Thankfully, it has been more of the former and much less of the latter—at least as of Week 16 in 2013.
A healthy Justin Smith on the defensive line and can’t-miss kicker in Phil Dawson represent a couple of the notable upgrades. The likes of tertiary receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and special teamer Darcel McBath are, in contrast, remnants of an unmemorable past.
Taken as a whole 11 months later, San Francisco is doing the proverbial firing on all cylinders when offense, defense and special teams are concerned.
Yet, it also holds that evolution in some areas necessitate regression in others.
The absence of a certain blocker in the 49ers backfield represents one such personnel fallout.
That said, the positives still outweigh anything negative heading into the final two weeks of this current NFL campaign.
Here now is how the 49ers have either evolved, regressed or otherwise maintained production levels since their conference championship with the Falcons last season.
Offense in 2012 NFC Championship Game
Personnel Differences: LG Mike Iupati, (No. 2) RB LaMichael James, FB Bruce Miller, TE Delanie Walker, WR Randy Moss, WR Ted Ginn Jr.
After a sluggish opening frame, San Francisco unleashed its offensive arsenal for the remainder of the NFC Championship.
It did what it does best in rushing for three touchdowns and hitting tight end Vernon Davis in the passing game for another.
LaMichael James capitalized on his depth-chart ascendancy with a 15-yard score on a speed rush over the right end. Davis followed suit on the ensuing drive with a touchdown catch from Colin Kaepernick inside the 5-yard line.
Franchise bell cow Frank Gore added two more rushing scores off right tackle Anthony Davis from deep within Atlanta territory. Those included the game-winning touchdown with 8:23 remaining.
The Falcons outgained the 49ers in total yards, first downs and time of possession. San Francisco, though, won the more important battles of turnover differential (plus-1), red-zone touchdown percentage (4-of-5) and—obviously—points scored (28-24).
The right side of the offensive line generated consistent push in the trenches, while the group as a whole provided great protection for Kaepernick. It allowed just one sack, three hurries and zero hits, according to Pro Football Focus.
Kaepernick, for his part, was masterfully efficient.
He completed 76.2 percent of his passes for 233 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions and 11.1 yards per attempt. His 94.8 QBR and 127.7 passer rating were just a few notches below perfection.
Contributing to the first of two quarterback metrics was Kaepernick’s timely 23-yard scramble that brought the 49ers across midfield. He connected with Davis for 29 yards on consecutive passes shortly thereafter, the second of which resulting in a score and cutting the deficit to three points.
San Francisco amassed 373 yards all told—powered by Kaepernick, Davis and the team’s 149 yards via the ground.
All individual totals are noted below.
Could this offense possibly evolve beyond this impressive production?
Personnel Differences: *LG Adam Snyder, (No. 2) RB Kendall Hunter, FB Anthony Dixon, FB Will Tukuafu, FB/TE Derek Carrier, TE Vance McDonald, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Mario Manningham
*Note: Starting left guard Mike Iupati resumed practicing Dec. 12 but has not played since spraining his left MCL in Week 11. His status for Week 16 against Atlanta is unknown at this time.
Despite clear personnel changes, the 49ers are operating at near similar capacities as last season’s conference championship winner.
First take a gander at the box score from their most recent win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Notice any correlations?
Kaepernick’s numbers may have dropped a bit across the board. But the franchise centerpiece was still just as effective with another elite-level completion percentage, QBR and passer rating.
His running prowess was at top-notch form as well with an average of 10.5 yards per carry. Forcing four missed tackles by the Bucs’ normally tackling-proficient defense further bolstered his dual-threat nature and overall rating.
The 49ers running backs and outside weapons also matched statistical gains in their latest victory.
Gore again served as the every-down back with 86 tough yards on 22 carries. His persistent forward push between the tackles helped contribute to San Francisco’s 11 rushing first downs.
Kendall Hunter legitimized his role as complementary backup behind Gore. He showed explosive burst with an average of five yards per rush.
And aside from his relative demotion, James still brings an elusive dynamic to the backfield when called upon.
Moving to tight end, Davis showcased his all-world speed when he broke the Bucs defense over top with a 52-yard touchdown. He led the team in yards received once again.
Primary wideout Michael Crabtree caught another five balls, capped off by deftly snaring an end-zone pass when Kaepernick scrambled outside the pocket.
No. 15 is indeed nearing his game-changing capacity as Kaepernick’s go-to target following three successful outings in a recovery-laden season.
Anquan Boldin, for his part, is far superior to the aging Randy Moss of 2012. He is a true No. 2 possession receiver and physical chain mover out of the slot.
One need only enjoy a visual feast over his incredible one-handed catch that resulted in a first down last Sunday.
Upgrades continue with Mario Manningham.
