Should Colin Kaepernick's week-to-week progress begin to scare other contenders?
Can’t knock the hustle and resolve by the San Francisco 49ers (6-2), which were pitted against immense adversity early on in the season and managed to rise above it. With Super Bowl expectations and a roster in flux, the unit has found a way to adjust, proving to be one of the more resourceful teams in the league.
Minus several superstars and contributing role players, coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff carefully strategized a five-game win streak, putting up 30 or more points in every single one, winning by double digits each time.
That has not been done by the franchise since Steve Young’s heyday in 1994 and 1997, via 49ers public relations director Bob Lange.
The Niners have also played unified football, winning in all three phases. That means they've been fundamentally sound in their assignments—tackling and blocking well and capitalizing on turnovers. The 49ers have also scored points off their last 13 takeaways, which includes nine touchdowns and four field goals.
Breakout performances from all over the roster have also been an underlying story during this stretch. Whether it was Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid or Tramaine Brock, everyone has had a hand in. And again, this goes back to the unified play we’ve seen from the 49ers. It's truly a total-team effort.
This is what has them back on top, looking Super Bowl-worthy again.
And they are only going to get better. The team is finding a rhythm—progressing each and every week—while prepping itself for the return of several marquee players and highly regarded talent it's acquired this offseason.
So, after flaying the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, Jim Harbaugh can finally exhale this week and recharge his guys for the second half of the season. Here is what the head coach has on his plate this week and what he'll be looking at going forward.
|San Francisco 49ers||6||2||0||.750|
|St. Louis Rams||3||5||0||.375|
First and second place in the NFC West are not that far apart.
Just giving them the eyeball test, it is clear to see that the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are not just on top of the division, but they are going places this year. As two of the renowned heavyweights in the NFL, everybody knew about the Niners and the 'Hawks going in, but they've validated the hype with their play.
Every seemingly drawn-out segment on ESPN and NFL Network this offseason was warranted.
Behind their power-rushing games, stingy defenses and blossoming young quarterbacks, they are two of the premier teams in all the NFL, both vying for a title this year (and perhaps, several down the line).
And though Seattle maintains a one-game lead in the division right now, it is still wide-open. The positioning can change in one weekend. After a rough start, San Francisco has played catch-up and managed to keep pace with Seattle.
The second half of the season will really be telling, though, when the 49ers play five of eight games against opponents with a .500 record or below. The Seahawks also have a cake schedule heading down the stretch, playing six teams with losing records with only three more road trips.
Pending any uncharacteristic performances or trap games, the difference-maker automatically becomes who wins and who loses to the New Orleans Saints (6-1).
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|Quinton Patton||WR||Foot||3-4 Weeks|
|Nick Moody||ILB||Hand||2-3 Weeks|
CSN Bay Area, 49ers.com and ESPN
Injuries pained this team early on, but entering Week 9 and looking into the second half of the season, the 49ers are only getting better on that front. They have not succumbed to an inordinate amount of injuries as of late and are expecting players back as soon as next week.
Right off the bat, three players the 49ers may have back on the 53-man roster for Week 10 are wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright and defensive tackle Cornellius Carradine. That is a haul for a team that has been beating the snot out of teams already.
The most noteworthy here is Manningham, who is coming off a ghastly knee injury where he tore two of four ligaments.
He will be called up off the PUP list to aid a receiving corps that desperately needs contributions. How effective he can be and how soon his impact will be felt will remain mysteries until he actually steps on the field.
Then there are Wright and Carradine, who were acquired this offseason as injured players and placed on the non-football injury list. Their résumés show a skilled No. 2 corner and a top-five draft talent who excels at pass rushing. That being said, they may provide huge defensive upgrades filling in as rotational options this year.
With these three impending returnees, San Francisco is expected to waive players to create space on the roster, which may happen during the bye.
Rookie wideout Quinton Patton is another esteemed talent who is probable to return somewhere down the line, seeing as how he avoided IR after fracturing a metatarsal bone in his foot in Week 4. He could be a late-season addition, possibly in December.
Then, of course, star receiver Michael Crabtree, who needs no introduction.
He will change everything once he gets back in the huddle.
The team’s injury list has been quite long week to week, including: Alex Boone (shoulder), Anthony Davis (shoulder), Frank Gore (ankle), Carlos Rogers (knee), Patrick Willis (groin), Colin Kaepernick (foot), Donte Whitner (knee), Kyle Williams (knee), NaVorro Bowman (wrist) and Vernon Davis (hamstring), per the team's official website.
These guys are playing, but they’ve been dinged up, hurting to different degrees.
So this bye week falls perfectly for San Francisco, as they’ll be gaining players back from injury lists while allowing their working players a period of time to get their bodies right for a second-half push.
Story to Watch
Will the 49ers pull the trigger on a deal Tuesday?
The trade deadline is the afternoon of October 29, and San Francisco has been as popular as any when it comes to teams rumored to make a transaction. Obviously, the 49ers are contenders with one positional need, a slew of options and all the ammunition to get something done.
In the back of their minds, they know they are also going to have to waive players for ones returning from their injury lists, so why not try and move players and get something in return instead? It certainly sounds like the modus operandi over in Santa Clara.
They optimize every opportunity, getting the most juice per squeeze.
Of course, they've been in "deny, deny, deny" mode, but the rumors keep spilling out.
Only a few days ago, NFL insider Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports reported that the 49ers were shopping cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. LaCanfora also reported that the team was in the market for a receiver and listed Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt and Josh Gordon as potential targets.
Adding fuel to the fire, NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport said, moments before kickoff on Sunday, that running back Anthony Dixon, who is in a contract year, is indeed on the trade block, according to the league execs he’s spoken with.
