How the San Francisco 49ers Can Be Exposed in the 2013-14 Playoffs
Donning the most prodigious roster in professional football, led by one of the NFL’s top coaches in Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers look like a very strong candidate to traipse through the 2013-14 playoffs and onto Super Bowl XLVIII.
From the influential staff, to the intrepid personnel, the inventive system and players on hot streaks, the 49ers have everything they need to get the job done, and then some.
But for those that have watched the team this season, you could argue this was one of the uglier double-digit-win seasons for any team in 2013. It was a long road to 12-4, and with the questions flying in about the 49ers the way they were, it was easy to come to the realization that this club is still far from perfect.
For the most part, the obstacle keeping them from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a sixth time in franchise history is themselves.
And that's an even more trying affliction to deal with—one that is self-imposed.
Can they continue to improve in the postseason or can they do enough to mask their faults for three more of the toughest games of their professional lives? The following will take a look at the San Francisco football team; examining its faults and a few of the pitfalls the team must beware en route to a Super Bowl.
Without further delay, here is how the big, bad 49ers can be exposed in playoffs.
Statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com Game Center, unless specified otherwise.
Questionable Depth at Cornerback
Before the season began, the 49ers were under the impression that they’d have Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, Carlos Rogers, Nnamdi Asomugha and Tramaine Brock as their top-five corners. There was promise for this position group to be the best it had been in three seasons, until the walls began to crumble.
And it didn’t take long.
The first domino was when Culliver tore his ACL in OTAs after the NFL draft. The 49ers didn’t take a corner toward the front of the draft like most expected and the one selection they did make, Marcus Cooper, wound up with the Kansas City Chiefs as a starter and top-rated player.
Asomugha turned out to be a bust and only played in three games before getting hurt vs. the Indianapolis Colts. He underperformed in coverage and was a liability in the backfield because he shied away from contact. Once he was hurt, Brock stepped up and Asomugha never played a game after that. He was a healthy scratch before being waived midseason.
After 11 seasons in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha then retired from the NFL.
Brown has also missed time, suffering a significant rib injury, which has been painful for him. He has returned to his starting spot, but this has not been his best season with the team. Now starting cornerback Carlos Rogers finds himself hurt at an inopportune time:
#49ers CB Carlos Rogers (hamstring) started sprinting this week, but does not know if he'll be able to play Sunday. Says he's 60-70%— Mindi Bach (@MBachCSN) January 9, 2014
Reading the tea leaves, it is beginning to look like the 49ers will have to take the field without Rogers again on Sunday. That would mean this cornerback unit is in the playoffs with only two active game day players they thought they’d have, including just one regular starter (who isn’t 100 percent).
All things considered, this unit is depleted.
San Francisco is in the postseason starting the guys it figured would be the Nos. 2 and 5 cornerbacks, originally. And their nickel and dime cornerbacks—Eric Wright, Perrish Cox and Darryl Morris—are far from established.
While Wright has started in this league, as has Cox for a year, they’re both iffy. They execute okay within the scheme and are hardly noticeable when the front seven is on its game, but they can be susceptible to better wideouts, as well as quarterbacks that know how to spread the ball around.
Teams can effectively attack the depth of this unit by going with a no-huddle, up-tempo approach. And if it turns out they have a favorable matchup, it might be the hot element in the passing game that can help an opponent to take down the mighty 49ers defense.
Clock Management, the Silent Killer
Clock management blunders happen almost every week for San Francisco.
It has been one of the perpetual issues this offense has had since installing the new-era system back in 2011.
Being a hybrid of the West Coast, the language is drawn out and the calls are long. Options are typically given to the quarterback as well (a secondary play to go to if he doesn’t like the look by the defense).
Overall, it’s complicated.
But on top of all that, it seems there are very real communication and decision-making issues on the sideline. We’ve seen quarterback Colin Kaepernick loitering in the huddle, eyes toward the sideline still waiting for the call as the seconds on the play clock tick away.
