Statisticians call it a limited sample, meaning not enough data. When it comes to the San Francisco 49ers, however, you have to say that what we’ve seen in three games so far is what we’re going to get Sunday, namely:
- A cautious passing game built on minimizing Alex Smith’s exposure in the pocket.
- A full-on commitment to running the ball.
- A defense that appears capable playing the run well, though questions remain about how well the secondary can play the pass.
You have to give credit to coach Jim Harbaugh and staff. They’re 2-1 heading into Sunday’s game in Philadelphia. Their formula so far has been stout defense, minimal offensive mistakes and strong special teams. In turn, they beat two teams they should have beaten, and they had a chance to steal a win from a good Dallas team.
Sunday’s game against the Eagles will present more challenges, but it has to be said that 49er fans who have been waiting for a magical offensive transformation of Smith and Co. probably won’t get it.
This is a team limited by inconsistent offensive line play and lack of a deep receiver threat (the loss of Braylon Edwards really hurts). Its strengths are tight ends (Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker), Smith’s quick accurate throws and the occasional big play from a back.
Against the Eagles, they face a team that’s second in the league in rushing, has perhaps the best scrambling quarterback in the history of the league and two very dangerous receivers. In short, Philadelphia is built for a wide-open offensive attack whereas the Niners are built for control.
Philly feels that more snaps it gets, the more chances one of their game-breakers (Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin) might score. San Francisco, in turn, will want to “shorten” the game by holding onto the ball, running frequently and converting 3rd downs for sustained ball control.
This contrast of styles plays out Sunday, so here are the five questions the 49ers need to answer for a win Sunday against the Eagles.
One fault came clear last week against Cincinnati: The 49ers have a difficult time maintaining drives. In the first half they repeatedly found themselves getting possession deep in their own territory. They reduced their risk by running the ball and throwing short. Of course, it didn’t help that Smith’s protection in the pocket was shaky at best.
Against Philadelphia, the Niners, who are last in the league in total yards per game and 30th in rushing yards per game, will have to do more than go three-and-out. In a loud, rocking Lincoln Stadium, the best way to do that is keep the ball and convert 3rd downs.
Here’s another way of looking at it. The 49ers in three games have run 71 1st-down plays, averaging 4.2 yards per, 15th in the NFC. (Buffalo leads the league with a whopping 7.98 average per 1st-down play, beating out New England’s 7.81).
Philadelphia has had 99 1st-down plays for an average gain of 6.42 per—50 percent better than SF. Of course, one way to get more 1st-down plays is to convert 3rd downs. The Niners have converted less than 1-of-3 chances (14-of-43), whereas Philly is fourth at 51.3 percent (20-of-39).
(Note: San Diego has converted 24-of-39 (61 percent) 3rd downs. Wow.)
If the Niners keep going three-and-out, there’s a good chance their defense will get worn down and the Eagles, with so many explosive weapons, could turn this into a rout.
For hope, consider Philly ranks 11th in the NFC by allowing 5.9 yards on average per 1st down. Perhaps there’s the soft spot for the Niners. Better performance on the first play of a series will help get the 49ers improve their ability to maintain possession.
On Monday, Harbaugh said Frank Gore and his sore ankle were “good to go.” Later in the week Harbaugh has backed off a little on that statement. At first it seems that Gore’s ankle injury is a little more serious, but perhaps something else is taking place.
With Kendall Hunter (pictured) exhibiting good speed and vision, he offers something that’s lacking from Gore—the ability to get outside.
Gore is a straight-ahead runner who likes to wait for the crease to open in the interior of the line and then explode through it. Defenses counter with lots of bodies near the line of scrimmage.
Hunter, in contrast, is able to take the ball wide. The seven-yard TD run last week against Cincinnati came on a “stretch” play run towards the three-receiver set on the left. In other words, he ran to the side with fewer blockers but had more space due to the formation. That sort of explosiveness—if you want to call it that—is missing from the 49er attack.
Also, Hunter also had a 1st-down reception against Cincinnati. Toss in the comments about Gore, and then add the fact that the Niners moved down the field late last Sunday with three-receiver sets. What do you get? Perhaps a slow evolution to create more space on 1st downs by spreading out the defense and letting Hunter or Gore pick their way through.
There was one play that should be in the books but isn’t—Michael Crabtree’s excellent catch in the back of the end zone in the third quarter against Cincinnati (above). It was ruled that he had stepped out of the end zone, but replays and coaching tapes counter that call. The refs blew it.
In reflection, Crabtree moved quickly and assuredly and leapt for an acrobatic catch. It wasn’t a once-in-a-career catch, but one that insinuated his inherent athletic skill. He’s strong and he’s got very good hands. More plays like that can help the Niners get more yards and convert on 3rd down.
Crabtree’s apparent return to 100 percent health coupled with an offense that is bordering on the stagnant should give Harbaugh the impetus to call on No. 15 more often.
Some games present chances for teams to get more than a win. In this case, the 49er defense, ranked fourth in the league, goes against the fourth-best offense. It’s in Philadelphia, so the Eagles are going to be comfortable. They won't have to worry about crowd noise disrupting their audibles or making their tackles wonder when the snap count is coming. They have an offense built on the threat of the big play.
Whether it’s DeSean Jackson’s ability to get deep or Michael Vick’s runs out of the pocket, the Eagles can score from any point on the field. And the more they do it, the more the crowd gets into it and the energy just surges into the men in green jerseys. It’s a formula for a rout.
This is the test for the Niner defense. They have to not only keep the Eagles from getting big plays, they must quiet the crowd. They must make Vick uncomfortable with constant pressure yet not let him escape. They have to limit the damage from the receivers with good tackling.
It’s a game for the defense to prove itself. Can it exert its will to frustrate a high-powered offense? Can it limit the big play? It takes an overall good game, from excellent play on the field to the right calls from the coordinator, Vic Fangio.
The start of the 2010 proved critical for the 49ers. It led to major changes in the coaching staff and the organization. Let's go back.
Their third game a year ago was in Kansas City, and it was like the 49ers had no idea that the Chiefs could run so well. They gained 205 yards on the ground in a 31-10 blowout.
In Week 4, San Francisco traveled to Atlanta and battled the high-scoring Falcons tough before losing in the last seconds. A Nate Clements interception return that ended in a fumble and Atlanta recovery preceded a last-minute drive by Matt Ryan for the game-winning field goal.
Then the Eagles came to town in Week 5 and won 27-24, and there it was: 0-5. Playoff hopes—which had been predicted by many—dashed. Jed York, the team’s chief operating officer, stated that the Niners would still make the playoffs, but by this time the team had lost faith in head coach Mike Singletary and his staff.
Singletary was fired. Trent Baalke became the general manager. Harbaugh was hired. Jed York focuses on getting a stadium built, not commenting on the team's play. In other words, it's back to basics. The 49er organization seems to realize that better performance on the field is the source for long-term organizational health, including those that could lead to a new place to play.
Having won twice, it’s easy to say that Harbaugh’s status isn’t nearly as fragile as Singletary’s turned out to be. It has to be said, though, that the team turned off Singletary because they felt unprepared for tough road games, like what they had in Kansas City.
Harbaugh has presented a team with limited offense and good defense. His game plans have been to emphasize the team’s few strengths and reduce the risk of mistakes that could make it difficult for the 49ers to recover.
Now the team is on the road against an elite opponent that is not without its own question marks. How the team holds up to the pressure of playing against Vick and Co. as well as in a difficult environment will give us some insight into Harbaugh’s ability to transform the 49ers into a consistent winner.