Biggest Questions the 49ers Must Answer Before the 2014 NFL Playoffs
"Whatever it takes" is the motto San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has stressed with his team in a rocky 2013 campaign.
No doubt, it's certainly fitting for a ballclub that has had to reach deep within and overcome some pretty daunting obstacles this year. They've seen it all. And still, the 49ers emerged 10-4 after 15 weeks, with just two games left against the Atlanta Falcons (4-10) and Arizona Cardinals (9-5).
Despite all of the injuries, national criticisms and controversy, the resilient 49ers are now looking at a potential fifth seed in the postseason if they win out. And by all means, they're going to do whatever it takes.
This is a team that controls it's own destiny and is bound by nothing. The following will examine and bring to light all of the questions, concerns and topical storylines regarding the 49ers, leading up to the 2013-14 postseason.
Colin Kaepernick (Pt. I): Can the 49ers QB Be the Lightning Rod?
From the defensive groundwork, to the frame of the offensive line and onto several of the skill players, most of the same inner-workings of this team have been in place for the past two postseason runs.
The newest, most vital component in all of this—and we know this by Jim Harbaugh’s push to make him a starter before the playoffs last year—is Colin Kaepernick. Clearly the 49ers feel he is the focal point and the difference between a perennial contender and a Super Bowl champion.
Kaepernick is a different kind of play-making quarterback, as opposed to the “game-manger” type. His ubiquitous presence within this offense symbolizes the high-powered machine they want to embody come playoff time. Furthermore, with all of these pieces settled in, Kap’s performances are what it’ll come down to in the end.
They’ll live and die by his successes and failures.
And that comes with the territory of being a gifted quarterback. Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks like Brad Johnson of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Trent Dilfer of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens were able to avoid that spotlight with the teams that they were on and with the type of football they played.
But with Kap, they’ve seen what he can do, and they’ll need him to be the catalyst that makes this an explosive, multidimensional offense—one that is capable of adjusting and overcoming all the obstacles. This offense was very flexible and dynamic with him at the helm in 2012.
Not only will the 49ers need that again, but they’ll also need Kaepernick to be better.
Colin Kaepernick (Pt. II): Can He Fully Adapt?
With the Darwinist layout of the playoffs, tough defenses with calculating coordinators are going to be left standing, and they’ll challenge No. 7.
Last year, Kaepernick had the distinct advantage of being an unknown and proved he can be a point-scoring gadget that can be used in an assortment of ways, but will that be enough this year?
Can he continue to be that dual-threat weapon and still improve in other areas as a quarterback?
The biggest question would be his capacity to beat intense pressure, mount comebacks and win the race against the clock. All in all, we're talking about the cerebral aspect of the position that requires the quarterback to be calm and metaphysically tuned into the moment.
In that regard, we've learned a little about Kap so far.
Having gone on an implausible point spree following a pick-six against the Green Bay Packers, which was followed up the next week by a 17-point second-half comeback in the NFC Championship over the Atlanta Falcons, there should be no doubt in his ability to come from behind.
He’s made it so this offense can score chunks of points at a time, demoralize teams and take things over in the third and fourth quarter.
People forget Kap engineered the second largest comeback in title history, ranking only behind the Indianapolis Colts over the New England Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship (18 points), via Russell Baxter of Bleacher Report.
Digging deeper, it's important to note that these are comebacks that happened over multiple quarters.
It wasn’t a heart-in-throat moment that came down to the wire like in Super Bowl XXIII, where general Joe Montana was left with 3:10 on the clock and 94 yards of field in front of him. How will Kap do when there is no second try?
What will happen if he's five yards away again?
When the moment calls for him to be a quarterback to win the game in a two-minute drill, is he capable of that type of pressure situation? Overall, the discombobulated communication from the sideline to the field, combined with Kap’s inexperience does raise questions.
For this offense to win consistently, Colin Kaepernick either needs to score enough points throughout the game to avoid these moments or evolve as a situational quarterback.
Will the Play-Calling Be Consistent in the Postseason?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has infused some money plays and has engineered some stellar drives, but he can be wildly inconsistent. Many times, the unit either goes three-and-out, or they get down the field and come up short within arm’s length of the goal—that seems to be the 49ers offense in a nutshell.
While they’ve improved on third down with Michael Crabtree back in the lineup at wide receiver, the red-zone struggles have remained.
Touchdowns tend to come from outside the 15- or 20-yard marker. Time and time again, it seems they lack the quick-strike ability and bang-bang plays when there is less field to work with. Ultimately, it’s resulted in a lot of action for the field goal unit.
Over the last three games, the 49ers offense has scored 16 times with only five of those being touchdowns. Eleven have come off of Phil Dawson field goals, which is part of the reason he has this amazing streak going. Proficient, yes, but the offense is not living up to standards.
They leave a lot on the table.
So, in the final stretch, will Greg Roman be able to string together consistent drives and cap them off with touchdowns?
