After returning to Candlestick Park following a road win on Monday Night Football last week, the San Francisco 49ers were able to come up big against the rival St. Louis Rams on Sunday after a shortened week to bump their record up to 8-4.
Not only was it another addition to the win column, but it was also a statement by the 49ers to the rest of the league, as they played lights-out defense once again and debuted their new-look receiving corps.
Suddenly, the 49ers team that was just five yards away from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy a season ago is looking awfully scary and hitting its stride at just the right time.
Whether you are looking at this team from afar or grading it with a fine-tooth comb, it is not hard to see why the 49ers have the makeup of a world champion.
They are talented, hungry and still playing from behind the eight ball following a rocky start. After seeing the 49ers flatten the Rams in Week 14, here is what we learned about San Francisco and where this team is at with four games remaining in 2013.
Offensively, San Francisco had been a shell of itself for most of the season. The 49er lacked weapons and, as a result, players' confidence did not seem to be there, at least not genuinely.
With star wideout Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, not only has this team been afforded more tactical options, but the energy on the field seems entirely different. The offense is now playing with an aggressive mentality in attacking opponents rather than trying to wiggle by them.
It is not afraid to lose the down because there is an unspoken awareness that San Francisco now has the explosiveness on offense to make up for it on the next try.
Before, the 49ers had to chip away, playing an amateur dink-and-dunk game while making sure to back it up with a tough between-the-tackles rushing attack. A lot of pieces have since returned, opening this up the offense so that they’re not living and dying on a down-by-down basis.
They will no longer be deflated when a pass goes incomplete or a run is stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
So, aside from the name value in the lineup, the overall confidence and play-calling ability by this unit is beginning to develop, and it was first visible this past week versus the Rams.
The hits keep coming.
On the opening series against the Rams, 49ers left tackle Joe Staley went down to the turf, favoring his lower extremities. After trying to gauge the severity on the sideline by putting weight on it, but feeling sharp pain, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Staley had to head to the locker room.
Almost immediately after, he was ruled out for the rest of the game with what was diagnosed as a knee injury.
With left tackle being such a critical position, fellow starter Alex Boone slid over from the right guard position to fill in for Staley.
This prompted backup lineman Joe Looney to sub at Boone’s usual spot in between center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis.
The 49ers offense scored enough points by making plays in the air, but the run game disappeared entirely. Matt Miller noted:
Per @mattbarrows, Joe Staley has sprained MCL and will miss Week 14 vs. Seahawks. Alex Boone played very well in his relief.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 2, 2013
Along with Staley, the 49ers played against the Rams without starting left guard Mike Iupati (knee) and cornerback Tarell Brown (ribs). They are three key players to not have healthy, especially with the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals left on the regular-season schedule.
49ers' No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald was also injured at one point in the game and is listed as questionable with an ankle injury.
At one point early in Sunday’s game, return specialist LaMichael James muffed his second punt in his last four attempts, per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. While both fumbles were recovered by the 49ers, there seems to be a minor hands issue with James and an eagerness to turn upfield before securing the ball.
There may also perhaps be a confidence problem with him. Obviously, we could speculate all day.
The bottom line is that the 49ers are in a bit of a pickle at the punt return position if this continues.
Clearly, they can’t have James as a primary returner in a playoff game if he is shaky or looking like any sort of a liability. They won't make that mistake again, but the dilemma that the Niners face is that James has looked very good at times. For a moment, however, he was cathartic at a position that endured the decline and eventual exits of Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams.
Having him back returning punts and kicks has been fruitful for the 49ers in helping to position the offense the past few games.
On Monday Night Football against Washington, James had a 40-yard punt return, which was the longest by the team this season by nearly 20 yards. The 49ers' change-of-pace runner racked up 125 total return yards that night, with his 72 yards in punt returns more than Williams had all of last season (61), via Jeff Deeney of PFF.
Though none were lost, the two fumbles are a bit concerning. More than likely, the team will keep a close eye on the situation. As Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area reports, the 49ers' only other option after James is No. 3 cornerback Eric Wright, who is not nearly as explosive.
That’s not a player they’d like to have to go to.
LaMichael James getting an IV after the game. Tweeted that he played with food poisoning. pic.twitter.com/YP8kheqr6B— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) December 2, 2013
During the week, Michael Crabtree was listed as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver on the depth chart, slotted behind Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham.
Once Crabtree was activated to the 53-man roster, the coaching staff talked about weaning him back into the lineup, which was confirmed by offensive coordinator Greg Roman. But when game day came around, the 49ers officially announced Crabtree would return as a starter.
This was a tremendous vote of confidence in his first game back after suffering such a serious injury.
According to 49ers beat writer Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, Crabtree was in for 25 of the team’s 32 offensive snaps in the first half. By the time the 49ers had put the game away in the fourth quarter, Crabtree had been in for 38 of 54 offensive plays.
