Niners Looking Nasty At The Break
We are literally halfway through the 49ers’ 2013 regular season, and they’ll be enjoying a much-deserved day off from action. So, what better time for a first-half report card? After a 1-2 start, there were some worries for a suddenly banged up and underperforming team, but those fears are gone thanks to a five-game winning streak. The offensive line is back to dominating the line of scrimmage, and the defense is playing with tremendous confidence. Both units will get stronger after the bye with players returning from injury and suspension. The Niners are clearly pegged as one of the three NFC contenders, along with the Saints and Seahawks.
We’ll start with the most important position. For many, it might be a disappointing start for Colin Kaepernick. The statistics aren’t there, which for many, is a sign that he’s not the player he’s been built up to be by the media, fans and his teammates. And after his demolition of the Packers’ soft zone defense in Week 1, the expectations grew even larger. In seven games since that 412-yard performance against Green Bay, he has passed for more than 200 yards just one time. Two were downright awful games, as he looked like a deer in the headlights against the Seahawks and Colts. In four other matchups — against the Rams, Texans, Titans, and Jags — he just didn’t have to put the ball up. Kap attempted 75 passes in those four games, or fewer than 20 per day. Additionally, he looked a lot better in the pocket. Even without viable options in the passing game beyond Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick made the throws when he needed to over the winning streak.
What’s more promising is Greg Roman’s return to the read-option game. Roman legitimately unleashed Kaepernick on the Titans in Week 7 for the first time all season. The 49ers were so difficult to defend near the end of the season and in the playoffs in 2012 because of Kap’s legs. His ability to pull the ball out of Frank Gore’s gut and run around the end opened up the run and pass game. It made sense for the Niners to put away the read-option, not only to protect their quarterback, but also to reduce the amount of film opposing teams had on the schemes. Coming out of the bye, expect them to ramp up the inventiveness and usage of the read-option, especially with tough NFC games coming up against the Panthers, Saints and Seahawks.
Frank Gore may be 30, but he remains the foundation of the Niners’ power run game. After three early-season duds running the ball, Roman got back to basics on a short week against the Rams. With a mauling offensive line, the 49ers excel at inside runs. With guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone possessing the ability to pull through the hole, and fullback Bruce Miller moving through the crease, Gore gets to the second level with great regularity. He’s been written off for about three years running now, but leads the league in 20-plus yard runs. Although he could stand to take a few less carries in the second half of the season to stay fresh for the playoffs, Gore will continue to shoulder the load for the Niners.
In a league where the uber-athletic Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron and other former basketball players turned tight ends are picking up accolades for splitting out in the slot and wide, is it possible that a guy like Vernon Davis has become underrated? No, not really. Davis does line up all over the Niners’ formations, but it’s because of his sheer athleticism. He is a matchup nightmare for nearly any defensive back or linebacker out there, with a unique combination of size and speed. What’s more, Davis is a dominant run blocker. When the Niners lineup in their 22 personnel, with Anquan Boldin alone at wide receiver, Davis and Vance McDonald at tight end, and Miller and Gore in the backfield, it’s next to impossible to stop the 49ers on three straight run plays. Davis is a key cog in this dominant running game, making him one of the top all-around tight ends in the game. Even when Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree come back, Davis’ chances for big plays will only grow.
Anquan Boldin is the only legitimate wide receiver the 49ers have had all season. He exploded onto the scene in Week 1, but has just 25 catches for 343 yards in his last seven games. That’s not a product of teams just clamping down on Boldin. It’s just who he is at this point. He’s smart enough to get open and find seams in a zone, but he can’t separate much anymore. The bye week will do wonders for his 33-year-old body. Perhaps, more importantly, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree are getting closer to returning from their respective injuries. While Manningham won’t steal too many targets from Boldin, his presence running down the field will open up things underneath for his veteran teammate. When Crabtree returns, the entire offense could get a facelift. Crabtree was easily Kaepernick’s favorite target down the stretch last season, averaging six catches, 88 yards and almost a touchdown per game over the last 10 contests, including the playoffs. Will Crabtree be 100 percent? Of course not, but with four viable targets in the passing game, the Niners could open up the offense.