And when they enter the playoffs, will he be able to do so without fail over what is hopefully a four game, grand prix-style tournament?
I hope Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh are watching the #Panthers offense tonight. THIS is how you use Colin Kaepernick.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 19, 2013
Are the 49ers the "Get-Hot" Team?
Prior to the season, it was widely believed that the 49ers would be a candidate to catch fire toward the end of the year.
On top of its power-rushing game and brute defense, which is built for the winter months, San Francisco was projected to be much healthier.
And from what we can tell, with wide receiver Michael Crabtree back in the lineup, this has come to fruition.
The offense has finally begun to pick up ground on it's top-ranked defense and special teams unit. They're evolving into the dominant three-phase team everyone expected to see, and most notably, they look fresh.
It's as if they rewound the clocks and started the season all over again.
For those following along, it's really been a phenomenal turnaround to see. And as far as Jim Harbaugh's three runs with the team go, it's also been noticeable that this year has greatly differed from the past two, in that is has been a struggle. They had to fight to get back to this form.
But given how this season has gone for the 49ers, it positions them to peak at just the right time:
Last 2 playoffs, 49ers were a good regular-season team then got upset by teams that got hot late. They have to be the get-hot team this year.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) November 18, 2013
If the 49ers continue on this ascension, they'l have a very good chance of returning to a Super Bowl, even if it means going through the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
Can the 49ers Avoid Anymore Injuries?
The 49ers injury report has been like a game of whack-a-mole: one only pops after another goes down.
This past week, San Francisco was the closest it had been to healthy all year, apart from left guard Mike Iupati (MCL) being out. The Pro Bowl guard is expected to return this week versus the Atlanta Falcons, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Needless to say, Iupati’s impending return amps up the run game right before the playoffs, too.
However, in the game leading up to his potential comeback, the Niners could not escape without losing another key player.
On Sunday, fullback Bruce Miller was lost for the season with a scapula injury, which is slang for a shoulder fracture. He was no slouch either, ranking as the fourth-rated run-blocking fullback in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Miller was also the team’s third-leading receiver in catches (25) and yards (243).
Add in his special teams role, and this is a significant loss.
The 49ers have been taking hits like this all season and really cannot afford anymore bad luck. One more loss and that may be the straw that breaks the camels back. So far, the team has been fortunate with how they’ve endured these injuries.
But as we saw last year with Justin Smith, if the wrong guy goes down, it can seriously derail or handicap a team’s chances. And they've been plagued this year (from October):
Is This the Best Defense in Football?
Not that it needs to be answered, but the question provokes interesting thoughts in regards to what this team is capable of as a whole.
After all, defense wins championships.
On top of excellent coaching at each position, San Francisco appears to have one of the deepest, most talented units in the biz. So, in answering this question, it seems like it should be unanimous by now, if not just for their gaggle of All-Pros, elite in-house farm system and overall stability in the face of adversity.
It’s true The Kansas City Chiefs had a very strong gang in the first half of the season and the Houston Texans were a powerhouse last year, but the one defense that has really been consistently dominant year in and year out is the 49ers. Simply put, they are just a well-oiled machine.
Take away home field and put San Francisco and Seattle at a neutral site, and bet that the 49ers defense is probably the one that stands out.
In nearly 100 games played, they’ve only allowed nine 100-yard rushers, which is an unbelievable feat in league history. At one point during this streak, they snapped a record set by the Decatur Staleys in 1920 by not allowing a rushing touchdown in a season (13 games).
This year, the pass rush and pass defense have both caught up to the innate run-stuffing prowess of this defense, which predates the new regime. Under coach Vic Fangio, it has finally become a complete unit, flush with talent. And better yet, they all fit the scheme and play unselfish, fundamental football.
The #49ers defense has forced a turnover in 10-straight games. That's the first time that's happened under Jim Harbaugh/Vic Fangio.— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) December 13, 2013
Peaking at just the right time, this 2013 team could be the best defense in this franchise’s history.
It’s also important to consider that one of the crippling factors of last year’s run was the triceps injury to all-world defensive tackle Justin Smith, who is back and healthy for what may be his last real shot at a ring.
This is the defensive player to keep your eye on because if he channels his hulk rage in postseason—if he’s the defensive player that gets hot for them—it’ll make this unit capable of anything. Smith impacts this 49ers defense from the inside out, versus both the run and pass.
If he’s unstoppable over the course of the tournament, like we’ve seen him be, that could be San Francisco’s ace in the hole.
Prior to this past game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was reported by the team that Smith had 74 pressures and 49 QB hits this season, both of which were team-highs by a mile, via Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.
He added a sack to that total in Week 16.
Now back in the fold with Aldon Smith, the All-Pro sack specialist who is hitting his stride, the 49ers will have what it takes to beat the better offenses out there. They’ll be back to their 2011 mode when the defense had nine sacks and 23 QB hits on Drew Brees and Eli Manning.
