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Upon Further Review: 49ers Build Momentum

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Colin Kaepernick has improved dramatically, and he's using his legs more, since Michael Crabtree returned. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Colin Kaepernick has improved dramatically, and he's using his legs more, since Michael Crabtree returned. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

The 49ers played another complete game against an inferior opponent this past Sunday to claim their third straight 10-win season under Jim Harbaugh. The Bucs had won 4 of their last 5 games, including wins over playoff hopefuls Detroit and Miami.

Tampa had gone into Seattle and took the Seahawks to overtime before falling. Greg Schiano’s job might not be safe, but he actually has the Bucs believing. But, the Niners were ready for their cross-country flight and early start time. They would clinch the No. 5 seed if they win their last games — and avoid going to Seattle in the second round. It’s unfortunate they probably won’t be able to send Candlestick Park out with another classic playoff game.

Offense

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Michael Crabtree’s return to the lineup has given the 49ers another dimension. He’s played in nearly two-thirds of all offensive snaps since returning from injury, so the coaching staff isn’t limiting him. His participation is likely to remain in the 67 percent range through the last two regular-season games before taking a jump in the playoffs. Crabtree’s presence has helped Colin Kaepernick immensely; Kaepernick is going through his reads more actively, and when he is moved from the pocket, he’s looking to throw for as long as possible. Crabtree and Anquan Boldin are two receivers who excel when the play breaks down, making the Niners an incredibly dangerous team if you’re trying to blitz.

Crabtree is known as a chain-moving machine. On Sunday, he caught five passes, with three going for first downs. Another catch went for his first touchdown since the Super Bowl, as Crabtree became the third receiver to catch a touchdown this season after Vernon Davis and Boldin. From inside the 5-yard line, Greg Roman dialed up a run. The initial play failed, but Kaepernick scrambled right and kept the play alive, and Crabtree made a move to slip Johnthan Banks and get open for a score.

At the two-minute warning in the first half, the Niners were enjoying a 10-0 lead. They wanted more. In their 22 personnel, with Bruce Miller and Garrett Celek joining Boldin, and Kendall Hunter and Davis in a bunched alignment. The Bucs had nine men up near the line of scrimmage with Darrelle Revis in coverage on Boldin and Dashon Goldson playing deep free safety. The play wasn’t even a full-on max protection for the 49ers. Celek stayed in to block, but everyone else ran a pass route.

Kap moved left, staying inside the numbers, and unleashed an absolute seed from his own 40-yard line to the end zone. Mark Barron didn’t have bad coverage on Davis, but it didn’t matter. The ball travelled more than 60 yards in the air, but it probably didn’t get 25 feet off the ground. The word missile is rarely used when describing a quarterback’s pass, but it applied on that toss.

Kaepernick also used his legs well against the Bucs. On the first drive, he was quick to tuck the ball and get two big first downs. In terms of diagnosing the play, Kap is just becoming smarter and learning when to use his legs. When he identifies man coverage on third down, he can decide to run a draw because it’s unlikely any defender will turn their head before it’s too late. Although the read-option is nowhere near as effective as last season, Kaepernick can still use his legs effectively.

Frank Gore plugged away and went over 1,000 yards for the seventh time this season. Despite a slight drop in play from his offensive line this season, as well as his aging body, Gore’s vision remains second to none. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James got involved, too, as the pair combined for 10 carries and 62 yards. With the 49ers not absolutely needing wins in their last two games to secure a playoff position, it will be interesting to see if Gore gets a bit of rest over the last two games.

The only real concern for the 49ers again was not getting in the end zone enough. Instead of killing off the game early in the second half, the Niners allowed the Bucs to hang around, even letting them get within one possession before a dominant drive and subsequent turnovers by the Bucs made the final score look unflattering.

Defense

Another sound defensive game from the 49ers keeps them third in total defense and scoring in the league. The Bucs put together two very good drives on either side of halftime. Besides an 80-yard touchdown just before halftime, and a 92-yard touchdown drive at the end of the third quarter, Tampa’s drives totaled 3, 6, 19, -5, 17, -9, -4, 0, and -16 yards. That’s a grand total of 11 yards. Pretty dominant stuff from Vic Fangio’s defense, and one that just keeps getting better as it looks like Tarell Brown is back as the third corner.

Tramaine Brock is at right cornerback and Carlos Rogers is at left cornerback in the base defense. Rogers moves to slot corner on three wide-receiver sets and Brown plays left cornerback. Brown has been the right cornerback for the Niners for three-plus seasons, so it’s something new for him. It’s a possible sign that the Niners might not resign Brown, and could be getting ready for a big turnover at cornerback. But, with Brock playing well, the sometimes leaky secondary has been stout for the better part of the season.

The front seven is one of the best in the league and it starts with the linebackers. They have at least three of the top 10 linebackers in Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. With Smith back on the line, the Niners’ pass-rush is one of the more feared units in the NFL. In addition to his two sacks, Aldon also had a hit and six hurries, constantly harassing left tackle Donald Penn and forcing Mike Glennon from the pocket on numerous occasions. His combo of size and speed continue to prove difficult for any left tackle to stop. If he had played the entire regular season, it’s very likely that he would have an argument for some Defensive Player of the Year votes.

Bowman and Willis clog up the middle of the line of scrimmage and clean up run plays that may reach them. Additionally, they are two of the better linebackers in coverage. If that weren’t enough, they always seem to win matchups in the passing game when they are rushing the passer. They easily form the best pair of inside linebackers in the league and, with Smith, give the 49ers a nearly unmatchable group. Even the fourth linebacker, Ahmad Brooks, is contributing with a quality season.

Some pundits out there are starting to call the 49ers the No. 2 team in the NFC after the Seahawks. Whether or not that’s true, they’ll still likely have to beat Seattle in CenturyLink Field to get back to the Super Bowl. The Niners continue to build momentum and will close Candlestick Park out with style against the Falcons on Monday night next week.