There’s no getting around it—the matchup to watch in this week’s contest between the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) and the Carolina Panthers (5-3) will undoubtedly be the head-to-head between quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton.
Not long after being drafted in 2011, these two sparked culture changes for their respective teams, as well as what those clubs now do offensively.
In their third season, they've now settled into their roles as playmakers and leaders. On their own, both are highly capable weapons behind center. If this one turns out to be Kaepernick and Newton trading blows, it has all the makings for the NFL’s game of the week.
However exciting that all may be, it is not the end-all, be-all this week. Not to detract from the impending fireworks show at Candlestick Park, but it is only one of several intriguing storylines to follow heading into Week 10. There is a lot more happening beneath the surface, particularly as it pertains to the Niners.
After getting little respect in the first eight games, cast out in the shadows of the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos as the NFL’s best team, the Niners are looking to gut teams in the second half of the season.
Big-boy football with flair, that's how they like it. They’re going to punch your lights out and showboat with their arms raised high. Theirs is a physical style with just the right amount of window dressing. And in that regard, namely their play-calling and execution, the team is really beginning to catch its groove in 2013.
It's also worth noting that at this juncture, San Francisco is rested, fresh off a much-needed bye week and has begun to reload the roster with top talents on both sides of the ball.
People forget that this is the reigning conference champion smoking hot on a five-game win streak, lighting up the scoreboard with 30-plus points per game and getting significantly healthier on both sides of the ball. When we say healthier, it is for good reason. Fairly soon, this will be a team with absolutely no weaknesses.
But hey, try telling coach Jim Harbaugh that a top-tier dual-threat quarterback, the league’s best offensive line, the most imposing rushing game, first-round weapons across the board, a top-ranked defense and a special teams unit that is on fire is enough to get it done. He’ll kick you in the shins.
For coach, the idea is to field a team that is equally focused as it is talented.
But frankly, the only elements the 49ers lack now are aerial weapons and a pass rush, both of which are about to be resolved fairly soon. The following will break down why San Francisco is looking good down the stretch.
|NFC West Division Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||6||2||0||.750|
|St. Louis Rams||3||6||0||.333|
The Seattle Seahawks remain atop the division, but this is a team that is bruised and battered along the offensive and defensive lines, just barely squeaking by the past few weeks. Giving both of the NFC West’s top contenders the eye test, it is becoming clear that the 49ers are actually the scarier team right now.
The scales have certainly tipped since the beginning of the season.
Since their loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5, the ‘Hawks have faced four teams with a combined record of 11-22 (.333 winning percentage) and have only won by an average of 6.75 points per game. That isn’t even a full touchdown if you include the point after.
Their showing this past week was arguably their worst in 2013, even despite it being a win. At the end of the day, Seattle let up 205 yards rushing to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8) and almost lost the game entirely. They have not looked too sharp over the past five weeks, at all.
Granted, they’re wounded, and there is an argument to be made of their resiliency.
South of Seattle in Northern California, the 49ers are currently pitching a five-game win streak, scoring consistently with a whopping point differential of plus-112. In that time, Kaepernick has found his rhythm as a dual threat, and the defense is firing on all cylinders. Even more impressive? Part of this run included an 11-day road trip where the team traveled overseas to England.
San Francisco is beginning to really catch its stride, which could become very apparent in late November, early December.
As for the rest: While they put together productive offseasons and have shown progress overall, the Jeff Fisher-led St. Louis Rams and an Arizona Cardinals team captained by Bruce Arians are slowly drifting away from the pack. Both teams are .500 or below, once again, which could pit them toward the front of next April’s draft.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|49ers.com, CSN Bay Area|
Sure, Seattle is hurt in the trenches, but the Niners are, too.
The entire right side of San Francisco’s offensive line has also been banged up, as guard Alex Boone (shoulder) and tackle Anthony Davis (shoulder) have consistently popped up on the team's injury report each week. They’ve been limited in practice.
And even though these guys aren’t listed anymore, left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin have all taken their fair share of hits this season.
Veteran cornerback Carlos Rogers has also been limited with a knee.