Given the level this unit is playing at right now, they’ll keep San Francisco in every ballgame from here on out and perhaps win one or two on their own.
Jim Harbaugh, What Are You Hiding?
“Might you have more things that haven’t unfolded. It was always thought that you kind of save some special plays for special moments, in key games?” –Bay Area reporter
“Oh yeah! Those are all options. And you want your opponent to think that all of those options are open and available.” –Coach Jim Harbaugh
Secret plays, offensive wrinkles, special teams ploys or what have you; this is a 49ers team that likes to play things close to the vest. Last year, it was the read-option and the open-field running ability of Colin Kaepernick that took the league by storm. In 2011, one of those plays was the Vernon Post.
Have the 49ers secretly been developing a screen game with Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James?
After keeping Mario Manningham on the bench for these past few weeks with Michael Crabtree’s return, will they unleash a string of plays featuring three-plus wide receiver sets?
Has this team designed new quarterback runs for Colin Kaepernick?
With their red-zone issues, do the 49ers have a call sheet of trick plays in their back pocket?
Can the Offense Spread the Ball Around?
People want to know: Will Greg Roman and the offensive staff write in these auxiliary players or are they going to continue to leave them alone?
Personnel-wise, the 49ers pose the threat of not only being the most balanced, but the deepest offense in the postseason. However, the staff has made no real attempt to blend the surrounding cast in with the heroes on offense.
Their demeanor and their team philosophy suggests they are more concerned about the long-term development of these younger prospects rather than their ability to contribute right now.
Outside of San Francisco’s top two receivers, its alien of a tight end and its featured back, it is possible Quinton Patton, Vance McDonald, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are all complete non-factors.
Ideally, you’d like to see the 49ers enhance their roles, so they can function as outlets when the stars are covered, but there’s a risk/reward to having them on the field.
The upside is that they are new fiery weapons that the team has invested in.
Looking at their backgrounds, they’re all capable of making plays and are eager to do so. But they’re inexperienced and not likely to make a play that changes a game for the 49ers (at least not positively). So far, McDonald has had a minor hands issue, while James has been known to fumble the ball or get dropped at the line of scrimmage.
Then there's Hunter, the primary backup running back, who is arguably the 49ers’ best player no one sees enough of. So it's not all justified.
But even without them, San Francisco can field one of the most competitive offenses if it can consistently distribute touches and find the open man. At every key position, the Niners have a proven veteran that can carry the load on any given week. They can set the tempo and pick and choose which way they’re going to beat their opponent.
With wideout Anquan Boldin complementing the homegrown trio (shown above), there is no shortage of weapons there, as opposed to years passed.
Analyzing the totality of the skill players heading into the postseason, most other teams just don’t even compete. Here is a rough sketch of the playmakers from the current NFC playoff teams:
Seahawks: Golden Tate (WR), Jermaine Kearse (WR), Doug Baldwin (WR), Zach Miller (TE) and Marshawn Lynch (RB)
Outside of the Saints, none of these teams have star power at every position—and even New Orleans isn’t equally as strong at all three skill positions.
The Chicago Bears are strong on the points, but they don’t have a very commanding presence at tight end. Carolina plays it tough, but the Panthers have been more about effort and execution than talent. Teams that can take away their running game and pressure Cam Newton can shut that offense down.
And the Eagles, well, they’re as shorthanded as it gets for a playoff team.
Who compares to the 49ers' base lineup?
News flash: Someone other than Vernon Davis or Anquan Boldin caught a Colin Kaepernick TD pass. It's a familiar name: Michael Crabtree.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) December 15, 2013
But getting back to our point, not one of these teams is nearly as deep as San Francisco (even though none of them have caught a TD outside of the top three).
The word from Mike Sando of ESPN was that the Seahawks would have nabbed Vance McDonald had the 49ers not traded up to take him, probably to compete for the starting role. Running back LaMichael James was Mel Kiper’s No. 2-rated running back in the 2012 draft after third overall pick Trent Richardson.
Praised for his natural receiving ability, Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton earned a fairly unanimous second-round grade from the draft community.
Building through April’s draft, the 49ers have accrued an entire set of offensive skill players in training beneath the No. 1s—many of which are projected to have sizable roles in the future. But alas, the snag is that all of these other teams currently use their no-names better than the 49ers use their high draft picks.
Have the 49ers seen something in practice that we haven’t? Are they going to risk working these guys in when the season is on the line? Or will they snub the possible reward and take the safe route, relying on their top guys to anchor them through the final weeks and into the postseason?
This decision will reveal itself sooner rather than later.
If the targets don’t change, the 49ers are going to ride it out with the vets. However, if they begin to show new things with their scheme and work in some of the supporting players that haven’t received a lot of field time, then look out.
This may become an offense that can attack every part of the field and always find a way to gain positive yardage.