Theoretically, this could allow the 49ers to add a player at a position of need, while opening a running back slot in which to activate LaMichael James on game day. This would essentially boost the offense two-fold in a single transaction.
Add Gordon, add James and push the offense and special teams to another plane of existence heading into the second half of the season.
However, the team's general manager alluded to the players returning and bench talent San Francisco as reasons why the team is unlikely to make a deal, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. We’ll see what happens, but the clock is ticking.
Now that the #49ers own two second-round picks (one via KC), I'd be calling about available WRs. Nicks, Gordon, Britt all available— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 28, 2013
What Must Improve
No. 1: Ball Distribution
Over the course of the 2013 season, all 49ers pass-catchers, outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, have been completely blanked. No significant catches have been made and not one big day from a sleeper receiver. You’d expect more productivity from a top-ranked team with a gunslinger of quarterback, no?
It’s been awfully underwhelming. Cumulatively, tight end Vance McDonald and wide receivers Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton have only averaged 2.75 catches and 28.5 yards per game. And they haven’t all been playing every week.
Looking at the only two players who have consistently been active—Williams and McDonald—who are essentially starters in this system—they have only been good for 2.1 catches and 24.2 yards per game between them.
Added to which, not a single player outside of Boldin and Davis has caught a touchdown pass this season. Not one. Not even a freebie where a player was able to take advantage of a busted coverage.
Despite a perceived lack of talent, there is no confluence or trust between receiver and quarterback aside from the top two options. They’ve hardly had chance to touch the football. Now eight weeks in, this has made the surrounding cast in San Francisco one of the worst in the NFL, especially for a team labeled a contender.
Now, it does speak to how good the team is—having won with a narrow selection of weapons on offense—but it also goes to show how much better the 49ers could be if they were able to spread the ball around. If defenses were unable to key in on their players, they’d be able to dissect teams more fluidly.
After all, Colin Kaepernick is throwing strikes again, looking like his old self.
When Manningham gets back in the lineup, the Niners must take advantage, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean targeting No. 82 a great deal. They’ll be able to spread teams out and, perhaps, get some production out of the slot with Williams or Baldwin or even the big-bodied Vance McDonald.
That is the next step Greg Roman has to take with this offense after the bye.
Ball distribution will be key. They’ll need to open this passing game up down the stretch versus tough teams like New Orleans and Seattle. And if they hope to get anywhere in the playoffs, they’ll also have to buckle down and beat strong teams that take away their run game and/or top receiving threat.
No. 2: Generate More Pressure
Despite having a top-10 defense in yards and points allowed, the 49ers are currently ranked No. 22 in sacks (17).
As it relates to their time on the field, they have a sack rate of 5.54 percent, which is the eighth-worst in the league, per Team Rankings. To show why San Francisco needs to separate and improve in this particular area, look no further than the 17-35 record that the seven worse teams in front of them have.
Meanwhile, the top five most efficient sacking teams have a combined record of 29-8.
Should the 49ers start blitzing their defensive backs more?
Without beating around the bush, the reason the 49ers are getting slammed in this column is because Aldon Smith is not with the team right now. The All-Pro rush linebacker has been the primary source of sacks and pressures, providing the team with an entire dimension on defense.
Yes, he has a chance to return this season, but nothing is imminent, so the idea is to approach things as if they don’t have Smith.
His edge presence—particularly the Texas stunt with Justin Smith—was a highly functional part of the defense that they just don’t have right now. While Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier have done an exceptional job in his absence, the 49ers are not disrupting the pocket as much as they can be.
The Niners have solid linebacker play there, in that it is not a liability, but they need to create more opportunities for Lemonier. Whether it is a stunt, overloading sides of the formation or other, Vic Fangio would do well to plan around him. The arrival of Tank Carradine may also strengthen the pass rush.
Though, using Lemonier in a variety of ways would be prudent in the meantime while they wait for the cavalry. The 49ers can also integrate corner blitzes with Carlos Rogers and Tramaine Brock. Eric Reid is also a big physical safety who can play up in the box and bring pressure with his 4.53 speed.
It’s time to get creative.
No. 3: Solve the Kick-Return Issue
Fumbling the opening kickoff and muffing a punt out of bounds landed Kyle Williams on the bench for the 49ers, having been replaced by Anthony Dixon. No player in the league has more fair catches this season than the ill-fated Williams (20), who also happens to be in a contract year.
The Niners have given him all the opportunities in the world to prove himself, but he has failed to capitalize time and time again. The window where the coaches would have welcomed a breakout by Williams seems to be slammed shut and sealed up, brick by brick.
The thing that kept Kyle Williams as the 49ers' punt returner was he was simply catching the football. Today, he couldn't even do that.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 27, 2013
Moving on, the Niners need a solution in the return game now.
They have the option of activating LaMichael James, who excelled in that role with limited reps last year, but there has been no indication that the Niners will be able to get him activated on game day. They have three active running backs already and require room for receivers.
However, after this egregious performance by Williams, it’ll be interesting to see if the coaches make a desperation move.
Outside of James, the Niners could have Dixon back there, but he is not going to offer any sort of explosiveness or chance for a big play. He will be reliable, run hard when possible and that is about it. The special teams would not be expecting any long breaks from the goal line back.
Looking a bit further, you’ll find San Francisco’s No. 4 cornerback, Perrish Cox, who is a young, quick player who has experience returning kicks. Going back to his time at Oklahoma State, as well as with the Denver Broncos, he showed he can be reliable, and might even be able to provide a spark, with enough attempts.
Any way you slice it, the 49ers need to explore new options back there.