All-Pro lineman Justin Smith (shoulder) was also limited, but for him, it is more of a veteran’s day of rest than anything else. The 3-4 defensive tackle hasn’t missed any time this season, playing a high percentage of defensive snaps, while Ray McDonald (biceps) and Glenn Dorsey (hamstring) have been sidelined at one time or another.
So, for as well as they’ve played in the trenches, the 49ers are not 100 percent there.
Another notable on the injury report is workhorse running back Frank Gore, who has also been listed with an ankle, which was tweaked during a game a few weeks ago. But as we can see, No. 21 is running just fine since the initial injury. He is one of the NFL’s leading rushers and has been atop the category for most of the season.
Storyline to Watch
Midseason, the 49ers are adding a first-round talent to a position of strength, and one that expects to be very complementary in nature. Even though the unit has played well in the trenches, San Francisco and its defensive line have not been able to generate a great deal of sacks this year.
The root of the problem was an absentee at outside linebacker. With Aldon Smith missing a bulk of the season, the onus has been on a lot of players that don’t necessarily excel at rushing the passer to get after the quarterback.
At times Justin Smith, Corey Lemonier and NaVorro Bowman have been able to get pressure, but there have been a lot of near-misses. That being said, the impact of a new addition, Florida State rookie Tank Carradine, could be astronomical.
It is one more top defensive talent that could put the unit over the hump. Opening the floodgates, so to speak.
And unlike, say, the wide receiver position, the 49ers have an impeccable track record when it comes to identifying and acquiring talent for their defensive front.
In 2011, when everyone was drooling over Texas A&M's Von Miller and North Carolina's Robert Quinn, the Niners were able to pull a fast one and hit on Missouri end Aldon Smith in the top 10.
It is fair to assume that they know what qualities they like on the defensive side of the ball, particularly when it comes to pass-rush specialists. Knowing that, there is reason to believe that the move to draft Carradine and stash him is a wild card the 49ers are preparing to throw on the table late in the game here.
You saw how effective Aldon Smith and Corey Lemonier were right away—it begs the question of “How good can Tank Carradine be this season?” Don't forget, coming out of the draft, this was a freakish athlete that was built up to be a more unique talent than both Smith and Lemonier. This is a game-changing talent at a key position in the NFL.
So, with Carradine and all the able bodies they'll have in the back half of the season, the pass rush will be really something to watch going forward.
What Must Improve
1. Integrate Vance McDonald
After putting his head down and functioning as a key blocker in the first half of the season, it’s time for the team to groom Vance McDonald as a receiver and get him more opportunities to touch the football. This is a big physical talent the front office invested in at a position that would allow him to get involved.
Moreover, having the two-tight end dynamic in the passing game heading into Weeks 10-16—and possibly into the postseason—provides the 49ers with a whole new wrinkle on offense and a player that defenses have no film on. Despite being a second-round pick, he has only been targeted 12 times.
So, it’s basically an entire resource the coaches have yet to truly tap.
Imagine that; offensive coordinator Greg Roman is getting several marquee weapons back on offense and also has an opportunity to spring this 6’4”, 267-pound pass-catcher on unsuspecting defenses late in the season. McDonald can be a real sleeper to kill teams when they’re overly focused on containing Nos. 15, 85, 82 and 81.
And as far as tight ends go, opposing teams are already struggling to contain Vernon Davis. Having the No. 2 tight end rolling is important, especially within this offense, which is why it is unique that McDonald is so uninvolved.
Former TE Delanie Walker saw his targets skyrocket with Kap behind center, getting 32 looks in 10 starts with the quarterback (19 grabs, 340 yards and two touchdowns). He managed that on the same routes that McDonald is running now.
If the 49ers rookie tight end can begin average two to four targets per game, it might really impact the aerial proficiency on offense. He is only earning 1.5 looks per game and is still posting a 14.3 yards-per-catch average, converting four of his six catches into first downs.
2. Utilize Pass-Rush Resources
According to NFL Team Rankings, the 49ers are the 26th-ranked team in sacks per game (2.1), pitting them near bottom-dwelling teams like the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. More often than not, the better teams in the league can rush the passer.
This year, Kansas City, Seattle, Green Bay and New Orleans are all in the top six in this category (New England, too, if you include the top eight).
