49ers Playoff Picture: Analyzing the Latest Outlook for San Francisco

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent INovember 8, 2013

December 19, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith (99) celebrates after the 49ers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-3 at Candlestick Park. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Emondson-USA TODAY Sports

NFL teams play games for different reasons. More often than not, taking into account their standings and hoping to live up to realistic expectations, it's to move closer to the goal of a Super Bowl each year. For the San Francisco 49ers, this is a team that is on the cusp, thinking about a championship right now.

And why shouldn’t they be? The 49ers made it all the way to the big game last year at the Superdome, falling a mere five yards short of the most inconceivable come-from-behind win in league history and just missing out on their sixth Lombardi Trophy for the franchise.

For 53 men, plus the coaches and staff, to come that close to achieving their life’s work and leaving empty-handed, you better believe that this is an organization with a laser focus. They’ve got unfinished business and they’re playing like it.

Now, entering Week 10 at 6-2, riding a convincing five-game win streak and getting healthy on both sides of the ball, its hard to argue why the 49ers are not favorites to have the strongest finish of any NFL team in 2013. From here on out, they are only going to add to their foundation, which has already proven to be quite resilient.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to start assessing the playoff picture. In this rundown, we’ll fully examine what the 49ers have to gain, as well as what challenges they’re left to face. So, without further ado, here is a complete fan guide detailing the remainder of the San Francisco 49ers season.

What Has to Happen

Jun 11, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke (left) and head coach Jim Harbaugh chat during mincamp at San Francisco 49ers training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Midseason or not, there is still radical development going on with this 49ers team from a personnel and strategic standpoint. Not many teams can say that they’re still evolving after playing eight-plus games. Most are banged up or working to disentangle scheme-related issues.

It is a little different in the Bay Area, though. Given their litany of transactions and premeditated decisions, it is like a never-ending offseason for the 49ers. It has truly been a continual building process.

They’re getting lots of players back from injury—ones that carried over from last year, were signed in free agency or acquired in the draft. Also, after taking a notable leave of absence, the team’s All-Pro pass-rush specialist, Aldon Smith, will return to a defense that is ranked No. 6 in the league.

Oct 27, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles (43) against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of a game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Their moves, when complete, will echo throughout the league.

Oodles of new moving parts and reshuffling of the roster will put the Niners in even more of a power position than they already were. They're adding dynamic new layers and enhancing preexisting dimensions on a title contender between Week 10 and a potential playoff run (which seems to be inevitable at this point).

That being said, it’s a copycat league—you learn from who whoops on you. In the second half of the season, it may become more evident that there are teams around the league that have directly influenced the 49ers, specifically as it pertains to their methodology in the past two drafts.

Keeping that in mind, over the past two-and-a-half years, two teams the 49ers have had epic throwdowns with inside the conference are the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints. As recent Super Bowl champs, having won in 2009 and 2011, each has pushed the 49ers to their brink.

In multiple encounters, the Giants blindsided San Francisco with the NASCAR package, demonstrating a relentless pursuit to the quarterback with an onslaught of speed rushers. In three games, Big Blue piled up a total of 11 sacks, winning two of those matchups, including the NFC title game. 

The Niners experienced a similar impact lesson from the Saints, minus the losses.

Listed as a tailback, Darren Sproles challenged the 49ers defense in a whole new way, racking up 22 grabs for 184 receiving yards and a touchdown in two games against the 49ers. He also only had three carries for three yards. Surely for a team geared by offensive innovation, this must’ve been quite the sight to take in from the opposite sideline.

The Niners also saw a fully stocked New England Patriots team that starred a prolific two tight end tandem in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The 49ers are very similar at their core, in that they rely heavily on two-TE personnel groupings. It has been killer for the ground game, but they stand to get better at spreading it around and capitalizing on mismatches.

Again, lessons to be learned by this staff. 

At the end of the day, these are formative experiences the 49ers had in their first two seasons under the new regime. Now in a seminal third year under blue-collar visionary Jim Harbaugh, those past encounters could help reshape this team in the latter part of 2013, and perhaps help them reach a second consecutive title game. 

No. 1: Develop the “Gold Rush” 

Eyeing the 49ers roster the past two years and what they did in this most recent draft, you have to contemplate the reason for some of the aggressive defensive picks they made early on. It seemed like overkill as they added virtually a whole new stratum of starters to the front seven.

At the time, cornerback and wide receiver seemed like pressing needs, but I digress.