Admittedly, Crabtree was a little rough around the edges, particularly on the first drive where he drew two flags—one for an illegal block in the back and another for an offensive pass interference. However, he did finish with two catches for 68 yards on four targets.
Best of all, it did not take long for the 49ers receiver to show that he still had that same explosiveness, per a tweet by the team:
Offensively, they looked good the length of the field, but this is what you get when you struggle to punch the ball in when you’re presented with scoring situations. Taylor Price of 49ers.com tweeted:
#49ers have 17 first downs and 16 points.— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) December 1, 2013
This being the case, the Rams were able to hang around throughout the game, and it’s not like they were scoring touchdowns.
When presented with scoring opportunities, San Francisco could not capitalize on them to put the game away early. It even looked like the Rams had a chance after coming out strong early in the second half and sacking Colin Kaepernick, eventually making it a one-score game.
A better team might’ve been able to retake the lead and defeat the Niners at Candlestick.
By day’s end, the 49ers were 4-for-12 on third down and 2-for-4 in the red zone. Had it not been for a litany of St. Louis penalties, the 49ers offense might not have extended as many drives as it did on Sunday. When they reached the goal line, they wound up settling for three Phil Dawson field goals in their first four attempts.
Three years into in this offense with all of its different personnel, the 49ers still struggles immensely when it comes to red-zone efficiency.
Whenever the 49ers are pitted against an NFC West opponent, tempers begin flaring and suddenly things become very personal.
Any time this team is on the road or hosting an unfamiliar opponent, they put blinders on and it’s all about business. But against the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, or in this case, the St. Louis Rams, chippy play on the field turns these grudge matches into a lot of long, drawn-out, ugly games.
On offense, defense and special teams, players get caught up in the nonsense and it results in a lot of unnecessary penalties. Against the Rams in Week 13, there were a total of 20 penalties for 190 yards, as the 49ers accounted for nine penalties for a total of 85 yards.
Aside the pass interference calls and false starts, there was a lot of activity after the whistle that the refs didn’t like.
The 49ers have to keep their composure in games like this because with Seattle and Arizona upcoming, it could cost them. A flag here or a flag there, and it could be the difference in the game.
If nothing else, Jim Harbaugh needs to communicate to his players that they can give themselves a strategic advantage by not getting caught up in the game-day scuffles. They have to remain level-headed. Emotion is great, but the 49ers have to learn to channel it so that it can affect their games in a positive way.
Swarming, aggressive, suffocating defense—that’s what we’ve seen from San Francisco each week this season. Defensively, the 49ers are already playing at a championship level, and when you watch this team, it looks like they’re just waiting for the offense to catch up.
They’re allowing just 12.5 point per game in their last eight games, which is better than the league-best right now by the Carolina Panthers, who allow an average of 13.1 points per game.
Several of their core players have been playing their best ball in three years under the new regime, including Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Donte Whitner and Justin Smith. They’ve been constants in a defense that has endured quite a bit of adversity this season.
Free safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tramaine Brock have also had breakthroughs in their respective roles as featured players. There are no weak links. Their defense is impermeable.
The depth of this unit also continues to wow, when players like Tony Jerod-Eddie and Corey Lemonier jump up out of the woodwork to make a play. Overall, it is as complete as any defensive unit you’ll see in this era of pro football, and it is extremely well coached at every level of its infrastructure.
With more All-Pros and secret superstars than they know what to do with, the 49ers defense can be declared championship-ready, allowing San Francisco to be in every game from here on out, as noted by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle:
As we've discussed, the 49ers have all of the components—and then some—to get to where they need to go.
In the end, this team's successes and failures will hinge on the development of 26-year-old superstar quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the signal-caller and evolving focal point in the San Francisco offense, his days are beginning to directly correlate with the outcome of the games.
Fact: the 49ers are a perfect 12-0 when Kaepernick starts and has a 90-plus QB rating.
In the team's four losses this year, he has had an average rating of 46.2 with two touchdowns and six interceptions. That's staggering considering he didn't throw six picks in his 10 combined starts last year, including the playoffs—that while he was just getting acclimated behind center.
While he had his struggles this season, it hasn't been without any reason. The offensive unit was changing in terms of scheme and personnel, and the players were struggling to keep up, all the while making up for the loss of their most prolific player.
But finally, the offense is becoming whole again.
Since Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree have returned, Kap has put up his first back-to-back games with a 100-plus passer rating (with a 6-1 TD-INT ratio in the last three games). Individually, his play has improved and he has begun to look more lethal with how confident he's been in his decision-making.
If Kaepernick can continue on his ascension, work on his imperfections and tap his dual-threat ability in the back end of the season, the 49ers can become one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs and a Super Bowl favorite once again.