knocked around a tough Titans team that put up fights in their only three prior losses in the season to the Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks.
The maturation and consistency of this 49ers team goes to show that they’ve fully adjusted to their current situation. They've settled into their identity, and on top of which, they are only going to get healthier down the line. So, coach Jim Harbaugh has a lot to be thrilled over, despite the image pictured above.
Having trudged through quite a bit of adversity, this team still has its ultimate goal in its sights, which is another trip to the Super Bowl. Here is a look at where the San Francisco 49ers stand as we head into the halfway point of the season.
|NFC West Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||5||2||0||.714|
|St. Louis Rams||3||4||0||.429|
The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are beginning to separate from the rest of the pack, both in their division and in the conference. These were the teams wearing steel-toed boots heading into the season, so it is not exactly startling that they've powered through.
At the moment, rival coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh are each 4-1 in their last five games, with Harbaugh's Niners currently riding a hotter win streak.
In what was built up to be a resurgent year for the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals, well, in actuality, has been a major letdown. Even with their records combined, they don’t reach the .500 mark, having failed to close games out this season. They may be an afterthought from here on out.
Tragically for St. Louis, the team lost quarterback Sam Bradford for the season with a torn ACL, per ESPN insider Adam Schefter. So, even if they had the smallest shred of hope to accumulate enough wins for a wild-card spot, that is now out the window.
They'll now be scrambling for a replacement behind center.
Meanwhile, Arizona has also been underwhelmed by the acquisition of big-name quarterback Carson Palmer, who still just hasn’t been the same player since his heyday, when he wore the orange and black stripes for Cincinnati.
At this point, it looks like the division still belongs to the Seahawks and 49ers, which will be left to duke it out until the very end of the season. And while Seattle had all the momentum early, this San Francisco team has swiftly closed the gap.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|Quinton Patton||WR||Foot||3-5 Weeks|
|Nick Moody||ILB||Hand||3-4 Weeks|
|h/t ESPN, 49ers.com and Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area|
Highlight of the Week
Jim Harbaugh, the peacemaker?
For the second time in 2013, a fight broke out between the 49ers and their opponent after quarterback Colin Kaepernick was dinged late on a scramble. Once again, the first man in was Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, who had come to the rescue in Week 1, grabbing Packers linebacker Clay Matthews by the pads and locking him up.
His undying loyalty and benevolence toward his quarterback is admirable, to say the least.
But this time Staley had company, joined by his coach, Harbaugh, who did not hesitate to get in the middle of this scuffle—not for a second. The 2011 AP Coach of the Year lowered his shoulder and hooked bad boy safety Bernard Pollard, driving him backward to split up the fight. All told, he must've been buckled in tight for this one.
So, when people say Harbaugh is a fiery player’s coach, it is not hyperbole.
Storyline to Watch
Minus several key role players on defense, the 49ers have wondrously been able to maintain a top-10 unit, and are now looking to get linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive tackle Tank Carradine in the lineup relatively soon.
Following the game versus the Titans, Jim Harbaugh let it be known in his post-game presser that the team may have its All-Pro rush linebacker back on the field in a couple of weeks, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Smith is currently taking a leave of absence, seeking treatment for off-the-field issues.
Designated to the non-football injury list, he will be permitted to return during the year in accordance with the league rules. However, the legal ramifications he is facing from alcohol- and gun-related charges are still cloudy.
Meanwhile, one of San Francisco’s top picks, Carradine, has been a long-awaited arrival as the team has cautiously eased him back from an ACL tear suffered last November in his final game for Florida State. Injury aside, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller had him as a top-five overall talent, seeing “a dominant pass rusher.”
Expecting Smith and Carradine, and possibly cornerback Eric Wright, this 49ers defense may vault itself to another plane of existence in the second half of the season.
It is a unit that has already been hitting on all cylinders thus far and could only benefit from such revered talents. The defense itself has really taken shape the past few weeks, playing aggressive, unified football to make up for the absent bodies.
Together, the defense and special teams units have accounted for 12 total takeaways in their four-game winning streak, while they only had one takeaway in the two losses that preceded, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. Clearly there has been a concerted effort on their behalf during this trial period.
If this team continues to hit hard and churn out big play after big play, adding Smith and Carradine to the mix may give the 49ers the best defense heading into what is hopefully another playoff run.
They’ll join a front seven powered by Justin Smith and Corey Lemonier, who have been decimating offensive lines recently, while Glenn Dorsey has been wagging his finger at opposing running backs. Like peanut butter and jelly, they've complemented each other, stopping the run and rushing the passer.