Averaging 40.0 sacks over the past two seasons, San Francisco still went ahead and selected Florida State pass-rusher Tank Carradine in Round 2 and Auburn sack artist Corey Lemonier in Round 3. Talk about pouring fuel on the proverbial pass-rush fire.

Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and the defensive fold of the Texas stunt was already a lurid nightmare.

Fast-forward through the injuries and drama that transpired through the offseason up until Week 10, and the 49ers are finally looking to have all their defensive resources available to them down the stretch here.

While having “Cowboy” and Lemonier was major for the body of the 2013 schedule—helping to create that pass-rush presence in the trenches—the 49ers are now going to gain two of the top-rated pass-rushers in the past three years in Aldon Smith and Tank Carradine. With that being the case, the team cannot stand idly by. San Francisco has to make a concerted effort to field the league’s best pass rush.

They got their pitch; it's time to swing for the fences. 

Oct 29, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) celebrates after sacking Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton (19) during the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium.  The 49ers beat the Cardinals 24-3.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Like they saw from the Giants, there is no limit as to how many pass-rushers you can put on the field together at a time. In fact, the more the merrier. With Aldon Smith, Corey Lemonier and Tank Carradine, the 49ers have a lot of speed, power and flexibility around that edge.

They can also test interior linemen with their agility. 

This is a menacing trifecta of rushers that can all come to form a relationship on third down, in particular. Then toss Ahmad Brooks in the mix, rotating in combinations with the others, and this unit stays both fresh and eager. It’ll be immensely hard to slow down because of the individual talents of everyone on the line.

Offensive linemen will have a tough time matching up.

Moreover, the key is having All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith manning the trenches and absorbing protection on those key passing downs by the offense. He needs to occupy up to two guys at a time, which provides the surrounding rushers with favorable one-on-ones. The Niners can drop seven and count on any one of their pass-rush specialists to shed their blocks.

Optimizing the talent up front will be key to a successful run in the second half of the year and into the postseason, wherein San Francisco is bound to see several pass-heavy attacks. Remember, the Giants were able to ride a tenacious blitz package to two world championships. It is safe to say the 49ers got the message.

No. 2: Integrate LaMichael James

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 03:  LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducks runs the ball against the LSU Tigers at Cowboys Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Given his illustrious background, original draft slot, current team need and the inventive offense he landed with, it is hard to find a reason that LaMichael James should not be scripted into the second half of the season. 

This is a player that San Francisco has to emphasize going forward, mainly because he can provide a true-to-life X-factor on both offense and special teams.

Once inserted in the backfield, James will be a very natural complement to the runners they already have in place, while also operating as a sleeper outlet to catch passes from Colin Kaepernick and playing off the bolstered corps of wideouts and tight ends.

In that sense, he provides elements San Francisco does not have.

Padding their between-the-tackle style, James can offer a perimeter dimension with his ability on counters, stretch plays and the creative tosses that Greg Roman has in the playbook. There is a reliance on leads, dives and powers, and really no threat to the edges. James can change all of that, which could eventually make the league’s best run game even better.

Ultimately, the speed element and change of direction that he brings could really eliminate that congestion in the middle of the field. Defenders will have the burden of chasing a sideline-to-sideline runner that has big-play ability if he finds a seam on his way outside.

In the big picture, it seems like the proper time to launch this three-headed attack at the running back position—the one that general manager Trent Baalke originally foresaw when he selected James at No. 61 overall in 2012, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:

I'm a big believer—we are big believers—in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.

All three of our backs can run the full gamut of our offense. But they also bring something unique to the table, different styles, so it's very difficult when you're a defense to look out there and say, 'OK, they're going to do this or they're going to do that.' But then they also have to deal with the different running styles.

It’ll also afford the Niners an opportunity to upgrade the return unit, providing an explosive return element they haven’t had, arguably, since 2011.

In a brief stretch fielding kickoffs in 2013, James wrapped up the year with 417 yards on 14 returns (29.8 YPR). This average ranked him third in the National Football League behind players that had 15-plus returns, only trailing Percy Harvin (35.9) and Jacoby Jones (30.7).

Most notably, James set up the game-winning touchdown vs. the New England Patriots, with a 62-yard kick return on Sunday Night Football. This was only his second ever game as a pro, and he was already beginning to show off his ability as an all-around home run threat.

