It seems that the world has discovered the 49ers. They have shot up in a variety of Power Rankings around the country. Their defense has convinced even die-hard skeptics that it is for real. And, at least for while now, there has been very little criticism about Alex Smith.
That’s what happens when you open the season 5-1, registering three wins in the Eastern time zone, beat favorites on their home fields and—all in all—prove many, many “experts” wrong.
That said, those who follow the San Francisco 49ers closely understand that this is far from a perfect team, and a look at the stat sheet suggests that this team is doing it with mirrors. It’s doing it with more than mirrors; good coaching is the underlying cause of this team’s surprising run through the first six weeks of the 2011 NFL season.
Now that the 49ers are in the midst of an in-season six-day vacation, here are six issues the San Francisco 49ers must address during the bye week.
The NFL ranks receivers by yards gained, and you have to go down 59 places before you find the first 49er—Vernon Davis, at 271.
With 1,026 yards through the air in six games (171 per), the 49ers rank 30th in the league. The offense, which is 28th in yards gained, is quite limited in that aspect, and you saw it in the Detroit game. The Niners have a difficult time stretching the defense horizontally.
Too often, quarterback Alex Smith sees eight and nine players crowded next to the line of scrimmage because opponents don’t worry about the deep pass.
What makes the issue even more compelling for offensive coordinator Greg Roman and others on the 49er coaching staff is that when defenses put so many people near the line of scrimmage, it makes it easier to blitz. Although the Niners have become better at picking up extra rushers, they have not been able to exploit that defensive tactic with big plays.
Of course, the Niners have had issues at wide receiver. Michael Crabtree has shown signs of being a first-rate player, but he still must deal with a testy left foot injury. Joshua Morgan leads the team in average-per-catch at 14.7 and he had surgery a week ago. Braylon Edwards (17) was lost to a knee injury as well, though it appears there’s a good chance he’ll return in the home game against Cleveland.
There were a couple of plays against Detroit that were set up for play-action that looked like they were intended to get the ball downfield, only to have penalties kill the play. So it looked like Roman was trying to get the ball downfield.
But, when the Niners face first-rate defenses in Baltimore and Washington, the SF defense will again be put to the test to limit the Ravens and the Redskins. Getting too far behind negates SF’s running game, putting pressure on an already limited passing game. It might be best to work on downfield throws to expand the offense and make the defense back off the line.
For such a run-oriented team whose defense is fourth-best in the league in preventing opponents from converting third downs, the Niners really lack in time of possession. They average 30 minutes a game, as do their opponents.
This is a team with limited ability to strike fear in defenses in terms of big plays, but it is a team capable of maintaining control of the ball. Alex Smith is one of the best in terms of throwing short. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter are a good 1-2 running back combination, and Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis rank as the best tandem of tight ends in the NFL.
But this is a team that averages 17.7 first downs a game to rank 23rd, and much of the reason is that they are 23 of 76 on third down, a dismal 30.3 percent. Compare that to San Diego, New Orleans and New England, whose third down conversion rate is, respectively, 56, 56 and 54.
To their credit, the Niners made some key third down plays when they had to, like running out the clock vs. Philadelphia. On third-and-four or less, the Niners are better, converting 11 of 21 chances. But at third-and-five or more, they are just 12 of 55, or 22 percent.
This suggests that the Niners might do well to use more play-action passes on first and second downs to loosen the defense, which is what they tried to do in Detroit. Of course, it would help if they had more than one healthy speed receiver outside to throw to, too.
With DTs Ray McDonald and Justin Smith (chasing down Jason Campbell), and NT Isaac Sopoaga, the front of the Niners 3-4 defense has played remarkably well. Their work has enabled linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to roam free, and not so surprisingly, the tandem lead the team in tackles—as designed.
But here is where more depth is needed. If either Smith or McDonald go down due to injury, the defense could suffer. Ricky Jean-Francois, Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams should see more playing time to cut down on the wear and tear on McDonald and Smith, both of whom are playing at a Pro Bowl level right now.
One thing you see coach Jim Harbaugh do is add more and more large bodies to his offense. Bringing in Isaac Sopoaga as a blocking back in power-run situations is one step. But he’s also added Alex Boone as an end. Though Chilo Rachel has lost his starting right guard job to Adam Snyder, he also has been shuffled into the line here and there. Anthony Davis (76) has done well, but it's always a good idea to have several backups.
This is a very smart move. Having seven or eight capable, interchangeable linemen on the front keeps the team strong in case of injury. In baseball, you never have enough pitching. In football, you never have enough people who open holes for running backs and keep the quarterback standing.
With a point differential of 11.7, the Niners rank third in the NFL. But, it’s a deceiving stat. Throw out the 45-point margin in the win over Tampa Bay, and the Niners’ margin drops to five points.
In other words, another blowout or two would be nice for a very needed reason: get Colin Kaepernick more snaps.
Having a rookie backup get more comfortable to NFL speed is a great way to minimize the damage if Smith should go down due to injury.
Kaepernick played against Tampa Bay and completed all three passes. Getting him more playing time—something that’s hard to do in crucial, close games—would do well to keep the Niners on top.
The addition of Greg Roman as offensive coordinator and Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator has, been a monumental upgrade from 2010. The Niners have been outscored 7-23 in the first quarter but in turn, have a 99-20 advantage in the second and third quarters combined.
This is a strong indication that Roman and Fangio pick up on the opponents’ tendencies and schemes and adjust accordingly. At the same time, with such a limited offense, starting out conservatively makes a great deal of sense. Making mistakes, like throwing an interception that leads to an easy TD, could pose too much of a barrier for the 49ers to overcome.
More points early in the game would take pressure off the defense, and could also enable the offense to take more risks, like throwing downfield to stretch defenses.
In light of the 49ers offensive personnel right now, it has to be said that Harbaugh and staff have done an excellent job of maximizing the team’s strengths and limiting its weaknesses. It is a team capable of winning the NFC West title, and it is even capable of winning a playoff game.
Can it do more than that? Working on these issues will go a long way to bringing a positive answer to that question.