Coming into the season, there were some questions facing the 49ers' defense. They lost defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois, in addition to free safety Dashon Goldson, to free agency. Nickel cornerback Chris Culliver tore his ACL early in training camp. The defensive line wasn't a big deal, as Sopoaga and Jean-Francois were part-time players. But, the holes in the secondary were very concerning. They had struggled throughout the playoffs in 2012, giving up huge numbers to Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Those struggles continued in the first three weeks. Getting torched by Aaron Rodgers should come as no surprise, but Weeks 2 and 3 were very uncharacteristic performances because the Niners were manhandled in the trenches. However, just like the offense, Vic Fangio made the right adjustments on defense and they've allowed just 12 points per game over the last five games.
The only thing the front seven really has to worry about is injuries. Nose tackle Ian Williams was lost for the year in Week 2, Glenn Dorsey is battling a hamstring injury and Ray McDonald has a partially torn bicep muscle that he is playing through. In addition to the injuries, Justin Smith is getting older. He's not playing his full complement of snaps this season, However, the Niners have enough depth to endure. With Quinton Dial's activation last week, and the return of Tank Carradine, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is adding some depth and talent to his defensive line.
At linebacker, everyone's aware of the issues Aldon Smith is going through. There's hope he will return after the bye week following his stint in rehab. Whatever the 49ers can get out of Smith over the rest of the season will be a plus. He was playing possessed through the first three weeks, but rookie Corey Lemonier has stepped in and hasn't missed a beat. In the five games he's played since taking on a bigger role in the absence of Smith, Lemonier has produced 14 hurries, three hits and one sack. When Aldon Smith returns and Tank Carradine gets up to speed, the nickel pass-rush has the potential to be one of the scariest in the league.
Patrick Willis missed a few games with a soft tissue injury, which seems to be the norm. He missed several games in 2011 with a hamstring issue, and missed games against the Rams and Texans with a groin problem this season. That obviously didn't matter, as NaVorro Bowman picked up the slack. When Bowman and Willis are on the field together, you can't help but watch them work in tandem. They consistently blow up run plays. Additionally, they play off each other so well. While Willis isn't very good at rushing the passer, Bowman excels at it, especially late blitzing against a running back in protection. Bowman has his struggles in pass coverage, but Willis excels in working back in the middle of the field. And both are two of the fastest sideline-to-sideline backers in the game.
For all of the questions facing the San Francisco secondary heading into the season, they have exceeded any expectations they had. The worst player on the backend for Vic Fangio has easily been Nnamdi Asomugha, but he's now a healthy scratch on Sundays. Asomugha wasn't targeted that much through the first three weeks, but looked slow and clearly isn't the player he was three years ago. The unfortunate part of the Asomugha saga is that the 49ers were forced to waive seventh-roundpick Marcus Cooper at final cuts, hoping he would make it through waivers to the practice squad. However, the Chiefs claimed Cooper straightaway and he's been playing well in a limited role. Asomugha picked up a knee injury in Week 3, thrusting Tramaine Brock into the starting lineup in Week 4. Brock has responded well with three interceptions and sound coverage, which is certainly opening eyes around the league with his impending free agency in 2014. Brock, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner are having great years, and Carlos Rogers is holding up adequately in his slot role.
Rookie safety Eric Reid might be making the biggest impact. The Niners traded up 13 spots in the first round to go get their replacement for Dashon Goldson, and the high expectations were nothing knew for Reid. He played in a loaded secondary at LSU, along with Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. The premier free safety in the league is undoubtedly Earl Thomas. His ability to play 15 to 20 yards off the line of scrimmage and gravitate to a run or pass is unbelievable. No, Reid isn't at that level yet. But, his ability to get downfield to the ball and make a play is obvious. He did struggle with some missed tackles earlier in the season, but has fixed those issues, and has surprised in pass coverage, always finding the ball and even making a few plays.
On top of the phenomenal play from the rookie, cornerback Eric Wright is getting set to come off the non-football-inury list, adding another body in the secondary. Is it possible Wright doesn't offer anything and sees the door after three weeks of practice? Sure, but it's also just as likely Wright is an upgrade in the slot and could force the Niners to show the door to Carlos Rogers. More likely, Wright is a name to watch next season, as the only locks to be in the secondary are Tarell Brown and Eric Reid.
When the Niners take the field in Week 10, they will likely have some reinforcements active or close to being active. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Tank Carradine, Eric Wright and Aldon Smith all should be close to contributing to the team. Without those guys, they still sit at 6-2 with losses coming to two Super Bowl contenders in Seattle and Indianapolis. With two pivotal meetings coming against New Orleans and Seattle, which will likely go a long way in determining playoff seeding, the Niners are getting healthy and should peak at the right time.