NFL: San Francisco 49ers' Midseason Report Card
They have been called the surprise team of the 2011 NFL season. They have a lock on the NFC West title, and now it’s just a matter of time to determine if they host one, perhaps two, playoff games in January.
This from a team many "experts" said would finish third in their division. The San Francisco 49ers have established themselves among the league’s elite. Credit the defense, credit the coaching and credit the front office for this vast improvement.
With a 7-1 record, the Niners face the second half of the season with five more games against NFC West opponents. But tough games loom on the schedule, including this Sunday’s home contest against the New York Giants. Then, another visit to the East Coast for a game in Baltimore versus the Ravens, followed by a December visit by the Pittsburgh Steelers, at least at this point, will provide compelling matchups that should reveal just how good the 49ers really are.
That said, with an eye to the stats and their rank, here’s a report card of the 49ers midway through the 2011 season.
Wide Receivers: B-
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One thing new coach Jim Harbaugh maintained throughout his limited exposure to the team during the summer lockout was his admiration for Michael Crabtree. And it has paid off. Crabtree leads the team in receptions, becoming the No. 1 target for Alex Smith, and constantly shows off some of the stickiest hands in the game.
It is proof of his toughness that many of his catches are short “stops” and hitches in the shallow zones that get five to eight yards a catch. They're not Calvin Johnson numbers, but it helps.
The loss of Joshua Morgan has hurt, and the absence of Braylon Edwards for four games didn’t helped either. This is the most limited unit on the team, one reason why the 49ers ranks 26th in total yards, 30th in passing yards and have a 6.1 net-passing-yards average (sacks included) per attempt.
It is a credit to the team that the Niners haven’t found themselves having to use the receivers as deep threats or have to rely on an intermediate-to-long passing game to get their points. Despite their offensive woes, they do rank eighth in scoring offense, making them perhaps the most efficient team in the league.
Running Backs: B+
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Frank Gore has regained his stature as one of the league’s best backs, and yet he doesn’t have the breakaway speed of a Darren McFadden or Adrian Peterson. What he has is durability, the prowess to work between the tackles and good game sense, such as knowing when to stay in bounds (critical in running out the clock in Philly). He’s still one of the best at picking up the blitz.
Rookie Kendall Hunter has been a pleasant surprise, perhaps the top fourth-round pick of the 2011 draft. He’s getting more playing time and will be needed now that Gore will require more rest.
The addition of fullback Bruce Miller has been a spark. His 30-yard reception was the only touchdown against the Redskins, but his blocking has been first-rate, another reason why this unit is the engine. If there was just a little more speed in this unit, more big plays would come. But Gore has had at least one run over 20 yards in the 49ers win streak, proof the unit’s effectiveness.
Offensive Line: A-
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Since the second half of the game against the Philadelphia Eagles, this unit has been nearly as good as any in the league. They have given up 19 sacks, which in part can be attributed to an offense that at times gives very little in terms of variability (such as two-receiver routes).
On the flip side, the Niners in the last month are averaging more than five yards per rush attempt. With Frank Gore having surpassed the 100-yard mark in five consecutive games, this unit is living up to its pedigree of three first-round draft picks.
Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are doing well on the left side, and Adam Snyder and Anthony Davis are strong. The addition of Johnathan Goodwin at center, with Snyder taking over for Chilo Rachal at right guard, has solidified the unit. Teams know they cannot out-hit the Niners. It is an offense built for consistency and physicality.
The Green Bay Packers lead the NFL in total yards and points scored, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has 265 pass attempts but has been sacked 20 times. His sack percentage is seven percent, or about one every 14 throws. Niners quarterback Alex Smith has 206 pass attempts with 19 sacks, a 8.4 sack percentage. But remember that the Niners average 4.5 yard per rush attempt compared to 4.0 for the Packers.
In other words, a little more production from the receivers would elevate the 49er offense to the league’s elite, and credit has to go to the offensive line.
Tight Ends: B+
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Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker and Justin Peelle get more snaps as a trio than any other tight end set in the NFL. It’s part of the 49er ground attack. Walker’s key blocks on Ndamukong Suh in the 25-19 win over Detroit were as crucial to that win as any play made as the trio’s receiving exploits.