So, perhaps it is a lack of decisiveness or overthinking by the staff that is at the root of the issue, costing seconds early on.
But truly, nobody knows besides the few people involved. Nevertheless, it remains an issue that must be corrected. Reason being, the 49ers are burning too many timeouts at ludicrous times—sometimes it’s on the first series, even. And they won’t hesitate to burn two timeouts on the same drive.
And when they aren’t taking timeouts, or they’ve run out, they’re taking delay-of-game penalties. And when they aren’t taking delay-of-game penalties, they’re getting false starts all over because players aren’t settled in. It’s a very awkward way to try to run an offense, especially when you’re trying to establish a rhythm.
Moreover, these penalties are knocking them back to unfavorable down-and-distances, contributing to a lot of dead drives.
These self-inflicted wounds put them at an incredible disadvantage. If this is happening in one- or two-possession games, or they’re behind on the scoreboard trying to play catch up, teams will roar past them. It’s as good as a turnover or a sack on third down, and they’re doing it to themselves.
It’s the playoffs. Time to get organized.
Threat of Balance and Matchable Toughness
This is how San Francisco has routinely lost games over the years, which makes the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, in particular, threats to take them out. Not to mention that these two teams had success against the 49ers earlier in the year, handing them two of their four losses.
The Niners don’t have a lot of weaknesses and are extremely consistent against the league’s finesse teams, but they’ve struggled with teams that hit back. When their opponent can trade punches and hang with them for four quarters, that’s when you’ll see the team deflated.
While it seems unorthodox to attack this team’s strength, it’s important to try to beat them in the trenches.
Regular Season Non-Wins (2012-13):
Minnesota Vikings: (A. Peterson and C. Ponder) 119 yards, 1 TD—146 yards total rushing
New York Giants: (A. Bradshaw) 116 yards, 1 TD—149 yards total rushing
St. Louis Rams: (S. Jackson) 101 yards, 1 TD—159 yards total rushing
St. Louis Rams: 85 yards total rushing
Seattle Seahawks: (M. Lynch) 111 yards, 1 TD—176 yards total rushing
Seattle Seahawks: (M. Lynch) 98 yards, 2 TDs—172 yards total rushing
Indianapolis Colts: (A. Bradshaw) 95 yards, 1 TD—184 yards total rushing
Carolina Panthers: (D. Williams) 5.8 YPC, 1 TD—109 yards total rushing
New Orleans Saints: 23 team carries, 1 TD—92 yards total rushing
Notice a commonality with all of their losses?
This is two year's worth of rushing data and it's consistent, apart from one of the Rams games where running back Steven Jackson was held to 2.3 yards per attempt.
Other than that, when the league’s fiercest run defense has an off day and gets mauled on the ground, the 49ers invariably collapse. Rarely do they get hit like this, but when they do, the results have been steady.
It takes a lot of persistence and elbow grease to get the ball going on the ground but it’s proven to be worth it.
Though, teams have to get past the daunting stats and agree not to be one-dimensional versus San Francisco. It’s imperative to try to run the football, even if the success isn’t there. It's about attempts and balance. They’ve got to stick to it. And that’s tough because they often hold runners to a couple yards per carry, if that, and don’t allow rushing touchdowns.
In fact, the 49ers defense is the only unit that did not allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
They’ve only allowed nine 100-yard games in the past three years, four of which belong to running back Marshawn Lynch. By not allowing a rushing TD in 2011, they set a new standard in the history of the sport, breaking a mark set by the Decatur Staleys in 1920 (13 games).
Stopping the run is a big part of what they do.
When they don’t contain the running back, it’s anybody’s game. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are looking at each other, like, “What’s going on here?” The 49ers defense gets tired and grows confused. It’s a tremendous momentum-getter for the other team.
So, running the ball is imperative when it comes to defeating San Francisco, but so is hitting the quarterback.
Regular Season Non-Wins (2013):
Seahawks: Three sacks, five QB hits
Colts: Three sacks, three QB hits
Panthers: Six sacks, seven QB hits
Saints: Three sacks, seven QB hits
Whether a team has the personnel to match them or just to be in the right frame of mind for the game, teams that can bully back and withstand the beating that the 49ers dish out has the chance to survive them.
