The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2010-11 NFL season as the overwhelming favorite in the NFC West. Just one month ago, the Arizona Cardinals had lost Kurt Warner and were in the midst of an intense quarterback controversy, the Seattle Seahawks were undergoing the transition to a new coach, and the Rams—already coming off of one of the worst seasons of all time—were starting a rookie quarterback.
Yet today the 49ers find themselves still winless and at the bottom of the NFC West. Two of their losses have been blowouts, by the Seattle Seahawks and the Kansas City Chiefs, two teams which by general consensus were believed to be less talented than the 49ers.
Here is what has gone horribly wrong with the San Francisco 49ers this season:
After a solid campaign in the 2009-10 season, Alex Smith apparently proved to the 49ers coaching staff that he can be the mainstay quarterback in San Francisco. Unfortunately, Smith has truly disappointed coming out of the gates.
In three games, Smith has thrown just two touchdowns, in comparison to five interceptions. While Smith's completion rate is respectable at over 60 percent, and his passing yards per game are good for 13th in the league, over half of Smith's yards have been concentrated in the hands of Vernon Davis and Frank Gore.
Smith must work on getting the ball into the hands of his wide receivers to take pressure off of the running game and the superstars for the 49ers offense.
In pass protection, the 49ers offensive line hasn't been abysmal, but that doesn't mean it's played well either. The O-line has allowed seven sacks in three games this year, for a total loss of 35 yards.
While the pass protection has been acceptable, the run blocking has been absolutely horrible. The 49ers rank 26th in rushing, and Frank Gore is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. In fact, because the run blocking has been so terrible, Gore actually has 10 more yards receiving than he has rushing. Gore is an explosive back, but with a lack of successful run blocking his longest gain on the ground this year has been only 20 yards.
The 49ers offensive line must create more holes for Gore if the team is going to succeed in controlling the ball and setting up the pass.
The 49ers may have solved this problem with the firing of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. The pass-run ratio currently is 2 to 1 which has led to Alex Smith attempting almost 40 passes a game.
San Francisco needs to get the ball back in the hands of its playmakers by giving Frank Gore more than 20 carries a game in order to set up play action. More importantly, Alex Smith needs to be able to target wide receivers to spread the field both horizontally and vertically.
The talent is unquestionably there. It is whether the playcalling can get the ball into the right hands so the best players can make plays.
With the top linebacker in the league, Patrick Willis, and defensive playmakers such as Nate Clements and Takeo Spikes, one would expect the 49ers defense to make the big plays that can alter the momentum of a game. Yet, this has not been the case.
In three games, the San Francisco's defense has had a turnover ratio of negative five. The defense has only produced five interceptions and zero fumbles. As for getting after the quarterback, the 49ers are only averaging one sack a game. While San Francisco is actually 15th in the league in yards allowed, it needs to improve on creating big plays that can shift momentum and lead to easy offensive scores.
It sounds easy, right? A team that is able to gain lots of yards should be able to score points. This has not been the case for San Francisco this season.
Despite having the overall 20th ranked offense in yards gained (not a particularly impressive number), the 49ers are 31st in the league in points per game with only 12.7. The Niners must improve on creating longer drives that lead to points rather than battling for field position.
On third down, San Francisco boasts a measly conversion rate of less than 25 percent (10/41). By being consistently forced to punt, the 49ers cannot possess the ball and wear down opposing defenses. Conversion on third downs is absolutely essential to keeping drives alive and providing more opportunities for big plays downfield.
Justin Eisenband is a student at Georgetown University and a writing intern at the Bleacher Report. To read more, follow him at http://bleacherreport.com/users/352849-justin-eisenband