Five more games are all the San Francisco 49ers have left to best position themselves for the postseason after falling below .500 for the first time since 2010. Bound by overwhelming injuries, as well as off-the-field and scheme-related issues, this entire season has definitely been the rockiest in Jim Harbaugh's three-year coaching tenure.
But it appears as if the team has turned a corner, peaking at just the right time.
This past week, they were able to make a statement on prime time, procuring their seventh win of the season in dominant fashion and remaining near the top of NFC teams still fighting for a playoff slot this year. In a game that they had to have, San Francisco showed up and knocked the socks off Washington, as Colin Kaepernick played their secondary like a fiddle.
In the big picture, there is a lot to like about this 49ers ball club right now: The quarterback is heating up, the defense is arguably the NFL's most eminent unit and the roster is back at full strength, good enough to compete with the entire 2013 AFC Pro Bowl team.
As we discuss playoff implications and make cases for Super Bowl contenders, it's time to reexamine this 49ers squad and what to expect down the final stretch.
Let's get right into it.
|NFC West Standings|
|San Francisco 49ers||7||4||0||.636|
|St. Louis Rams||5||6||0||.455|
Monday night’s victory over Washington was a big one for the Niners, but it was a game they should’ve won handily. And at the end of the day, they’re still tied for second in the division. It’s a long road up ahead, and San Francisco is going to have to keep it going if the team hopes to remain in playoff contention.
Examining the total landscape, it's clear to see that the NFC is tough, their division is tougher and the remaining schedule is no cakewalk.
The 49ers still have three NFC West opponents in their last five games, and they’re all clicking (the entire division is 7-2 since Week 10). The Seahawks have won six straight, the Cardinals have won four straight and the Rams have won two straight, so fans can cool their jets knowing San Francisco is not the only hot team in the division at the moment.
Moreover, division games are always a scrap, especially between these four teams that inhabit the West. So, even though the 49ers are certainly getting stronger, they’ve been inconsistent, and teams that are familiar may be able to expose their weaknesses, of which they do have a few.
So, there’s that blockade in their schedule.
Then there are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have won three straight over Miami, Detroit and Atlanta, as new quarterback Mike Glennon has posted passer ratings of 137.5 and 138.4 in the past two. Combined with their defensive front and running ability, this could be a different ballgame than anticipated.
In addition to that, the 49ers have the Atlanta Falcons, who couldn’t beat their way out of a paper bag right now.
Nevertheless, it is a prime-time game, and anything can happen—especially for a Falcons team that is thirsty for revenge and now has a bruising back in Steven Jackson, who knows San Francisco all too well. Those two factors in particular toss a monkey wrench into this matchup.
San Francisco will host the St. Louis Rams this weekend in what is the team’s third-to-last home game at Candlestick Park before the arena is demolished and they begin playing at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara in 2014.
|49ers Injury Report|
|Ian Williams||DT||Ankle||Out for Season|
|Mike Iupati||LG||Knee||2-4 Weeks|
|49ers.com, CSN Bay Area|
Linebacker Nick Moody returned to the game-day lineup after suffering a hand injury very early in the season. The rookie special teamer from FSU will only add to what has been a vastly improved coverage unit, featuring Ray Ventrone, Kassim Osgood, Darryl Morris and stud gunner C.J. Spillman.
The big news, of course, is the return of Michael Crabtree, who was officially activated on Tuesday, November 26. The 49ers star receiver was primed to follow up a career breakthrough that took place with Colin Kaepernick in 2012, but he suffered a setback by tearing his Achilles in OTAs back in May.
This is the most prominent gainer for the 49ers, which could potentially be the missing link that sparks a positive trajectory for this offense once and for all. This will be the story to watch, starting this weekend. Will he and Kap pick up where they left off, or will there be an adjustment period?
According to the team’s official website, Crabtree is currently slotted as the No. 3 WR behind Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham, so the staff will wean him back.
They’re also looking to get Mike Iupati (knee), Tarell Brown (ribs) and Quinton Patton (foot) all back in the lineup within the next few games here. These should each be major boosts in their own right. While Iupati and Brown are fine starters, Patton has a chance to finally thrive in a role where the focus won’t be on him.
If he can become the No. 4 wideout for the team, behind Boldin, Manningham and Crabtree, he has the potential to gut teams.