No. 3: Reinforcements Must Be Fine

San Francisco is set to get back the following players:

San Francisco 49ers Returning Players
Michael CrabtreeWRAchilles5-6 Months
Mario ManninghamWRACL, PCL4-6 Months
Tank CarradineDTACL4-6 Months
Eric WrightCBN/AN/A
Web MD

The rough timetables are via WebMD and indicate that players should be completing their physical rehabilitation in that phase. Returning to a high-pace sport, however, is another thing altogether and tends to lengthen the process.

Several of the prize players the 49ers are expecting back are returning from serious injuries. Once upon a time, they were known as career-enders. Not everyone can come back from such a thing and be the same player. However, recent examples in Adrian Peterson and Darrelle Revis provide hope.

While it is uplifting that they are on track to return, the question becomes, “How effective will they be?”

All year, the 49ers have been counting on the respective returns of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, and even passed on several mint opportunities to acquire a wide receiver before the trade deadline. That says the front office and coaches are counting on these guys to be back to normal.

Any unsuspected speed bumps could derail San Francisco’s chances, so this remains a very delicate situation.

Tank Carradine and Eric Wright are also talents that can make a difference for the 49ers down the stretch. The Niners must have them healthy for depth purposes. Between them, the defense would have a top-five draft talent and a veteran starter as situational players on game day. That is unheard of.

But again, they have to have these guys healthy and living up to expectations.

On top of this, All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith is also out of football shape, having been away from the game for over five weeks.

There are things that can theoretically go wrong here. With their conservative direction during the season, and the gambles that came of it, Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh were clearly banking on several things to fall their way. So while there has been good news about returning players, they are not out of the muck yet.

For this team to make a deep push, the 49ers need to make sure they squeeze the most of the reinforcements they’re getting.  

Where They Stand

Second place in the NFC West might not sound all that impressive, especially for reigning conference and back-to-back division champs. But it certainly is when you consider the road traveled, as well as the fact that the top two teams have a combined record of 14-3.

Since Week 4, San Francisco has really closed the gap between it and Seattle. As far as the NFC goes, the 49ers are currently tied for second in the conference with the powerhouse New Orleans Saints, while ahead of the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers. The Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions are also in the hunt, just a shade over .500.

Mind you, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is out for an extended period of time with a shoulder injury, while the Cowboys and Lions are one-dimensional disasters waiting to be exploited. Dallas and Detroit may flash, but between their inconsistency at quarterback or their missing pieces, neither seems built for January.

Truth be told, few teams are hotter than the 49ers right now. The two best current win streaks in the NFL are the Kansas City Chiefs (9W) and the San Francisco 49ers (5W), both of which are the only teams that are undefeated in their last five games. They also got past the tough part of their schedule, which was in the first five weeks, where the team faced four playoff teams.

Right now, they’re winning the games they’re supposed to be, and doing so in dominant fashion. The team is gelling, they’re playing fundamentally sound, Colin Kaepernick is finding his groove and the team is getting healthier. A betting man might have a tough time picking another team to go further.

Playoff Outlook

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 15:  Doug Baldwin #89 runs onto the field before the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers on September 15, 2013 at Century Link Field in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The 49ers have a few dangerous opponents left to play between Weeks 10-17; namely the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks. How these three games go—particularly the home game vs. the ‘Hawks on December 8—could decide the seeding in the NFC.

Of the opponents still on San Francisco’s schedule, they have a total combined record of 31-36 this season, which is well below average. When you remove the Saints and Seahawks from the equation, the cumulative win percentage from the rest of the teams is a measly .347.

Surprisingly, the 49ers have to win out still, simply because the Seahawks are in front of the division and project to keep winning.

The dilemma?

The looming nightmare for the 49ers is having to face the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in the playoffs. The Niners are on a two-game losing streak at that stadium, where quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 0-2 (he has only lost five games in his career as a starter, including the Super Bowl).

The atmosphere cultivated by the 12th man gives Seattle one of the most influential home-field advantages in all of sports, largely because the decibel level is ungodly. The deafening roar of the crowd shuts down the offensive communication by visiting teams and allows that hard-charging defense to eat.

For teams that have to travel there, it has become a black hole on their schedule. 

In fact, the Seahawks haven’t lost at home since 2011, winning 12 straight with Russell Wilson at the controls. The wunderkind is undefeated there. Actually, their last home loss was to the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 24 that year; then-quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was starting, and still, they only lost by two points.

The 49ers would much rather face Green Bay or New Orleans, even at their respective homes. But more than likely, the road to a Super Bowl will go through Seattle. 


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