Pay no mind to his meager nine receptions for 85 yards this season. That humble output is simply a product of his extended recovery from invasive knee surgery.
Unlike last year’s No. 3 wideout Ted Ginn Jr.—who was a complete non-factor in the passing attack—Manningham will actually show up under the bright lights.
The 49ers showed comprehensive balance at game’s end with near equal yards passing (189) and rushing (187) in Week 15. Both offensive scores came via the pass, but the running game was a multi-faceted success with its sophistication and power schemes.
San Francisco dominated overall time of possession at 39:50 and was plus-two in takeaways.
Unfortunately, one significant downgrade does present itself on offense.
Fullback Bruce Miller will miss the rest of the season after fracturing his shoulder blade against Tampa Bay.
Miller is one of the NFL’s preeminent lead blockers in front of Gore and Co. Pro Football Focus awarded him the fourth-highest rating for that skill among the 27 graded.
The prominently featured bulldozer is also the third-leading receiver for San Francisco and has played “nearly 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this year,” according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Miller assumed Delanie Walker’s critical position of jack-of-all-trades. He really could do anything asked of him on the offensive side of the ball.
Next in line for Miller’s role is seldom-used running back Anthony Dixon.
The four-year veteran has steadily learned the fullback trade ever since the 49ers became flush with talent in the backfield after his arrival. He recently told CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco that he’s “been playing it for two years and [is] ready.”
It’s a tall order considering Miller’s top-five overall status at the position. That’s surely why head coach Jim Harbaugh has certain contingencies in place.
The 49ers are likely to use more three-receiver sets with Mario Manningham. The reserve tight ends – Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier -- could see more action. And newly signed defensive lineman Will Tukuafu or other defensive players, such as linebacker Michael Wilhoite, could have offensive roles on game days.
Fellow team insider Barrows expanded further on Tukuafu and Dixon’s role.
At 6-4, 293 pounds, Tukuafu presumably would specialize in short-yardage situations…[Dixon’s] background as a tailback should help him guide Frank Gore through the defense…[His] smash-mouth mentality needed to play on the coverage units should serve him well at fullback.
Barrows also noted that Kaepernick said, “the 49ers will miss Miller but that they hope to retain their identity as a power-based, run-first offense.”
That sounds all well and good in theory.
But realistically, this is not a simple plug-and-play situation.
Those aforementioned tight ends are no Delanie Walker and Miller is a one-of-a-kind talent. One can only hope that Dixon’s heart and determination prevail.
The running game will likely go through an adjustment period until the playoffs come around. Playing against a porous No. 29-ranked Atlanta defense will at least help ease the transition.
Fortunately, one ostensible inferior has actually served as a more-than-adequate replacement.
Adam Snyder has performed admirably in Mike Iupati’s spot at left guard. His positive rating in run-blocking from Pro Football Focus is testament to his gritty nature and understanding of the system.
Even with a couple missed assignments when protecting Kaepernick, Snyder still grades better than Iupati in pass-blocking this year. He’ll suit the 49ers just fine until the All-Pro starter returns.
Taken together, the passing offense—including blocking and receiving personnel—is right where it needs to be for the 49ers as they approach the postseason.
Kaepernick has sustained the seventh-fewest sacks and fourth-fewest hits behind his powerful offensive line. That reliable unit will facilitate Kaepernick targeting a full complement of weapons in Davis, Crabtree, Boldin, Manningham and McDonald.
On a somewhat related note, Kaepernick’s clock management issues are also not as problematic as they apparently seem (i.e. three offensive timeouts and one delay of game in Week 15).
He articulated as much to Maiocco in a recent interview:
Ultimately, we want to hold the ball…We want to make sure we’re successful moving down the field and if we have to use a timeout here to correct something or make sure we’re getting the advantage we want, we’re going to do that...I know conventionally people are going to be like, ‘Why are you taking a timeout at the beginning of the third quarter?’ Well, if we sustain that drive and we end up with points at the end of that, we feel like that’s a good timeout used.
Fair enough—the 49ers won time of possession by nearly 20 minutes and outscored the Bucs by 19.
The NFL’s fifth-ranked rushing contingent, however, will suffer at times without Miller.
Gore, in turn, must continue realizing his status as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
The fundamental heart and soul of this 49ers offense cannot go quietly in the postseason night.
Defense in 2012 NFC Championship Game
Personnel Differences: NT Isaac Sopoaga, CB Chris Culliver, FS Dashon Goldson
Like its offensive compatriots, the 49ers defense started slow but finished with a flourish against the Falcons in the 2012 playoffs.
Atlanta opened things up in short order with an imposing three-score lead.
The scoreboard read 17-0 as the clock ticked off just six seconds in the second quarter.
