49ers Brush Aside Hapless Redskins
Any murmurs of a letdown against the Redskins on the Monday Night stage were put to rest by a ferocious defense and a sharp Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers could’ve looked ahead to the divisional matchups with the Rams and Seahawks over the next two weeks, but it was business as usual for Jim Harbaugh’s men. The Washington defense has been the cure-all for most of the passing games they’ve played this season, and Monday was no different. No one should be surprised by the dominant effort, but the Niners can now start preparing for the stretch run.
It was by no means a dominant offensive performance by the Niners and certainly not the way the San Francisco usually handles their business. They pounded the ball 33 times, but produced just 76 yards. The one thing the Redskins did well last night was shut down Greg Roman’s power running attack. Often with 7, 8, and even 9 men in the box, Washington was able to limit Frank Gore to just 31 yards on the night. After getting stacked up on power runs early in the game, which is the staple of their run game, Roman dialed up some stretch plays to try and string out the Redskins’ defensive front and get some lanes. It failed, but the 49ers didn’t really need a competent run game against the ‘Skins.
Additionally, Frank Gore seemed to get nicked up late in the first half. He soldiered on throughout the rest of the game, but ended up playing just 35 of 61 snaps. As is customary with the Niners over the last few seasons, Gore’s workload may take a slight hit as Jim Harbaugh attempts to keep him healthy for the playoff run. What he’s had the luxury of over the past two seasons is a lead in the NFC West and the ability to rest Gore whenever he wanted. Now, the 49ers are fighting with the Cardinals, Panthers and other NFC teams for the Wild Card spots. The coaching staff seems willing to get Kendall Hunter (20 snaps), and LaMichael James (3 snaps) some looks on offense. Anthony Dixon played 9 snaps as well, but they came when the Niners were just killing the clock late in the game.
There will be some Colin Kaepernick detractors who say the Washington pass defense is in the bottom 3 of the league and Kap didn’t do anything impressive. And sure, the Redskins are a mess on the back end. DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson, and rookie David Amerson are getting torched, and last night was just another routine performance from them. But, Kaepernick is finally making some of throws, and reads, that people have been clamoring for. In particular, there were two downfield throws that it was rare to see the big QB make yesterday. Kap loves coming off a play-fake, hitting his back foot, and seeing his first read open up downfield. On two throws to Anquan Boldin on Monday night, Kaepernick was able throw open an otherwise covered receiver. Both completions came against often-burned Josh Wilson, but Wilson was able to stay with Boldin. Kap had to put the ball up, and have faith that the back shoulder throws would find their target.
Additionally, the third-year quarterback’s pocket presence was also noticeably better than recent games, as he would keep his eyes up, looking down the field for targets before escaping on the run or throwing the ball. On his second TD pass of the day, he moved out of the pocket, going through multiple reads before finding Boldin in the back of the end zone. Overall, Kaepernick was 5 for 7 on throws 20+ yards down the field. Not every game will be as easy Monday night; the Redskins have officially gone in the tank and it looks like they’re settling in for a 4-12 or 5-11 campaign.
However, Michael Crabtree was officially activated on Tuesday and should provide a boost to the passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick had a 130 passer rating when targeting Crabtree last season. Even though he won’t be 100% percent, just the presence of him on the field will help. He’ll particularly help with the Niners’ propensity for three-and-outs and other quick drives. Crabtree moves the chain about as consistently as any receiver in the league, and even at less than 100%, will help turn 2nd and long into 3rd and short, and 3rd and medium into first downs.
Since the first three weeks of the season, the 49ers’ defense has allowed 12.5 points per game. All but three of those games were played without Aldon Smith. Additionally, the Niners have been without Patrick Willis, Ray McDonald, Tarell Brown, and Eric Reid sporadically in and out of games. Despite the defense picking up its share injuries, Vic Fangio’s unit is still one of the best in the league. The Washington offense actually had some success running the ball against the tough front of the Niners. 100 yards on 27 rushes is a relative success, but it would’ve been much more had the Redskins actually stayed in the game. On their only two successful drives of the game, Alfred Morris plugged away in Washington’s one-cut zone blocking scheme.
However, after falling behind in the third quarter, Robert Griffin III had to drop back far too often against the 49ers and was ultimately destroyed by a pass rush that’s regained nearly all of its strength. One week after getting called for a highly questionable penalty, which allowed the Saints to score a controversial game-tying field goal, Ahmad Brooks played like an ex-lover jilted him. Against the run, he consistently blew up plays, recording 5 stops on the night. It was Brooks, who remarked after the game, that RG3 should not be on the field. Brooks was one of the guys routinely catching up and hitting Griffin, so I’d tend to take the man at his word.
It was on the other side of the line of scrimmage, though, where the real havoc occurred. Trent Williams is one of the best left tackles in the league, but Justin and Aldon Smith proved to be in rare form and looking good as the season nearly hits the three-quarter pole. Aldon started the game on the bench for his third consecutive game after coming back from a rehabilitation facility. But, that didn’t really last too long. Dan Skuta continues to start, and impress, but if Aldon continues to play this way, it’s impossible to keep him off the field. In addition to the two sacks Aldon racked up, he was constantly in the backfield and recorded 5 other QB hurries and a hit. The Redskins often left Trent Williams and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger on an island against the Smith brothers, which is a mistake for any team.
The Smith brothers haven’t really seen much time together this season, and at the end of last season, they both were limited by injuries. When both are 100%, they’re about as tough to stop as any pass-rushing duo in the league. They are dominant playing on the same side, but Vic Fangio will also move them around, with Aldon lining up inside as a defensive tackle, and Justin standing up on the outside.
A win’s a win in the NFL, but the Niners have only beat one team with a record over .500 this season.
The close losses to the Panthers and Saints are reminders that they’re not an average team by any stretch of the imagination, but they’ll have to takedown the Seahawks in a couple weeks to prove they’re not just another team in 2013.