Offensively, the San Francisco 49ers are in complete and utter disarray, struggling to field consistent game plans, engineer drives and take full advantage of their arsenal of backs and tight ends.
By having Greg Roman at the controls, the 2013 season has been defined by a perpetual identity crisis wherein the team has lost multiple winnable games. The unit as a whole just continues to rev in neutral. Coach Jim Harbaugh is not exempt from the criticism, either.
All in all, it is an unfortunate set of circumstances for the team.
Trivial play on offense has cast a shadow over a spectacular defensive effort by the 49ers this season, as well as a vastly improved special teams unit. At 6-4, this team has it going on in two of three phases of the game, but regrettably, their inability to score points cancels out that out.
At the end of the day, scoring touchdowns is the name of the game.
So forget about the five-game winning streak the 49ers just had, because it’s back to the drawing board for this team. They’re totally exposed and have still yet to defeat a truly competitive team since taking out the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers in Week 1.
Now with 10 games in the books, and very few positives to take away, here is what you need to know about San Francisco.
|NFC West Division Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||6||4||0||.600|
|St. Louis Rams||4||6||0||.400|
The Seahawks have won six straight, the Cardinals have won three straight and the 49ers are riding a two-game losing streak for the second time this year. This is troublesome for the back-to-back division champs, especially since we’re now 11 weeks deep into the regular season, and San Francisco is drowning in the same areas they were in Weeks 2-3.
As of now, they have to avoid coming in third in the NFC West—they are no longer contending with Seattle for first.
And even though they are firmly in Wild Card contention, it is a close race in the conference between them, the Cardinals, the Bears, the Eagles, the Panthers and even a New York Giants team that has won four consecutive games.
If San Francisco even hopes to make the playoffs, they’re going to have to earn it.
Up ahead, they’ve got challenging tests against the St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals—all of which will play the Niners tough. If the coaches do not make a concerted effort to evolve around their faults, two or three of these remaining teams may be able to capitalize on an exposed 49ers team.
So, it is not outlandish to think this club finishes somewhere between 9-7 and 11-5.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|49ers.com and CSN Bay Area|
The Niners are without several key players on both sides of the ball right now, and have been all season. Even worse, it seems players are getting dinged up each week. This past week, they lost two more starters in Tarell Brown and Mike Iupati, both of whom had to leave during the game.
As of Monday, coach Jim Harbaugh did not have any direct updates on either player.
Though, after the game, Iupati was seen walking on crutches with a knee brace on his left leg, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. That being said, there is a good chance Adam Snyder or Daniel Kilgore is asked to start in Week 12, even with an extended week here.
As for the 49ers cornerback: Typically with rib injuries, they can be painful, but they can’t really get worse by playing through it. Granted, Brown had to leave the game and there are all types of rib injuries that can keep a player out (his was reported as a contusion).
From the outside looking in, his prospects of returning this week seem much better than Mike Iupati’s.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald and tight end Garrett Celek are also out, missing action last week with their respective injuries. This caused a shake up at their position groups; two of which this team heavily relies on.
Tony Jerod-Eddie started his first game in place of McDonald, playing a career-high 54 snaps, earning a minus-2.3 overall grade, via Steve Palazzo of Pro Football Focus. Practice squad tight end Derek Carrier also had a porous debut in spot duty last week versus the Saints.
So, while both were fairly under the radar scratches, their absences matter in the big picture. San Francisco has to have both of these guys back in the lineup, even though their name value would not suggest as much. They truly need that stability and depth.
On the bright side, the 49ers are awaiting the return of star wideout Michael Crabtree and rookie auxiliary players in Nick Moody, Quinton Patton and Tank Carradine. When they’ll be activate and how much of a factor they’ll be is a bit of a mystery, but it's one wild card the team has left to play.
Presumably, these roster additions could provide a late-season boost, but the nicks they’ve taken week in and week out are still detrimental.
What Must Improve
Defensively, the 49ers are in tip-top shape, performing at a high level on a consistent basis this season (despite injuries). Even in the games the team has dropped this year, the defense and special teams unit has done enough to get the job done. The team just could not manufacture points.
Here is what needs to be fixed:
Use LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter on Offense
In his first eight games of the season, former 49ers wideout Kyle Williams had just 61 punt return yards and had a costly fumble, prompting his release from the team. In only two games, his replacement, LaMichael James, already has 58 yards, looking a lot more threatening in the process.
