Upon Further Review: Niners Can't Be Stopped
Another week, another 49ers win. The Niners jumped out to a 24-0 lead in Tennessee Sunday before coasting to a 31-17 win. It’s going to be a long 10 days for San Francisco, as they won’t see their homes until next week. They left Nashville on Sunday night and boarded a plan for London for a date with the Jags in the International Series. If they can get by a hapless Jacksonville team, they’ll be 6-2 heading into a bye with some serious reinforcements on the way. It wasn’t a cakewalk from the beginning, but there were some sound performances as I explain in this week’s "Upon Further Review."
It wasn’t an offensively-dominating performance by the Niners by any stretch. The Titans’ very competent defense held serve for much of the first quarter by stifling Frank Gore and the running game. Gore was stacked up for most of the day, but Greg Roman finally took the reins off the read-option game, and Colin Kaepernick looked like the threat he was last season. His 20-yard TD scamper in the second quarter was particularly reminiscient of 2012. Reading the left end, he pulled the ball from Gore’s stomach and used his long, loping stride to reach the edge. His five designed runs for 41 yards were an indication that Roman has no intention of ditching the read-option. I wondered last week if we’d see the same creativity that we saw in the second half of last season, and I think we found our answer. If anything, Roman might be elevating his play-calling at the right time. It’s assumed the Niners won’t struggle against Jacksonville, so they really won’t go too deep into the playbook. The British fans might even be treated to an appearance from Colt McCoy. With Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham due to return after the Week 9 bye, the Niners’ passing game should only improve. With a very dynamic running game already in place, and suddenly a stable of receivers, San Francisco is likely to give opposing teams problems on defense.
It was just one of those days for Gore. He converted two goal-line chances, although it took him three tries to get in from the 4-yard-line on his second TD. Joe Staley and Mike Iupati both played very well, but when the Niners attempted to attack the Titans running right, they sputtered. Anthony Davis and Alex Boone had games to forget, repeatedly getting beat by Sammie Lee Hill and Co. Despite missing starting MIKE linebacker Moise Fokou, Colin McCarthy came in and provided an adequate performance. However, it was Akeem Ayers, from his strong-side linebacker position, that really impressed. He frequently gave Anthony Davis fits and finished the contest with six defensive stops overall.
For the third time in four games, the script worked against Kaepernick in the passing game. He’s thrown 23, 15, and now 21 passes in three of the last four games, but that’s exactly what the 49ers want. Kap rarely targets anyone other than Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, but still has improved since his poor two-game stretch against Seattle and Indianapolis at the beginning of the season. He’s not as tentative in the pocket, but he is wary to trust the likes of Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin. Bruce Miller and Vance McDonald are seeing plenty of snaps as well, so it’s tremendously difficult to stretch the field when you have your 22 personnel, plus Boldin, as the lone wide receiver on the field. With the defense playing exceptional right now, and the Niners lacking the weapons in the receiving game, there’s no need to put the ball up 30-plus times. Expect this trend to continue until teams completely take Gore out of the game or start to put up more points against San Francisco.
The stat line Jake Locker put up against the 49ers was pretty gaudy, but he produced most of those stats in the fourth quarter, when the Niners were up 24-0. The banged up defensive line continued to rotate. With Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey carrying some injuries, the Niners activated fifth-round pick Quinton Dial from the Non-Football injury list. With Quinton Patton going down early in the season, and Marcus Lattimore and Tank Carradine recovering from college injuries, Dial will be the fifth rookie to see snaps for the Niners in 2013 — after Eric Reid, Vance McDonald, and Corey Lemonier and Patton. Considering the failure of the 2012 draft class, this is a great sign for the Niners. Dial saw seven total snaps, at nose tackle and defensive end in the 3-4 scheme. With Carradine coming back at some point, Dial will have to show enough in practice to relegate one of the other linemen to a game-day scratch. With Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie playing well, it may be tough for Dial to truly make an impact until next season.
Two other rookies continue to shine for the defensive unit. First-round pick Eric Reid seems to be over his tackling issues and continues to be in the right place at the right time. Fellow safety Donte Whitner has already said he’s a better communicator than Dashon Goldson. It helps that Reid isn’t constantly going head-hunting, so the Niners may have found an upgrade on the back-end. Since taking over as the pass-rush linebacker for Aldon Smith, Lemonier has been providing legitimate punch. In the four games Lemonier has played significant snaps in, he’s recorded 14 hurries, two hits and a sack, according to Pro Football Focus. With the Niners getting up early on teams, and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman back together roaming the middle of the field, the pass-rush can really pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.
On the back-end, there’s another breakout performer. Tramaine Brock, who was thrust into the nickel cornerback role when Nnamdi Asomugha was sidelined with a knee injury, had another interception and great performance against the Titans. His pick came on a jump-ball thrown by Jake Locker. Brock was working Nate Washington to the outside and had inside position, simply going up and grabbing the underthrown deep ball. After giving up Larry Fitzgerald’s long TD last week, the fourth-year player needed a bounce-back performance. For the season, Brock has given up just 12 catches on 23 targets. If you take away the 75-yarder to Fitzgerald, he’s yielding 14 yards per catch. Brock is an unrestricted free agent next season, so it looks like he’s forcing the Niners to pay up.