San Francisco’s already stout defense received its game-changing boost in that regard when Aldon Smith was drafted in 2011. Losing him for five games this year did not hurt their record but it did kill them in this particular category. They were not as dominant in the box, and quarterbacks did not get hit a ton.
That was the dimension he brought—and it’ll be returning soon.
As we learned from a report from NFL Network’s Mike Silver, the 49ers will not give Smith his role back from Day 1. When the All-Pro linebacker does take the field, he is likely to be used as a spot player, while Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta continue to rotate in front at right outside linebacker (h/t Ian Rapoport of NFL Network).
Smith may also spell Ahmad Brooks at times, while putting his hand down in the nickel formation. However you look at it, it seems the team is going to ease the youngster back into the lineup, which only makes sense, seeing as how delicately they’ve handled his situation thus far.
To dig a little deeper, Bleacher Report’s NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland broke down how the Niners can transition him back into the rotation while best utilizing his skills where it helps the team. For that to happen, he needs to be put on the field on passing downs, as he was in 2011.
In a formative, yet contributory rookie season, Smith averaged 34 snaps per game (27 were pass-rush downs, seven were runs). He still managed 14.0 sacks that season and countless pressures as the 49ers broke a decade-long playoff spell. So, even if it is for a few games, Smith can still be quite productive in a role that Silver alluded he’d have.
The next thing the 49ers have to do is find a way to get Tank Carradine involved, now that he has been cleared from the non-football injury list and activated to the 53-man roster. By nature, he is a 4-3 defensive end but is big and versatile enough to play every technique on the line. He can bend around the edge or use his strength to penetrate inside.
Now, if Vic Fangio wants to utilize him in a situation role while he adjusts to the NFL and returns from his injury, the Niners defensive coordinator would be wise to play him at that end spot in the team’s four-man line on obvious passing downs. That way, he won’t be overused, and it’ll allow him to learn at a comfortable pace.
In this function, Carradine will be able to play downhill, using his inherent strengths as a pass-rusher to help this unit improve in one of the few areas where it stands to get better.
On top of these two personnel additions, the 49ers will want to find new, creative ways to mix and match their four premier pass-rushers outside of the protection-absorbing behemoth known as Justin Smith. Fangio will want to rotate Tank Carradine, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and young up-and-comer Corey Lemonier, who seems to be getting better by the week.
All in all, they have the pieces to field a vicious rush in the back half of the season. It is on the staff to be proactive in putting it together.
3. Challenge LaMichael James
You want the football? Here is your chance.
That is the approach the competition-friendly 49ers must take with second-year running back LaMichael James in the second half of the season. This is the kind of fiery challenge that has loads of upside if said player responds one of two ways: He can either wilt or rise to the occasion.
Obviously the team would be banking on the latter, and they’ve gotten results this way in the past.
If James does answer the call to duty, it is a notable gain for the reigning NFC champs. San Francisco adds a unique weapon to their rapidly expanding arsenal on offense, while simultaneously improving the special teams unit. You can practically feel the forward progress.
Sure, there are obstacles, but this upside is worth the logistical effort on behalf of the 49ers staff.
Backup running back Kendall Hunter is only averaging 5.3 carries per game, but the 49ers have are known for running the football a lot and using multi-back sets, particularly the diamond/inverted wishbone and pistol formations. So, even if that sub-4.4 speed of James is just for the sake of misdirection, so be it.
Just by being on the field, defenses have to keep tabs on him because of the big-play element.
He will also add a perimeter element to this north-and-south running game in the Bay Area. Counters, stretch plays and tosses all fit his particular skill set, which would build on the Power Os and leads the 49ers have been sticking to with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter through the first eight weeks.
Going forward, James can also contribute as a receiver, executing screens out of the backfield, running routes from the slot or bubble screens from the X and Z positions.
The 49ers are also in the market for a new kick returner. In limited time fielding kickoffs in 2013, James finished with 14 returns for 417 yards (29.8 YPR). This average ranked him third in the NFL behind players that had 15-plus returns, trailing only Percy Harvin (35.9) and Jacoby Jones (30.7).
Even those that don’t recall his minimal body of work as a returner in his rookie season probably recall his 62-yard kick return versus the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football to setup the game-winning touchdown. It was a crunch-time play and really showed James’ big-play ability.
The 49ers should look to get him involved before games versus the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks.