5 Roles the San Francisco 49ers Need to Improve in the 2nd Half
The San Francisco 49ers find themselves coming off of their bye week in an enviable situation. Having won five straight games, they sit a game-and-a-half behind Seattle in the NFC West and are primed to make a push into the playoffs.
At the same time, however, you have to take the greater context into play when viewing San Francisco's recent win streak. The five teams the 49ers have faced have a combined record of 13-24; it hasn't exactly been a murderer's row of a schedule. There's still room for improvement—some players will have to improve upon their first-half performance if San Francisco is going to catch and pass its rivals in the division or conference.
Here are five positions that need better production over the last half of 2013.
2nd Tight End
Last season, the 49ers used two or more tight ends on 57 percent of their offensive stats, third most in the league. While Delanie Walker offered hands of stone in the passing game, he was a dominant blocker, freeing up Vernon Davis to run pass routes down the field. It was a major part of the 49ers offense, and something that distinguished them from most other teams. By comparison, they rarely went to three-wide receiver sets, instead letting their two versatile tight ends work out of the slot.
Walker's gone now, having signed a big contract in Tennessee, and his replacement has been rookie Vance McDonald, taken in the second round of the draft out of Rice. McDonald was touted as a younger, cheaper, more talented version of Walker, with the added ability to catch passes; there was a lot of hope that he'd slide into the lineup without missing a beat.
So far, however, McDonald hasn't quite lived up to his billing. Even with so many starting receivers out, McDonald's only caught six passes. It's not a lack of opportunity, either, as he's been on the field more than half the time, running over 100 pass routes. With so much focus being on Davis and Anquan Boldin, opportunities have been there; he just hasn't made the most of them.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are happy with his development. Greg Roman was asked about the rookie's development last month and had this to say, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:
We’ve asked a lot of him the past couple weeks, really the past three weeks; we couldn’t be more pleased with how he’s done. And really expect him to take those kinds of steps moving forward. The one thing you notice about players is everybody’s going to make mistakes as a rookie. That’s a fact. And do you repeat those mistakes? Thus far, he’s done a great job of learning from the good, the bad and the ugly and moving on a better football player. So, he’s done a really nice job and it needs to continue.
For the 49ers to really unleash their two-tight end sets, McDonald needs to keep making those strides. As it stands now, the second tight end position has taken steps back from last year's Super Bowl season.
2nd Wide Receiver
Opposing defenses have been able to double- or even triple-team Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis because of the complete lack of production from any other wide receiver on the team. Here is the complete breakdown of wide receivers this season for San Francisco:
|Player||Thrown at||Receptions||Catch %||Yards||TDs|
That's a disaster.
No other team has that low level of production for its second receiver; Baltimore, Dallas, Green Bay, Jacksonville, Minnesota, New England, New York Jets and St. Louis all have four receivers with more receptions than Williams. While the 49ers have been able to get by when they've built a big lead by leaning on their run game, if they find themselves in a situation where they have to throw from behind, they'll find themselves short of weapons.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Mario Manningham is scheduled to come back Sunday against Carolina, with Michael Crabtree not too far behind. San Francisco needs both of them to provide even a fraction of their pre-injury levels of performance, because what the 49ers have been getting out of their second slot has simply been unacceptable.
Last season, Mike Iupati was a deserving All-Pro selection. He was absolutely dominant, especially in the run game, paving the way for Frank Gore to gallop through huge holes. He was adequate in the pass-blocking game, as well, but the most important thing was his consistency. He was solid nearly every time he took the field in 2012.
That hasn't been the case so far in 2013, where Iupati has been alternating between solid, professional performances, and sieve-like performance, especially in the pass game. His worst game came against Seattle in Week 2, where Red Bryant repeatedly abused him in pass protection. He allowed six quarterback hurries and a quarterback hit that night. He also struggled mightily against Calais Campbell in Arizona and Tyson Alualu against Jacksonville.
At times, he appears slow, being unable to react quickly enough to keep the pocket clean.
It's not a question of talent, certainly, as we saw how good Iupati could be last season. It's a matter of consistency. If he can't beat people with quickness, he's going to have to overpower them. It's something he's capable of doing, he just needs to make sure he's doing it on a regular basis from here on out.
We've seen other quarterbacks struggle this year when their star receivers were missing—you need look no further than Tom Brady and the Patriots to see how a great player can look mortal without his usual contingent of weapons.
Still, Colin Kaepernick's numbers up to this point have been somewhat sobering for the third-year quarterback. He's only broken 200 yards through the air twice this season, first against Green Bay before teams realized how to cover Anquan Boldin, and then against Arizona.
Then again, Kaepernick has shown he doesn't have to pass to win—it's his legs that gives him the potential to be a huge offensive weapon. This year, however, his number of designed runs have dropped notably. Through the first eight weeks, he's only had 20 designed runs. They're calling the read option 8.5 percent of the time, less than Seattle or Carolina. There have even been two games this season, in the wins over St. Louis and Houston, where Kaepernick didn't run at all. It's an odd way to utilize a dual-threat quarterback like Kaepernick.
There is little doubt his passing numbers will go up as his receivers come back. There have also been signs that the 49ers are getting ready to unleash him on the ground, as well. Against Jacksonville, Kaepernick had his first all-around great day, adding seven rushes for 54 yards and two scores to an efficient, accurate passing attack.
For the 49ers to make a lot of noise in the postseason, they'll need that Kaepernick to show up every week.
The 49ers come into Week 10 ranked 27th in kick return average and 28th in punt return average. With the deep pass game stunted, this has resulted in San Francisco having a lot of long fields to try to conquer with a limited number of ways to do it.
Kyle Williams has been the No. 1 option in the return game up to this point, returning every punt and a plurality of kickoffs. His main specialty, it seems, has been calling for fair catches. He's fair caught 20 punts, by far most in the league. There's something to be said for prudence and forethought, but the end result is a return game lacking in any degree of explosiveness or danger.
There are options on the bench if San Francisco wants to try to produce some danger on kicks. LaMichael James has been a healthy scratch for the past three games but is expected to be active against Carolina. The Sacramento Bee reports that he'll have opportunities in the punt game, too. James was drafted as an explosive, Reggie Bush-esque scatback, but he's been lost in the shuffle that is the 49ers backfield, unable to earn too much playing time. Perhaps the return game can see his skill set reach the field.
The other option off the bench would be Anthony Dixon, who has had some limited time in the role this year, returning three kickoffs for an average of 25.7 yards. The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that Dixon could see some time in the kick return game, possibly as early as Sunday.
One way or another, it's worth giving someone else a shot, as Williams has been underwhelming.