The versatility of their talents gives the 49ers favorable matchups in both the run and pass games.
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Though people who have disparaged Alex Smith solely on his past performance still might discount his current status as one of the league’s 10 best in terms of efficiency (97.3), the team’s net yards-per-attempt average of 6.1 puts them at 17th in the league.
That’s not Smith’s fault. In fact, there have been at least three times at crucial moments when Smith took the sack. He tucked the ball away and accepted the tackle. And if you could travel back in time in August and make a bet with avid football fans, perhaps the easiest you could have made was whether Smith would have less than three interceptions halfway through the season.
He does, with two. And it’s a testament to his judgment and the faith that Jim Harbaugh has in him that the 49ers are doing so well.
Defensive Line: A
No rushing TDs allowed. There. Start with that. An average of 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. No 100-yard games allowed since November of 2009, a streak currently at 30 games.
Ray McDonald (pictured) and Justin Smith are great at the tackles, with Isaac Sopoaga doing yeoman’s work at the nose. Add in good help from Ricky Jean Francois as well as Aldon Smith on passing downs and you have an elite unit—perhaps matched only by Baltimore—that accounts for the defense being the cornerstone of the team.
In other words, no one mentions Aubrayo Franklin’s name—a free agent who is not missed.
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The cognoscenti of the NFL have put out the word: NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the best inside backers in the game. Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks are first-rate. Aldon Smith (pictured) is a rookie who will grow into a treasure.
This unit in tandem with the defensive line worked like a python’s coils against Washington. Slowly but surely, they tightened the grip on the Redskin to the point the offense became inert. Oh, the Skins gained more than 300 yards, but it took their last possession to get inside the San Francisco 30.
The Niners are second in the league in forced fumbles, second in the league in turnover differential (+12, or 1.5 a game) and first in touchdown percentage inside the red zone.
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This was the weak spot in the 2010 team. It is getting better and better. Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver (pictured) are playing very well at corner, as is Carlos Rogers. Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson pack the punch. The 49ers lead the league in passes defensed with 60. They are among the best in preventing opponents from converting third downs due to good coverage and good tackling.
This unit has made the most improvement, but at the same time they have been burned by good passing attacks (see Dallas game). The Giants game won’t be as much of a test for them as the Dec. 17 game at home against the Steelers will. Ben Roethlisberger is excellent at moving in the pocket to keep the pass play alive. That means the secondary has to stay with receivers.
That game will give us a good indication of how well the entire defense, especially the secondary, is playing.
Special Teams: A-
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David Akers might be the best free-agent pickup this year, at least for the 49ers. He hasn’t missed a field goal attempt beyond 50 yards. Punter Andy Lee leads the NFC in net yards at over 44.0 per punt. A blocked field goal in Philly is the lone black mark here.
Their stellar play has been a huge factor in the team’s success —long fields for the opponents against a good defense is not a formula for the long term.
Ted Ginn, Jr. remains one of the best returners in the game, and the tactics of special teams coach Brad Seely have been effective. This is a strength of the team, one of the best in the NFL.
Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers
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The most skeptical can say the 49ers should be 8-0, what with a squandered 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against Dallas being the reason behind their lone loss.
That said, a new coach facing limited training camp with a quarterback whose confidence, much less skills, were constantly questioned has turned this team into an unappealing force.
Credit defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for constantly coming up with schemes that exploit the talents of his players. The same goes for offensive coordinator Greg Roman for calling key plays, such as the fourth-quarter pass to Isaac Sopoaga in the Cleveland Browns game.
In July the most avid 49er fan had to say that a 4-4 record at this juncture would have been excellent, all things considered. Harbaugh has them three games better than that and in control of their destiny going into the last half of the season. There has been no better coaching job in the NFL since….?
All in all, this is a team that has weaknesses but also decided strengths. That the Niners limit their exposure and take advantage of their strengths is proof enough that this has been the most dramatic transformation of any 49er team.
Credit to all, with the second half and playoff performance determining the final grades.