Defense Wins Championships
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is doing one of the great coaching jobs this season, fielding a unit that is shorthanded and still ranked No. 4 in points allowed (16.7 PPG). This defense is ranked fourth versus the pass, which is a huge upgrade from a year ago, and it’s just outside the top 10 against the run.
After losing their top cornerback in Chris Culliver for the season, followed by nose tackle Ian Williams—and Nnamdi Asomugha being a bust and second-round pick Tank Carradine being unavailable all year—this is a unit that is without a lot of the pieces it should’ve had.
It didn’t end there, either.
Aldon Smith (5), Patrick Willis (2), Glenn Dorsey (2), Ray McDonald (2) and Tarell Brown (1) have also missed a total of 12 games. Starting safety Eric Reid has also had to exit games on a couple of occasions with injuries, leaving Craig Dahl and C.J. Spillman to fill in.
All in all, it’s been a next-man-up situation for the 49ers defense all year, but they’ve been so good, nobody’s noticed.
Four central players that have been constants this season are Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner, who have bound together to lead this defense through hard times. Each has upped their game, contributing as total defensive players, throttling the run and pass.
They’ve provided stability in a year when this defense has faced a lot of obstacles.
Those four have also received tremendous support from unforeseen places. Eric Reid, Tramaine Brock and Corey Lemonier are up-and-comers that have all answered the call to duty in 2013, not only avoiding the “liability” tag as young players, but also proving to be assets.
They’ve all impacted games.
Now, with Aldon Smith back in the mix, finding his groove again, this 49ers defense appears capable of anything. Very frightening. Even in the past two losses, they held Drew Brees to one touchdown, the Panthers to 10 total points (shutting out Cam Newton) and are allowing just 12.5 PPG since their Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
If they continue on this ascension, while being complemented by an improving offense, this team can go places.
What Must Improve
More Balance, More Ball Distribution
The 49ers offense has stalled for much of the season, particularly when it comes to their anemic passing unit, which is nightmarish if you're someone who values consistency. One thing they've failed to do was distribute the ball to their gaggle of playmakers, which includes a lot of unheralded depth players like Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Vance McDonald.
Week 12 was a step in the right direction, though, as Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Vernon Davis and even McDonald all caught passes. There was finally ball distribution in the air for San Francisco. Granted, it came against one of the NFL's worst pass defenses. So, that being said, they've got to show that they can do it on a regular basis.
This past week, proper schematic adjustments and the presence of Manningham outside seemed to make the difference.
Getting Michael Crabtree back now, the 49ers have to continue to build on that. The addition of all this talent should only encourage the staff to find new and creative ways to spread the ball around to the playmakers. On any given play, they can use two or even three stars to free up another.
It's a matchup nightmare for secondaries, and safeties in particular.
This could open opportunities for Vance McDonald, and with the deep passing game coming back to San Francisco, there could be a lot of freedom underneath for the running backs to get involved, which coach Jim Harbaugh said he'd like to do.
Get Corey Lemonier Involved
One of the forgotten gems has been rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier, who had begun to scratch the surface of something special at one point. He was a constant nuisance for the opposing passer, abusing offensive tackles and bringing pressure with some frequency. And overall, he has the look of a very natural pass-rusher.
Lemonier even managed a sack/safety versus the Arizona Cardinals.
Now that Aldon Smith has worked his way back into the lineup and should be the starter from here on out, Lemonier has seen less field time. Dan Skuta is also still ahead of him on the depth chart, earning those situational reps behind Smith. While Skuta played exceptional ball in spot duty, he does not have near the upside as a pass-rush specialist as Lemonier does.
With the addition of Lemonier to an already beefy front seven, it seemed as if the 49ers would be more inclined to go with a rotation of linebackers this year or perhaps develop a grouping that included three rush linebackers, similar to the New York Giants' renowned NASCAR package.
It finally showed up two weeks ago at the Superdome versus the New Orleans Saints, as the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows confirms in the Tweet above. While that was mainly due to them being without left defensive tackle Ray McDonald, it is a progressive way of generating pressure in this new-era passing league.
On that play, the rush got there in no time at all, collapsing the pocket around Drew Brees, leading him to throw it away as he was being ridden down to the ground.
The 49ers need to continue trying combinations of three pass rushers at a time, rotating them around the block-absorbing Justin Smith.