An Offensive Calamity in the Red Zone
Lately, it seems every 49ers game begins with a Phil Dawson field goal.
Is it any coincidence that in the span of three years, both Dawson and former 49ers kicker David Akers had two of the more venerated seasons at the position in recent NFL history?
Both of these All-Pros saw career-bests in 2011 and 2013, namely because they each had opportunity upon opportunity to kick field goals.
At the end of the day, this stems from San Francisco’s eternal red-zone issues.
While the Niners are riding the NFL’s longest win streak at seven-straight (including the playoffs), five of those games have started with failed red-zone drives that resulted in field goals. And of those five, three of them had the 49ers starting the game with back-to-back field goals.
This puts them in tight games and at risk of being overtaken on the scoreboard.
The 49ers also scored just 23 points or less on four occasions (average win margin of 9.71 points per game). Very rarely did the team win by two scores, having left a lot of points on the field in these matchups. Each time, these close games have necessitated big plays by the defense or special teams.
Before that, the 49ers had a loss in Week 10 vs. the Carolina Panthers. In that game, the team had three consecutive red-zone drives while holding Cam Newton and the Panthers offense to zero points. Unfortunately, San Francisco could not come away with one touchdown, settling for a 9-0 lead.
While it seemed like a comfortable two-score lead at the time, the Panthers would come back to win 10-9, simply because the 49ers couldn’t capitalize on scoring opportunities.
According to NFL Team Rankings, the unit was ranked 17th in red-zone score percentage in 2012 (TD only), and 14th in 2013. It’s a glaring weakness. If they continue to settle for field goals against teams like Carolina, Seattle and New Orleans, who can not only keep them out of the end zone but also score points themselves, then the 49ers are at risk of being eliminated.
Opportunities to Be Presented by Colin Kaepernick
As sure a thing as linebacker Ahmad Brooks drawing his weekly offside penalty, 49ers wunderkind signal-caller Colin Kaepernick will toss one or two floaters to the defense, or a late dart outside. For all his miraculous bullets and angelic deep shots, he is known to toss up a duck or make a bad decision.
Just about every game he’ll throw a ball that should’ve been picked off.
Forty-niners fans this season probably realized how rare defenders with good hands are, or else Kap might’ve doubled his interception total.
The scary thing about this is, it’s come down to the wire where only the best teams remain. All four teams left in the NFC are in the top five in total defense, including San Francisco, but they’re after everyone else. The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints are also ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in pass defense.
And the Carolina Panthers aren’t far behind at No. 6.
These teams are not like linebacker Perry Riley and the Washington football team, who drop picks when they hit them in the hands. Throwing late outside also almost got Kap in trouble vs. Green Bay in the Wild Card game. Other recent near-picks came in the closing weeks of the season against the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals.
Regrettably, it’s pretty constant.
Fortunately, Kaepernick has been able to get away with a lot of eyebrow-raising throws until now, and would make more plays to cover it up. But he will have to be more careful with the football in the postseason. And that also includes when he takes off with it on the ground.
When he runs, which he has been doing more again this postseason, he has a tendency to hold the ball away from his body. It’s a lot like Walter Payton’s loaf-of-bread style that coaches would yell at him for if he weren’t so unbelievable. But for Kap, this is just asking for a tomahawk from a defender in a trail position.
The 49ers need him to run in the playoffs, but they don’t need him turning it over. At any time, it’s a potential backbreaker.
Kaepernick went 1-4 this season against teams currently in the playoffs. He posted his 5 worst QBRs in those games pic.twitter.com/tOhWyJpIyY— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 9, 2014
Keying in on the Run Game
There is probably nothing more directly correlated to wins for this organization.
So, while the 49ers are transitioning to Colin Kaepernick as a centerpiece, this offense still belongs to No. 21. San Francisco plays its best football when Gore is on a roll, and the team that shuts him down will drastically increase their odds of winning.
