Upon Further Review: 49ers Need To Regroup
First off, what went right for the the 49ers against the Colts? I know, there's not much to say. However, in the first quarter, it looked like the Niners were getting back to pounding the football with Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. On their second drive of the game, if you include Kaepernick's 14-yard scramble, San Francisco rushed the ball six times for 78 yards, demonstrating their run blocking prowess along the way. Frank Gore led the way with 54 yards on 3 carries, and for the quarter had 67 yards on 6 totes. His biggest gains came on power plays to the right, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and paving the way. The drive culminated with a brilliantly executed draw play from 13 yards out. All Kendall Hunter had to do was follow his massive offensive lineman who had broke 5 yards downfield already.
But that's where positives stop. After the first quarter, Gore had just 5 carries for 15 yards. Although his struggles were largely due to the fact that the Colts were stacking 8 in the box, pressing the 49ers' wide receivers, and forcing Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. But, until the Colts went on a long drive in the fourth quarter, the Niners were within one possession for the entire game. It's inexcusable that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman completely abandoned the run for the final 45 minutes. While we may never know the reason they stopped feeding Gore, expect the situation to be rectified on Thursday night in San Francisco. With a defense short on playmakers right now, Harbaugh needs to control the ball and keep the ball against a suddenly potent Sam Bradford. And with their passing game struggling, riding their running game has to be a top priority.
And that brings us to the passing game. Colin Kaepernick just didn't look comfortable in the pocket. The Colts brilliantly contained him, forcing him to stay in the pocket and look downfield, which the third-year signal caller could not handle. Last season, Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh simplified things for Kap. Easy reads, easy throws, and a dominant running game helped him along in his growth. A healthy Michael Crabtree also helped out. The loss of Vernon Davis against the Colts was pretty big. He is a mauling blocker in the running game, but more importantly, he would've been able to get open against Indianapolis. Injuries had sidelined a few of the Colts' starting linebackers and safeties. Davis would have run free down the seam on multiple occasions, and with no one else getting open for the 49ers, Kaepernick would have locked in on him. Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore are more suited as fourth and fifth wide receivers, but they have been thrust into larger roles this season and have failed miserably. If they can't get open, Kaepernick will continue to struggle.
However, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Vernon Davis is tentatively expected to play Thursday against the Rams. It looks as if he was held out against the Colts to be ready for this divisional showdown. The Rams' passing defense has not been stellar this season. That should be another bump for Kaepernick. Additionally, Jon Baldwin, who's been inactive for each game this season, could be activated for the game. He probably is the most talented wideout on the roster at this point, but hasn't been able to make anything of it yet. Although it'd be impossible to expect him to be up to speed at this point, the Niners might just see what they have with Baldwin.
We're not used to seeing the San Francisco defense get pushed around three weeks in a row. The first two weeks you might be able to give them pass; Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback on the planet, and going into Seattle is not an easy task for any team. But, at home, coming off the embarrassing loss to the Seahawks, you expected the Niners to physically impose themselves on a makeshift offensive line the Colts were running out there. However, it couldn't have gone differently. The Colts played the Niners' own game against them, with Pep Hamilton employing his smash-mouth brand of football that was made famous during his time with Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck at Stanford. There were many who dismissed the loss of Ian Williams at nose tackle as a blip on the radar. But, without the big Williams to clog up the middle and take up multiple defenders, the Niners could struggle against teams who aim to ram the ball down their throat. Stopping the run has been the Niners' strength over the last few seasons, but we could see some capitulation from them in 2013.
Of course, with Patrick Willis in doubt for Thursday's game and Aldon Smith out indefinitely, things could easily get worse for the 49ers. No Willis would mean Michael Wilhoite will step in next NaVorro Bowman at middle linebacker. Wilhoite looked very good in preseason, but anytime Willis isn't in your starting lineup, it's a clear downgrade. Additionally, Aldon Smith's replacements include Dan Skuta, who is more of an inside linebacker and rookie Corey Lemonier. The player to watch is easily Lemonier. More of a defensive end at Auburn, Lemonier will likely be asked to play in obvious passing situations, something Vic Fangio did with Aldon Smith in 2011. If he's playing on the same side as Justin Smith, which is likely, he'll have opportunities to get to Sam Bradford.
At the backend, the 49ers' secondary wasn't much at fault for their loss on Sunday. Some missed tackles, sure, but Andrew Luck just didn't test the defense downfield. That's the new reality of the Indianapolis offense; Pep Hamilton wants to run the ball, first and foremost. It does look like the 49ers found a player in Eric Reid. Sure, he's missed some tackles early on, but he isn't afraid. One week after getting concussed on a hit in Seattle, Reid was back out there on Sunday looking to lay clean hits on Colts receivers. There's definite room for improvement, but Dashon Goldson's replacement should have a bright future in the Bay.
The 49ers also picked up another injury concern in their secondary as well. Nnamdi Asomugha came up lame and looks doubtful to play in tomorrow's contest in St. Louis. It may be for the best as well. The former Eagle had another poor performance on Sunday, missing some tackles, as well as looking lost at times in coverage. The Niners, of course, will not divulge any information before announcing their inactives for Thursday, but the smart money should be on Tramaine Brock to play extensively, especially with the spread look the Rams show on offense. If Brock can hold his own while Nnamdi is sidelined, he may just pip the veteran for the left cornerback job.
While it was certainly an eye-opening loss, and the injuries are concerning, it's certainly not the end for this team. Last season, much of this same team suffered an embarrassing home loss to the Giants, as well as a crushing defeat at Seattle. As you know, after all that, the 49ers nearly reached the pinnacle of the sport in New Orleans. Jim Harbaugh and company aren't panicking. Yet.