Upon Further Review: 49ers Sweep Rams
The 49ers continued their dominance over teams that are under .500 in 2013 with a sound wire-to-wire victory over the Rams in St. Louis. While it’s extremely difficult to see the Niners winning the NFC West, even if they take down the Seahawks in San Francisco this week, Jim Harbaugh’s team looks like it may be starting to peak at the right time. The team is a little banged up on the offensive line, but have continued to prove that they’re a contender in the NFC.
But, from what we’ve seen, can anyone go into Seattle in the playoffs and get a victory?
The biggest takeaway on offense for the 49ers this past Sunday was the return of Michael Crabtree and the massive effect that had on the passing offense. Colin Kaepernick looked incredibly confident with his go-to target back. Even if Crabtree isn’t close to 100 percent, which he is not, passing defenses have to account for him. Instead of Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Jon Baldwin or any of the other receivers the Niners have been running out there, opposing secondaries must leave one of Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin or Crabtree in single coverage. Kap has been doing a better job of going through his progressions in recent weeks — and now, with the viability of three targets in the passing game, the downfield passing game will become much more of a threat. The sharp, laser-like throws that we saw last season from Kaepernick may be returning to a field near you.
However, the Niners still want to remain balanced on offense. Balanced is usually somewhere between 55-60 percent throwing the ball. For Greg Roman, the ratio is at about 50-50. Kaepernick threw 28 passes and the Niners ran the ball 30 times. Of course, they were nursing a sizable lead for most of the second half, but this is exactly the ratio they want.
What was impressive was the ability of Kaepernick to carry the offense for another week. Frank Gore struggled for a third consecutive game as defenses continue to stack the box and force the Niners to throw. With Crabtree back, Kap obliged. Anquan Boldin finally settled into the possession receiver role, catching his most passes since the Week 1 outburst against the Packers. With Crabtree still being worked into the rotation, he’ll have his moments, such as burning Trumaine Johnson for a 60-yard gain down the right sideline. However, Boldin and Vernon Davis will remain the two most targeted Niners for the remainder of the regular season.
Davis continues to display his otherworldly athleticism. Even at age 29, he’s not close to slowing down anytime soon. He made not one, but two of the same ridiculous plays against the Rams. Hurdling defenders is often seen as dangerous, especially now that concussions and head injuries are a huge concern, but Davis made it look incredibly easy on Sunday. Late in the first quarter, Davis caught a pass in the flat and turned upfield and safety Rodney McLeod went low for the tackle. But Davis launched himself over him, coming down and bouncing off two more would-be tacklers, and dragging them for another five yards.
Then, in the fourth, after an insanely dumb fake punt by the Rams, which gave the ball to the Niners deep in St. Louis territory, Kaepernick found Davis after the latter leaked out on play-action. Davis again turned upfield and hurdled himself into the end zone, and executed his patented jump shot through the uprights. Davis is one of the NFL’s biggest mismatch problems, and with Crabtree now back in the fold, he could become a better player.
There were a couple issues for the Niners on offense. Three times the 49ers put the ball into the red zone and had to settle for three field goals. Additionally, Frank Gore lost a fumble in the red zone as well. Part of the problem was the lack of run game, leaving 2nd and 3rd and long situations, which are tough for any team to convert. With one of the stouter defenses in the league, the Niners can afford to do that against some of the weaker offensive teams. However, against the Saints, Seahawks, or even the Broncos or Patriots, you have to score touchdowns. Greg Roman is known as one of the league’s most inventive play-callers, but he needs to dial up some better calls in the red zone. With Michael Crabtree back, there should be some better scoring opportunities.
Another issue for the Niners is the status of the All-Pro left side of the offensive line. Guard Mike Iupati went down with a knee injury several weeks ago, and Joe Staley picked up the same injury early in Sunday’s win. They’re hoping it’s the same injury for Staley: a sprained MCL. Staley is clearly out for the huge tilt with the Seahawks, and it’s currently unclear when he might come back. The same goes for Iupati, and you can never be too careful with knee injuries (see: RG3 last season). Alex Boone kicked out to left tackle, putting Joe Looney at right guard. Both performed well in a pinch, but the entire line takes a hit with both those stalwarts out. With Boone playing a different position, and Looney and Adam Snyder taking on starting roles, the Niners will have a difficult task against the fierce Seahawks pass rush. They have to be able to run the ball against Seattle.
The 49ers’ defense nearly pitched another TD-less game against the opposition. With mostly backups in the game, the Rams finally punched in a TD with just 18 seconds left in the game, with Kellen Clemens coming through on a desperation final drive. While the score obviously counts, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner were not on the field for the drive. So, you can put an asterisk by the drive. At the very least, the Niners’ first-team defense hasn’t given up a TD since the second quarter in Week 11. That’s a good run to have going into a meeting with the NFC-leading Seahawks.
The Rams actually ran the ball better than the Niners. Zac Stacy, returning from a concussion last week, didn’t look like himself, but the Niners have the reputation of playing stifling run defense. Stacy’s good vision led to a few nice gains, but he was stacked up for three or four yards during most of the contest. The big test will come this week against Marshawn Lynch. With Russell Wilson playing some of the best football of any quarterback, stopping “Beast Mode” early is a must.
A huge part of the Rams' successful run in recent weeks was finally getting Tavon Austin in situations to succeed. He’d been making big play after big play over the last couple weeks. And against the Niners, he played more snaps than he had over the last two weeks combined, but he couldn’t hit on the big play. The Niners’ defenders took turns covering him, with linebackers, corners and safeties all getting a crack at him in coverage. He caught just 4-of-7 targets, including two grabs that came against backup linebacker Michael Wilhoite on the final drive of the game. With Percy Harvin looking very questionable at best for Sunday’s game, the Niners likely won’t have to come up with a player-focused plan for Harvin, but can prepare normally — only with the added wrinkle that Russell Wilson is playing on another planet right now.
With the Niners’ only losses coming against Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Carolina, there are some folks questioning whether the 49ers are an average team. They’ve beat just one team that is over .500 for the season (Cardinals). However, the way that they’ve taken care of business against the weaker competition suggests otherwise. A win over Seattle would go a long way to proving some of the doubters wrong and thrusting their way back into the NFC title picture.