Upon Further Review: 49ers Stump The Schaub
What a difference two weeks make, right? Two weeks ago, the 49ers were heading into a short week without absent Aldon Smith, injured Patrick Willis and a host of questions about their offense and defense. It looked as if coach Jim Harbaugh had lost the magic and physicality of his 2011 and 2012 teams. Okay, so not everyone was as doom and gloom as that perspective. But, with critics circling, the Niners were set to face a divisional foe who played them tough in 2012 and a Houston team that was angry after losing in stunning fashion at home to the Seahawks. Well, after an embarrassing performance by the below-average Rams, and a surprisingly easy night against the Texans, the 49ers are 3-2. Let’s take a look at how their Sunday night went.
It was an easy night for the offense. Faced with brilliant field position all night, Colin Kaepernick did not need to do much. He was far from sharp, but he didn’t have to be. On his best throw of the night, Vernon Davis embarrassed Ed Reed and beat him 20 yards down the field, out-running him the last 40 yards into the end zone.
Kaepernick threw just 15 passes and exited in the fourth quarter in favor of Colt McCoy for garbage time. Although it hasn’t exactly been pretty over the last two weeks, a hobbled Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin have been the only two viable targets for the third-year signal-caller. Jon Baldwin has started to get a few more snaps, and that should continue going forward because the Niners need guys who can make plays. A strong and physical receiver, Baldwin has been in Greg Roman’s system for about six weeks. The Niners should start finding out what they have.
San Francisco did receive some good news on the injury front this week. Mario Manningham, who tore up knee ligaments last December, is set to make his return to the practice field after Week 6. It may take a few weeks, but he offers a deep threat the Niners are sorely lacking. Also on-track for his targeted return is Michael Crabtree, who may hold the key to the 49ers’ season. Besides Week 1, they’ve shown very little teeth in the passing game. If Crabtree is even 85-percent, he’ll offer an element that could open up more opportunities for Kaepernick.
In the running game, as long as the 49ers were running away from J.J. Watt, they produced yardage. Frank Gore needed just 17 carries for his 81 yards against one of the better defensive teams in the league. Of course, it’s a lot easier to get a running game going when you have the opposing quarterback throwing you the ball. However, averaging 4.9 yards per carry on 36 totes as a team is no joke. Mike Iupati and Alex Boone continue to show that they are two of the better pulling guards in the league. They get through the hole and into the second level, sealing off linebackers and opening running lanes for Gore and Co. If there was one player on offense who deserves to get a downgrade, it was right tackle Anthony Davis. That should come as no surprise, though, as he was matched up with Watt — one of the best 3-4 defensive lineman ever, and that isn't an exaggeration.
It was another strong performance from a defensive unit that had struggled for the first three games. Again, it came against a quarterback who is displaying no confidence right now, but it was a truly dominant performance. On the third play from scrimmage, Matt Schaub attempted to look off Andre Johnson and then look back to him for a quick hitter to pick up the first down. But, Schaub telegraphed it and new nickel cornerback Tramaine Brock jumped the route for an easy pick-six. Brock almost had another pick-six in the second quarter working against Johnson, but he tipped the ball too high in the air to complete the runback. Brock was a popular training camp breakout player before Nnamdi Asomugha “won” the nickel cornerback job. With Asomugha’s injury, and Brock’s subsequent play in the last two games, Asomugha may be a healthy scratch when he is back to full strength. He offers no value on special teams and, shockingly, it could be the end of the line for the former All-Pro. It’s hard to imagine just three years ago he was one of the premier cover corners in the league.
In addition to getting solid play from his secondary, Vic Fangio also got another solid day from his Aldon Smith replacements. With Dan Skuta working again in the base defense, and rookie Corey Lemonier coming on as the nickel pass-rusher, the Niners should be in good hands until they get their All-Pro outside linebacker back from his stint in rehab. In the 81 snaps he’s seen in the two games since Aldon Smith left the team, Lemonier has produced four hurries and two hits, a far cry from the production Smith is used to, but a pretty good imitation. Additionally, Michael WIlhoite, subbing for Patrick Willis Sunday, turned in another fine game next to NaVorro Bowman. Unlike Willis, Wilhoite comes out in third-down situations. The 49ers played a dozen snaps in their dime package, with Perrish Cox coming onto the field as the sixth defensive back. As long as Willis is sitting out, expect the dime package from Fangio a handful of times per game.
The Niners also have some news on the injury front on the defensive side of the ball. While Ray McDonald partially tore his bicep on the field Sunday night, the defensive line will get some reinforcements following Week 6. Second-rounder Tank Carradine and fifth-rounder Quinton Dial should come off the Non-Football Injury list to provide some punch. Carradine will be the player to watch, as he was a top-10 talent before tearing his ACL last November. I could see Fangio going with a rotation of Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Carradine, which would afford the veteran Smith and banged-up McDonald some rest.
San Francisco is entering its easiest stretch of the season, as they face two overachieving 3-2 teams in the Cardinals and Titans, the worst team in the league, Jacksonville, and a struggling Panthers team. Even without some of their most important players, the team is showing signs of life. When they become fully healthy by Week 10 or so, the team could peak for matchups with the Saints and Seahawks in November and December. Despite a somewhat slow start, the 49ers are just one game behind the divisionleading Seahawks.