That explosiveness and eagerness to make a play has been readily apparent, yet his overall role on the team remains limited.
With zero explosiveness at wide receiver and a No. 2 tight end that has had a bit of a hands problem, offensive coordinator Greg Roman must conjure up creative new ways to get James touches. Outside runs and screens could be the niche they craft for him in this offense, which could open things up.
Frankly, the team should go as far as dedicating an entire series or drive to James, just to mix it up and allow him to find a rhythm. He has only had 10 carries in four games this season, which is hardly anything. The Niners need to try getting him 10 total touches per game.
Running backs, especially, benefit from back-to-back touches, but S.F. has not been able to strike up a balance with this three-headed attack wherein the backs have a fair opportunity to catch a groove. Their field substitutions and play designs have not been very well planned.
Also involved in this mess is Kendall Hunter, who has only had 50 carries all season, which is less than one-third of the load of 49ers feature back, Frank Gore (175). And despite the huge difference in attempts, Hunter leads the team’s runners in yards-per-attempt average.
Hunter also has four breaks for 20-or-more yards to Gore’s eight, which shows that the No. 2 man is more likely to rip one.
Both of these players need far more reps/time on the field, as well as plays particularly designed to suit their strengths. They are two of San Francisco’s more explosive runners and are pining for opportunities to get their hands on the ball. Overall, Roman and Co. have not put them in a position to make an impact.
From here on out, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter need amplified roles as outside runners, read-option threats, check-down options and screen weapons. The 49ers are depriving themselves by not capitalizing on the services of two players most teams would love to have.
Work On Situational Football
Again, offensively, the 49ers are being asphyxiated by their own ineptitude.
Baffling calls on third downs and far too many give-up plays have raised eyebrows this season. People are beginning to question the effort and knowhow of the offensive staff, largely because of their shortcomings in this particular area. They cannot sustain drives and they cannot punch the ball in the end zone.
Despite their low-level standing, there have been no visible efforts to try anything different, which, by definition, is crazy.
Like Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game,” but that hasn’t been the mentality of the 49ers offensive players or their coaches. And this is nothing new. Third downs and finishing in tight scoring situations have been a continual issue, regardless of the personnel.
The 49ers were 1-for-13 on third-down conversions in the NFC Championship game versus the New York Giants back in the 2011 season, which indicates a systematic or philosophical issue. Last week, they had three straight three-and-outs to start the game.
On top of that, there are about 100 or so infractions by the staff sprinkled in their 47 games since their debut.
This is why it is difficult to believe it will be fixed midseason when the 49ers are short of offensive weapons. Will they finally try bunch formations, pick plays, screens, and generally bring back the innovative play calling we witnessed in 2011 when they were compensating for a lack of talent?
That’s the million-dollar question.
Clock management also needs to improve, whether it is on a play-by-play basis or under the two-minute drill. The 49ers are burning timeouts all too often, and as soon as the first offensive series at times. Clearly there is a communication issue and a lack of conviction in the plays being called.
And when it comes to the race against time, the offense inspires zero confidence.
- Eliminate Drops: For as much heat as Colin Kaepernick is catching for his performances, particularly the incompletion rate and failure to distribute the ball, his receivers are not helping him out a ton. Just last game, Frank Gore, Vance McDonald, Vernon Davis and Jon Baldwin all had drops. The Niners' weapons stand to improve in this area.
- Attack More on Defense: On Sunday, the 49ers deployed an interesting personnel grouping on the defensive side of the ball, which included three pass-rushing linebackers in Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Aldon Smith. Typically, there are only two at a time, even in the nickel, but the Niners are experimenting with their depth. They need to continue doing this.
- Target Vance McDonald: This is a player the 49ers could stand to incorporate instead of force-feeding Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis the football. He has had some hiccups early on, but could benefit from increased looks on game day. In order for him to grow and potentially be a weapon down the line, McDonald needs more targets.
- Play Tank Carradine: One of the team's more notable players, and someone who may turn out to be a tremendous asset, has been inactive for the majority of the season. We're talking about No. 40 overall pick, Cornellius Carradine, who is reportedly healthy and waiting to get involved with the team on game day. Although the 49ers are strong on the defensive side of the ball, this could make them even better, perhaps compensating for a lack of efficiency on offense.