Quarterback Matt Ryan’s downfield aerial assault proved the difference in the early goings.
Ryan connected with his favorite deep target Julio Jones on two big plays. The often un-coverable wideout burned free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Tarell Brown on separate 20-plus yard touchdowns.
Throw in a Matt Bryant field goal and the 49ers were suddenly down big.
No matter—with a Gore-driven offense holding up its end of the bargain, the defense shut the gates.
San Francisco limited the Falcons to just seven more points. It forced two three-and-outs, produced an interception and created an additional takeaway.
Chris Culliver usurped that errant third-quarter pass inside 49ers territory before Aldon Smith picked up Ryan’s fumble on the very next drive.
What occurred on Atlanta’s final series, however, demonstrated the unrivaled prowess of San Francisco’s linebacker corps.
The Falcons stood at their opponent’s 10-yard line on 3rd-and-4 with less than two minutes remaining. The 49ers held a 28-24 lead.
Outside backer Ahmad Brooks began the courageous effort by deflecting a pass intended for Roddy White. Then, with just over 60 seconds on the clock, NaVorro Bowman one-upped his teammate when he knocked down Ryan’s final attempt at the last possible opportunity.
Atlanta was a mere stone’s throw away from a Super Bowl-advancing score. But Bowman and company held their ground in an indelible moment for the 49ers franchise.
They had moved on in their quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Helping forge this path were Patrick Willis’ team-high 12 tackles, Isaac Sopoaga’s drive-stalling sack and Aldon Smith’s seven pivotal quarterback pressures.
So, have the 49ers maintained this game-saving level of play nearly one year later?
Personnel Differences: NT Glenn Dorsey, LB Dan Skuta, LB Corey Lemonier, CB Tramaine Brock, FS Eric Reid
Leave your “game-saving” descriptors at the door—the 49ers defense attained league-altering status in Week 15.
If not for a penalty-aided and relative mop-up-time score, San Francisco dominated every defensive facet of the game.
It held the Buccaneers to 1-of-10 on third downs, a scant 3.7 yards per play and just 183 total yards. Tampa Bay did not move the chains on a staggering seven drives and generated only one first down on two others.
Quarterback Mike Glennon compiled a lower than below-average QBR of 35.8. He suffered through 18 pressures and threw an interception en route to that dismal rating.
The Bucs “rushing attack” gathered all of 39 yards on 12 carries. One-third of that aggregate came on one play.
As for the 14 points scored by Tampa Bay’s offense, let’s just say a certain curmudgeonly judge on the dramedy Boston Legal would deem it as mere poppycock.
The 49ers initially relaxed when up 17-0 with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Glennon threw his first touchdown pass after Donte Whitner committed a silly unnecessary roughness call that set up the play in the first place.
Plus, Tarell Brown was still getting his legs under him when Vincent Jackson beat him on the 11-yard post pattern. He had missed the previous three-plus games with a rib injury.
The only other touchdown came when San Francisco had immersed itself in total vacation mode under a 13-point cushion.
Tight end Timothy Wright sped past a sleeping Willis and Carlos Rogers for the early fourth-quarter score.
Said Bowman to reporter Matt Barrows on the unnecessary score: “I think we took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit.”
We’ll go ahead and give them a pass for this momentary lapse in defensive focus.
It’s not like they forced six straight incompletions, produced two sacks and intercepted Glennon on the Bucs' final play after that touchdown.
In concert with what this particular box score reveals, San Francisco’s third-ranked defense is doing exactly that—performing at a top-three level across the board.
The 49ers currently surrender per-game totals of eye-popping stature.
Opponents average just 299.1 yards, 4.8 yards per play, 17.1 first downs and 33 percent on third-down conversion attempts. More importantly, they only punch the scoreboard to the tune of 16.3 points per contest—also good for third-lowest in the NFL.
And don’t forget the league’s second-fewest run gains (four) and third-fewest pass plays (32) of 20 or more yards allowed.
But what really makes this defensive narrative so compelling is a collective team-wide resurgence.
Justin Smith has regained his Paul Bunyan-esque strength after operating with essentially one arm in the playoffs last year. His partner in crime Aldon Smith now plays with both mental and physical supremacy following shoulder surgery and rehabilitation for substance abuse.
Their combined three sacks, 12 quarterback pressures and shutdown run defense last week was purely indicative of their deadly one-two punch.
Linebackers Willis, Bowman and Brooks have all recovered from shoulder ailments as well, per Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
That contingent also now features solid depth with Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier.
The former does everything well—including returning fumbles to the house—while third-round pick Lemonier is a pass-rushing force in the making (22 total pressures).
Positive regeneration extends into the secondary.
Tramaine Brock went from lowly special-teamer to top-five cornerback in no time at all.
