San Francisco 49ers: 5 Reasons Team Is Headed Toward NFC West Title

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IOctober 4, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 5 Reasons Team Is Headed Toward NFC West Title

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    The 2011 NFL season is 25 percent completed, but already some elements have come clear about who is the best, the worst and the most surprising.

    For example, there’s no doubt that New England can score, that Baltimore, thanks to its defense, can overcome poor quarterback performance, and that St. Louis and Minnesota are drifting into obscurity.

    There have been major injuries (see Kansas City). There have been rookie breakthroughs (Julio Jones in Atlanta is good but Cam Newton has defied the laws of physics). Coaches have been placed on hot seats (a little warm there, Tony Sparano?), and stars like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are demonstrating that they are capable, if their play continues, of breaking records (5,000 passing yards, here they come).

    That said, a look over the NFC West has the San Francisco 49ers at 3-1, two games up on the Cardinals and the Seahawks, three up on the St. Louis Rams. There is no argument that this lead could change in the near future. There is no argument that no NFC team has the right to think about or not think about printing playoff tickets in October.

    It may not be possible to win the NFC West in the first four weeks, but it’s certainly possible to lose it in that time (hello, St. Louis). Here are five reasons why the 49ers are headed towards an NFC West title.

Injuries and Changes

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    By and large, the 49ers are healthy. The biggest loss so far has been to receiver Braylon Edwards, who most likely will make it back on the roster this season. Nonetheless, the offense broke through for a 400-yard-plus game last week in Philadelphia.

    On defense, safety Donte Whitner has a bad hip, but Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith have anchored that part of the defense fairly well. In comparison, St. Louis lost top receiver Danny Amendola. Seattle has yet to get much out of its big free agent, receiver Sidney Rice, due to an injury.  

    At the same time, last week’s addition of Adam Snyder at right guard for Chilo Rachal seemed to give the 49ers offense some traction. The Niners have given up 14 sacks total, which is a lot, but only one in the second half last week against the Eagles. The running game came alive in the second half.

    Also, the speed and elusiveness of Kendall Hunter (pictured) make him a great addition to an offense; he’s the spice that has been needed.

    In short, this is a team who is getting the chance to play together and find its strengths. Frank Gore, for example, is learning how to read the blocks of linemen who now must read the defense and go to an area to block (zone blocking). That’s completely different than lining up and saying “I have that guy over there,” known as man blocking.

    Stunts, like looping defensive linemen, make it difficult at times for man-blocking plays, leaving gaps other defenders can exploit.

Efficiency

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    It is a rather small sample, but consider that the 49ers on paper still look like they rank among the winless. Even after last week’s 440-yard-plus offensive outburst, they rank 28th in the league in yards gained (220 a game), but they’re 13th in points (23.5).

    Philly racked up 512 yards on the SF defense last week. Two weeks ago, Dallas totaled a little less than 500. The 49er defense ranks 17th in yards allowed (362), but seventh in points allowed (18.8). On paper it doesn’t make sense.

    They do rank first in turnovers caused (11), and second in turnover margin (+8). Their quarterback ranks first in interceptions allowed (1).

    They’re not making it easy for other teams to score. There have been two fumbles and one interception in their own territory, and the opposition has capitalized with two TDs and a field goal. Add in a blocked field goal that led to another FG, and you’d think that the 49ers would be blown out in at least two games.

    Instead, solid special teams play and a stout defense has mitigated the pain of the offensive turnovers.

Identity

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    One thing that now stands out, when looking back at the first-half struggles in both Cincinnati and Philadelphia, is that there was no panic. Coach Jim Harbaugh has focused this team on being able to run the ball well and throw effectively.

    Down 23-3 to Philadelphia in third quarter, note that the 49ers didn’t abandon their offensive philosophy. It was still tight sets with minimal receivers. Of course, out of those sets they were able to make big plays — such as Alex Smith’s short throw to Hunter that turned into a 40-yard gain, or the double move by Michael Crabtree that led to another big gain.

    What they didn’t do was go five-wide and expose Alex Smith (above) to more hits. There are times when the 49ers can go five-wide, but it’s not in their best interests. Moreover, Harbaugh apparently has made it a priority to keep Alex Smith in CPA – constantly positive attitude.

    On the last two telecasts, color commentator Jim Mora noted that Smith, when hassled and sacked, would get riled. He’s not riled now. He’s staying calm. At the same time, he’s not forcing throws.

    It is a team that is going to play good defense and then find a way to win down the stretch. It is a team that seems intent on not beating itself.

Philosophy

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    If you step back and think about that for a moment, it really comes down to a philosophical outlook by Harbaugh (pictured).

    The NFL, by and large, is not a game in which teams can simply turn up the jets and outscore opponents, which happens in the college game all too often. In the NFL, the disparity of talent is so much less; moreover, the defensive linemen and linebackers are much more superior (well, in all cases except the Eagles’ defense).

    When plays work, they work for bursts of yardage, and that’s what sets apart NFL teams. The teams that get the big plays tend to win more games. The Niners don’t have a lot of players that can give them that edge. But they do have a defense that can really limit the chances for big plays.

    Conversely, if the 49er offense does its part in not turning over the ball and scoring some, if not enough points, at least in the end the Niners will be in the game. That was the formula in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. And the Niners won both, which is something that, in light of Mike Singletary’s coaching staff, probably would not have happened last year.

    The 49ers may not be a great team, but they are winning. They have done it by making the plays at the end of the game (with the exception being Dallas). Give Harbaugh credit to realize the tools with which he had to work and then maximizing the team’s capabilities.

Schedule

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    Not looking too far ahead, but in light of how the NFL season is shaping out, the Niners have some clear sailing.

    As of Oct. 4, it appears the Niners' toughest road opponents the rest of the way include an Oct. 16 game at Detroit, a Nov. 6 game at Washington and a Nov. 24 game in Baltimore. Of those three, the Ravens game appears to be the biggest challenge. That’s a lot of defense.

    Their toughest opponents outside the NFC West include the Giants and Steelers at home. Of course, the Niners have yet to play home games with the Cardinals and Rams. They still must travel to Seattle.

    Consider this: The Redskins defense also looks first-rate but not insurmountable. The Giants on the road are, dare I say, beatable. I know the Cardinals feel that way after a bad call last week turned the game around. The Steelers may be without Ben Roethlisberger (pictured).