Not to mention the lofty contributions from the pair of All-Pro inside linebackers and unheralded superman Ahmad Brooks.
Secret superstars Eric Reid and Tramaine Brock have also helped fuel this bunch each week. With all the names pitching in, perhaps after the Week 9 bye, the 49ers may have the best defense they’ve had in three years under Harbaugh.
What Must Improve
No. 1: Fire Up the Return Game
According Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 49ers currently rank fifth in kickoff coverage (20.7 yards per return), while they sat near the very bottom last year, finishing with the 31st-ranked unit (26.9). It was certainly a priority in the offseason, verified by their acquisitions.
Unfortunately, all general manager Trent Baalke brought in were gunners, while the unit as a whole needed to improve in all facets. Guys like Kassim Osgood, Ray Ventrone and Dan Skuta sure are not going to do anything to boost the kick return game.
Meanwhile, Kyle Williams has been a bust as a return specialist, even though he isn’t fumbling.
For those keeping track of his progress since his NFC Championship game blunder, Williams has taken the scenic route. He's essentially gone into hibernation, protecting himself from making mistakes by playing it safe. Heading into Week 8, Williams currently leads the NFL in fair catches with 19—and by a wide margin.
Only two other players have in the double digits.
Players with potential to spark the return game include cornerback Perrish Cox, who has been a stout rotational player on defense, while contributing as a gunner on special teams. Then, of course, there is running back LaMichael James. However, he has not been active, as that entire situation is hazy, at best.
To show the 49ers care to get better in that respect, they need to at least begin splitting reps between Williams and Cox. There has to be an attempt to fight for field position, especially for an offensive unit that has been known to struggle at times this season.
No. 2: Don’t Stop Running the Football
This is not as much of an improvement to make as it is a guideline.
As NFL insider Daniel Jeremiah astutely pointed out, the 49ers have totally committed to running the football after eye-opening losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, in which the team ran only 20 and 23 times. Since then, the 49ers have logged 40, 36, 38 and 41 rushing attempts, emerging with a 4-0 record and a +81 point differential.
From the heavyweights on the offensive line, to the scheme, to the blocking ability of the tight ends and having a mighty bruiser of a fullback, the 49ers are 100 percent built to run the ball. Time and time again, they’ve demonstrated that they can impose their will and control games, however unsexy a style it is.
Over the course of the game, running the ball down the opponent’s throat gradually opens up more of the playbook.
No. 3: Try, Just Try to Integrate One Other Receiver
According to analyst Jeff Deeney at Pro Football Focus, 49ers fourth-year wideout Kyle Williams is averaging 0.61 receiving yards per route run, which ranks 92nd out of 94 eligible wide receivers. For those unfamiliar with the PFF lingo and grading systems, that is absolutely terrible from a productivity standpoint.
Anquan Boldin is currently fourth in the NFL at 2.45 yards per, showing the slack he has had to pick up.
The well of contributions outside Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis is completely dry.
Truth be told, Williams is partially responsible, having entered the season as the top option to complement Boldin in the passing game. He’s since failed to muster any sort of production in seven games, which includes four starts. He has only 10 receptions for 101 yards and no touchdowns on the season.
Halfway through the season, this just isn’t clicking, but San Francisco cannot give up on integrating a third pass-catcher.
This does not necessarily mean they have to focus extra hard on getting Kyle Williams the football, or even another wideout for that matter. It just means getting another player, outside Boldin and Davis, going in the passing game.
If Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin are not the answers, then it is time to look elsewhere.
Tight end Vance McDonald has looked very good on limited targets, averaging 14.3 yards on six grabs so far in his rookie season. At 6’4”, 267 pounds, he is a big broad target with the ability to help as a chain mover and deep threat. Every game, he appears to be on the verge of breaking through, as he is just oozing with talent and potential.
But again, a player that needs to see more targets.
Thinking outside the box, No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter is a veteran player that is regularly active on game day and gifted enough where he could be getting a lot more touches than he is (averages 4.85 carries per game).
Unfortunately, he is firmly parked behind Frank Gore, who has been on an absolute tear.
Running backs can do a lot for passing games nowadays, especially if the plays are well-scripted. Hunter has the quickness and open-field speed to make things happen as an outlet for his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Ultimately, it would add another dimension to this passing offense, while opening up options down the field.
Between McDonald and Hunter, these are two unsuspecting targets the 49ers can begin designing more pass plays to, seeing to it that their touches increase and they are able to find a rhythm with the quarterback.