San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals: 5 Keys to Victory for San Francisco
The San Francisco 49ers could easily be 2-0 heading into their first road game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. The 49ers led the Cowboys by 10 points in the fourth quarter and were unable to lock down the win. Dallas rallied for 10 straight points, then won in overtime.
The 49ers now must travel to Cincinnati and face the Bengals. The road has been unkind to the 49ers as they have a record of 14-50 since 2003; the 49ers were 1-7 last year on the road. If the Niners expect to challenge for the division title, this is a game they need to win.
Like the 49ers, the Bengals are 1-1, but will be sky high to play their first home game of the season. Cincinnati is also looking at this game as one they can win, so expect a dogfight.
The 49ers must find a way to win on the road, and this game gives them a chance to reverse their recent history. Let's look at five key things the 49ers must do to secure a victory against the Bengals.
5) Pressure and Confuse Andy Dalton
Rookie Andy Dalton is starting for the Bengals. In his first two games, Dalton has decent numbers and been impressive. Dalton has completed 37 of his 56 pass attempts, good for a 66.1 percent rate. He has thrown for 413 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Dalton has shown good poise and it will be up to the 49er defense to disrupt him. The 49ers have been able to get good pressure on opposing quarterbacks in the first two games and will need to be even better against Dalton.
San Francisco's defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is a master at disguising his pass rush and should have rushers coming at Dalton from all angles. If the 49ers can harass Dalton into mistakes, that will go a long way toward a 49er win.
Dalton has been sacked five times this year. The 49er defense has collected six sacks in their first two games, and if they can get strong, consistent pressure on Dalton, the Bengals will have trouble moving the ball.
The 49er run defense has been solid in their first two games. I don't expect the Bengals' top runner Cedric Benson to have a big day against the Niner defense. The 49ers' success depends on stopping the passing game, and a strong pass rush is a crucial step in achieving that.
4) Get Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker More Involved in the Offense
The 49ers received some bad news earlier this week when top receiver Braylon Edwards had to undergo knee surgery. He will miss the game against the Bengals and maybe several more.
Michael Crabtree will play, but he is not 100 percent due to his bad foot. This means the 49er wide receiving corps will be severely hampered.
The remedy to this situation is to get Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker much more involved. These two tight ends are playmakers and pose matchup nightmares for an opposing defense. It will be up to Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith to find a way to get the ball to Davis and Walker.
In the first two games of the season, Davis has only seven catches for 65 yards and Walker has three receptions for only 37 yards. If the 49er offense is going to be successful against the Bengals, Davis and Walker will need to play much bigger roles.
3) Jim Harbaugh Must Trust Alex Smith to Make Plays
When Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of the 49ers, we all expected him to open up the offense. However, in the first two games, the 49ers have played it close to the vest and their conservative approach was a factor in their disappointing Week 2 loss to the Cowboys.
Harbaugh installed the West Coast offense but has not really unveiled it in its full form. I do realize that the 49ers have been hurt by missed practice time from the lockout, which is a partial reason for the conservative approach.
I do feel the other reason Harbaugh has played it close to the vest is because he does not fully trust Alex Smith not to make mistakes. While Smith has played pretty well, he also threw a terrible interception which led to a Dallas touchdown.
That lack of trust was a major factor in Harbaugh's decision to take a field goal—giving the 49ers a 10-point lead—instead of accepting a Dallas penalty, which would have given the 49ers a first down on the Cowboys 21-yard line.
The 49ers will need to open up the offense, but to do this, Harbaugh must trust Alex Smith can take care of the ball and make good decisions.
2) the 49ers Defensive Secondary Must Play Better
The pass coverage by the defensive backfield was atrocious against the Cowboys. Ultimately, this was a key factor that cost the 49ers the game. Only Carlos Rogers played well, the rest of the defensive backs had major problems.
The main culprit—for the second week in a row—was Tarell Brown. He repeatedly allowed pass completions in front of him for key first downs and healthy gains. The 49ers were getting pressure on Tony Romo and Jon Kitna, but the Dallas QBs were able to repeatedly throw in front of Brown to bail themselves out.
When the pass rush is strong, a defensive back needs to play tighter so the opposing quarterback doesn't have an easy outlet. There is a good chance that Shawntae Spencer, who has been battling a hamstring injury, will take the starting job from Brown Week 3 against Cincinnati.
Safety Madieu Williams was a step or two late on several plays; he was late and took a bad angle on the fourth quarter touchdown pass from Romo to Miles Austin.
Had Williams at least knocked Austin out of bounds, Dallas may have needed to run two or three more plays to score for less time on the clock—and that could have made the difference in the game.
If Dashon Goldson's bad knee is sufficiently improved, expect him to assume his starting safety position in place of Williams.
Meanwhile, Donte Whitner had trouble covering tight end Jason Whitten all day. Then in overtime, he bit up on a run fake, allowing Romo to connect with wideout Jesse Holley for a huge and long pass completion. Whitner ran Holley down and tackled him at the 1-yard line, but the Cowboys made a field goal to end the game.
The 49ers allowed 432 yards of passing offense to Dallas—they must absolutely improve on that against the Bengals, or they will lose. Bengal receivers Jerome Simpson and AJ Green have combined for 345 yards and two touchdowns in their first two games. They are dangerous and it will be up to the 49ers to contain them.
1) the 49ers Offensive Line Must Step Up
The offensive line is the foundation of any potent offense, and San Francisco's poor O-line play is a direct cause of the sputtering, inconsistent 49er offense.
Against Dallas, Alex Smith was sacked six times and pressured on several other pass plays. Smith is prone to mistakes if he is under pressure and the 49er O-line must do a better job against the Bengals.
The offensive line also has not opened running lanes for Frank Gore. In two games, Gore has rushed 42 times for only 106 yards, for a lowly 2.5 yards per carry. This also exposes the 49ers to 3rd-and-long passing situations, which enables the defense to aggressively rush the passer.
The 49ers must address their weakness along the offensive line. The Bengals do not have an overly powerful defense, so this will give the 49ers a chance to get their line play in order.
This Is An Important Game For The 49ers
This Sunday's game at Cincinnati is very important for the 49ers; they need to prove to themselves that they can play well and win on the road.
The Bengals will be no pushovers and undoubtedly look at this as a winnable game, also. With both teams holding a 1-1 record, the winner of this game will take an important step towards respectability, and a potential playoff run.
If the 49ers are able to focus and shore up on the five areas mentioned, they will win this game. However, a loss to the Bengals will be an ominous omen very early in the season.