Ask the average 49ers fan on the Stairmaster why the team has a disappointing 4-6 record, and the answer you're most likely to get besides "Who the hell are you?" and "You're really bad at small talk," is going to be...
A) Jimmy Raye, that dastardly stubborn, old-fashioned offensive coordinator of ours, or
B) Alex Smith, whom the team plainly refuses to accept is a bust, or
C) Mike Singletary, the very personification of sound and fury signifying nothing, or
D) The Offensive Line, who all surely dabble in bullfighting in the off-season, or
E) All of the Above.
Meanwhile the fellas on the other side of the ball, the defense, continue to tiptoe on by, in "don't mind little ol' us" fashion, smiling their Cheshire cat smiles, perfectly content to be as anonymous as they are subpar.
It is assumed that the defense is the strength of the team because Mike Singletary, the coach, made his bones there as a player and more so because he says it is.
The reality is that the defense is the strength of the team in that it's less awful than the offense, but default praise and backhanded compliments are hardly the stuff on which championships are built.
While the jury is certainly out on what—if anything—"Coach Sing" understands of the offensive game, no one questions his defensive pedigree, even though it appears from the outside that the extent of his tactical acumen boils down to "We got to hit 'em in the mouth."
Unfortunately "Hits on Mouth" is not a recognized NFL statistic, so we really have no idea how successful the defense has been in that regard, but the crude numerical tools that we do have at our disposal tell us that, like Singletary himself, the defense has been more bark than bite.
The run defense, despite the occasional gashing they've suffered against the Chris Johnsons and Ryan Grants of the world, is pretty solid, allowing 94.7 yards per game, good for sixth in the league.
With an interior trio of nosetackle Aubrayo Franklin and middle linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, this isn't too much of a surprise.
While it's natural to blame the secondary for their poor coverage, the lion's share of the blame must fall to the front seven for not putting enough heat on opposing quarterbacks.
The 49ers have only 19 sacks on the season, which ranks them 22nd there, and consequently they're allowing 42.7 percent of third downs against them to be converted, which is 28th worst in the league.
Without a pass rush, a defense simply can't get off the field.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers came into last week's game having been sacked 41 times in nine games, the highest total in the league. Yet against the 49ers he wasn't touched, let alone sacked, the entire first half and threw for 274 yards the first two quarters as the Packers breezed to a 23-3 halftime lead.
In a 3-4 defense, the two outside 'backers are guys expected to generate a lot of heat, but Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson have combined for just 5.5 sacks, or about half of what Pittsburgh's James Harrison has on his own.
Defensive end Justin Smith meanwhile, the guy they count on to wreck havoc the most, has but one sack on the year.
Smith is getting plenty of pressures to be sure, but he just doesn't seem to have the burst to "get home" as they say in the biz.
That's not to say the secondary is totally blameless. Star corner Nate Clements got benched for his poor play before injuring his shoulder at Indianapolis. His replacement, Tarell Brown, will ride the pine in favor of Dre' Bly Sunday against Jacksonville.
Shawntae Spencer, the other corner, also gets beat on a regular basis and misses way too many tackles to compound the damage.
Of course we can't forget safety Michael Lewis, who never met a tight end he could cover.
It's ironic that Singletary, who played on such a physical, in-your-face, blitzing 46 defense with the Bears, is coaching such a soft, bend-but-don't-break outfit now.
The 49ers rarely blitz, and have their corners play so far off receivers that you'd think they're playing with four safeties. Apparently "Physical with an 'F'" doesn't extend to the corners who don't press.
Add it all up and what you have is a team whose offense can only move the ball with a finesse shotgun passing attack and whose defense plays scared when it doesn't play dead.
One of these days us media folk will ignore the team's plentiful offensive issues for a minute and get around to asking Singletary on a Rehash Monday why his guys can't stop anybody.
Then the coach will do what teams have been doing all too easily against the 49ers—dodge and duck and evade our questions, running toward open field.
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