Pro Football Focus qualifies the four-interception Brock as the highest rated corner in coverage among the 109 graded. Quarterbacks have completed only 54.8 percent of their passes thrown in his direction.
Carlos Rogers elevated himself from the No. 17 to the No. 2-ranked slot cornerback as well. He gives up a reception only once out of every 11.3 coverage snaps.
Brown and Eric Wright round things out with starter-quality depth during nickel or dime personnel groupings.
Finally, the 49ers top-flight safety duo puts the defensive seal on top in more ways than one.
Whitner climbed out of the touchdowns-allowed cellar (league-high eight in 2012) and now sits comfortably in the top-three echelon (one given up in 2013). That goes for both pass and run defense.
And rookie Eric Reid, for his part, is perhaps the most inspiring story of all.
He immediately established a professional aura of team- and league-leading play for the 49ers from Day 1. His four interceptions, 53.9 passer rating allowed and one touchdown given up in coverage are testament to those assertions.
Remember that Dashon Goldson guy? The man that Reid replaced at free safety currently dwells in the depths of bottom-five coverage personnel.
What a remarkable turnaround.
From the warfare-like trenches, to the land of deep centerfield on the gridiron, the 49ers shut opponents out of the end zone and prevent the big play.
They are an elite run-stuffing, pass-defending and blue-collar tackling corps wrapped all in one—and all at the most opportune time.
Put simply, the 49ers defense has never been better.
Bowman seems to agree: “We execute like no other defense…Everything is happening for us right now at the right time.”
January football cannot come soon enough.
Special Teams in NFC Championship Game
Personnel Differences: K David Akers, PR Ted Ginn Jr., ST Tavares Gooden
How the mighty have fallen.
Hailed once as a record-setter in 2011, David Akers fell completely off the map just one season later.
Akers went from an all-time mark of 44 made field goals to a league-low 69 percent conversion rate in 2012 (among kickers with over 33 attempts).
Worst of all, the former All-Pro hampered the team most critically against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
With the 49ers down 24-21 late in the third quarter, Akers missed a simple 38-yarder. His team had just captured momentum when Culliver secured a pivotal interception.
They were incredibly fortunate to receive another scoring opportunity in the end-all, be-all game before the Super Bowl. Akers was off the hook—just barely.
The remaining components of this special teams group were thankfully up to snuff.
James averaged 21.3 yards on kickoff returns and did not cough up a fumble. Ginn Jr. was a step above with a 20-yard punt return that set up Gore’s game-winning touchdown.
And predictably enough, punter Andy Lee booted his way to an unheard of 48.3-yard net average.
He helped his coverage personnel limit the Falcons to a miniscule six return yards.
Could the 49ers do better?
Special Teams Now
Personnel Differences: K Phil Dawson, KR/PR LaMichael James, ST Kassim Osgood, ST Ray Ventrone
They sure can.
The 49ers can once again feel proud over affecting a game’s outcome from this overlooked area of the field.
Unheralded free-agent addition Phil Dawson has been magnificent for the Red and Gold in 2013.
Dawson went a perfect 4-of-4 on Sunday, echoing a season-long theme.
His last kick against the Buccaneers marked his 24th consecutive made field goal. He leads the NFL with a streak that is also unmatched in all-time 49ers history.
Juxtaposing Akers’ 13 misses with Dawson’s 24 in a row paints the clearest of special teams pictures. As did Hunter’s lightning-quick scamper into the end zone in Week 15.
The 49ers third-leading rusher proved his versatile worth with a touchdown return off a kickoff fumble recovery. It effectively iced the game at 30-14.
Hunter joined fellow coverage standout Kassim Osgood as a member of San Francisco’s revamped special teams.
The three-time Pro Bowler has one fumble recovery, one touchdown and one blocked kick to his name this season. Other key offseason addition Ray Ventrone has also tallied a takeaway and matched Osgood’s seven tackles (third-most on the team).
The 49ers return game asserted itself last week as well.
James took one kickoff 23 yards and averaged an impressive punt-return clip of 10.2 yards. He made five attempts and was called for just one fair catch.
Even though Lee netted just 36 yards per punt, he still managed two inside the 20-yard line and limited Tampa Bay to nine total return yards.
He is tied for fourth with a season net-average of 42.1 yards. Most consider him the class of NFL punters due to his hang time, directional precision and consistent overall ball placement.
With Dawson never missing, James coming into his own, Osgood making plays and Lee booting it away from would-be return specialists, the 49ers boast a top-seven unit, according to Football Outsiders.
It brings the type of critical value that wins games. It is not of the quality that shanks field goals and allows 108-yard touchdown returns in the Super Bowl.
Welcome back, 49ers special teams.
Here’s to providing a winning edge for an already locked-and-loaded championship contender.
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