This weekend against Carolina, the 49ers will face the No. 2-rated run defense in the NFL, headed up by All-Pro sensation Luke Kuechly.
Behind Kuechly, contributions from defensive Greg Hardy, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and linebacker Thomas Davis really help this front seven run. They’re nearly impenetrable at times, trusting their instincts, playing off one another and flying to the football.
If Gore is stunned and San Francisco abandons the run, they’ll be in trouble.
Even if they manage to get by, they’re likely to see the Seattle Seahawks, who have the seventh-ranked run defense in the league.
And this is a fast, hard-hitting 4-3 unit that is familiar with Gore and knows how to bottle him up. They held him to 1.8 yards per carry in Week 2 at CenturyLink and had it not been for that 51-yard scamper to seal the deal in Week 14, he would’ve finished with less than 60 yards at roughly 3.5 yards a pop.
The 49ers might not field the optimal version of themselves in the postseason if their opponents are shutting down the run.
Ideally, they need Frank Gore and Co. going because they need balance. They need to control the tempo and win time of possession. And they must focus on the ideal of putting Colin Kaepernick in an optimal position to make plays, which means doing their best to setup play action, as well as throwing windows in the deep part of the field.
Frank Gore's ripple effect is profound.
Locking out Justin Smith and Aldon Smith
Easier said than done but if a team’s back-side guard and tackle can contain this All-Pro pass-rush tandem, they put themselves in a favorable position.
Why? The 49ers don’t blitz.
Philosophically, it’s just not something they do, and even when they’re not generating pressure, rarely will you see them make any significant adjustments. This is obviously risky and since teams are aware of how firm they are on their stance, it’s something that they can exploit.
One of the greatest advantages a team can have is the knowledge of how its opponent will react to something, if at all.
One of the reasons the 49ers were on the verge of losing in the 2012 NFC Divisional Round and the NFC Championship, and why they underperformed in the Super Bowl was because they could not generate a consistent pass rush.
It looked like they addressed it in the draft by bringing in Florida State defensive end Tank Carradine and Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, but neither has had a significant role this season. And that's a shame since pass-rushers have been known to contribute from Day 1. This unit could be far better than it is in that regard.
The fact that the 49ers have done nothing to create a multidimensional pass rush is beneficial for the opponent.
This is because that one wrinkle—the general pass rush and Texas stunt featuring defensive tackle Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith—is isolated to the left side and they live and die by it. Sliding protection and leaving backs and tight ends on the weak-side to chip these guys can work.
And that’s big trouble for the 49ers if it does.
Truth be told, San Francisco depends on them to be effective every single game. And it’s cost them at times. If it's offline, we've seen them struggle. The biggest sample was when the Smith tandem was dismantled for the 2012 playoffs because Aldon had a shoulder injury and Justin had a triceps tear.
The defense was totally vulnerable.
They went from being a top-ranked scoring defense to letting up 34, 42, 13, 31, 24 and 34 points from Week 15 to the Super Bowl. It was arguably the most uncharacteristic stretch of games this 49ers defense has had in three years under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Here is what Pro Football Focus had on the occurrence:
From the time Justin Smith was injured against the Patriots in Week 15 to their eventual Super Bowl defeat, Aldon Smith did not register a sack (having notched 20 in 13 games before that) and his pass rushing grade was -4.8 in those final six games compared to a +17.2 in the 13 games with a healthy No. 94 at his side.
In that time, Aldon still registered eight hits and turned in a tremendous performance (+4.1) against the Falcons in the conference championship game to get the 49ers to New Orleans, but this was not the same level of performance we had seen before from him.
They were letting up more points than they had all season and the secondary in particular was exposed, seeing as how the team hasn’t invested heavily back there and their rationale is to rely on the pass rush. Problems arose again this season in close games, whether it was at the beginning of the year vs. Indianapolis or at the very end vs. Atlanta.
The 49ers are beatable if a team can scheme to take away Aldon Smith and Justin Smith.