Upon Further Review: Niners Get Dose of Reality
In what was the 49ers' worst offensive performance since the Mike Nolan era, Jim Harbaugh’s team got a wake-up call, at home, against the Carolina Panthers. The Niners are just one loss away from the total from 2012 and, with games at New Orleans and at home against Seattle, the pressure will mount if they suffer another loss in Week 11. With the NFC Wild Card picture turning into a muddled mess, the Niners need a short memory and have to take care of business. For all that went poorly on the offensive side of the ball, the defense continues to be one of the top units in the league, even after losing two starters in the game.
It was the first slow day for the 49ers’ offense since a Week 3 loss to the Colts. The inability to pick up just a few first downs per drive was noticeably bad. Two of their first three drives were three-and-outs. However, they were able to run the ball for much of the first half, and dominated the time of possession — and were advantageous on two of their three scoring drives. A blocked punt by Carolina, which touched an unassuming Panther, ended up being recovered by the Niners and left them a short field.
Later in the first half, an interception set up the Niners inside Carolina’s 25-yard-line. They had a fourth-and-one at the Carolina 2-yard line, but elected to take a 9-0 lead. At the time, Brian Billick remarked that it was the right move by Harbaugh. Take the points and worry about the rest later, he said. But, the Niners were winning the battle in the trenches at the time. Best case scenario, the Niners hand the ball to Frank Gore, he scores and they are up 13-0 with about six minutes left in the half. Worst case scenario, they get stopped, and they force the Panthers to go 98 yards to score a touchdown. Additionally, when you have Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, you can run a number of different plays near the goal line. The failure of that call was on Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman.
Frank Gore had 12 carries for 61 yards in the first half. Naturally, he only had four totes for 21 yards in the second half. The Niners didn’t see much of the ball in the second half, but that’s inexcusable. The Panthers' front seven was stout, but the 49ers were still winning at the point of attack on a fairly routine basis. Their power runs, behind the pulling guard, sprung Gore for multiple big gains in the first half. Roman simply abandoned the run, even in the fourth quarter, when the Niners were still winning. With an offensive line struggling to protect its quarterback, leaning on the run game was the only logically move.
After Sunday’s performance, the brigade of Alex Smith backers and ‘Colin Kaepernick is a one-read quarterback’ will be up in arms. Outside of Joe Staley, every member of the offensive line had a game to forget. Vernon Davis played 21 snaps before exiting the game with a concussion early in the second quarter. Before Davis left, Kap was 6-of-9 with 45 yards. But, after Davis left the game, Kaepernick went 5-of-13 with 46 yards and a pick. Neither is very good, but one stands out.
With Davis on the field, there’s always a target Kaepernick can look to. It’s important to note that Kyle Williams was cut Tuesday after playing 21 snaps Sunday. It’s a sign that Mario Manningham (45 snaps) is ready to rock, and Michael Crabtree is expected to be ready soon. Without Davis, though, the passing game stalled. There was no time to throw, receivers weren’t cutting off their routes and looking for a quick pass. That adds up to trouble.
In a defensive struggle, it’s very possible that the team that gives up a touchdown, loses the game. The Niners happened to be that team, but still played a clean defensive game and kept their sputtering offense in it until the final moments against Carolina. DeAngelo Williams’ touchdown run in the second quarter was a brilliant design; it sent half of the Niners' defense to the left, leaving NaVorro Bowman, Corey Lemonier and a few defensive backs to try and tackle Williams, who had some blocking help. The tackling was poor on the play, but if you take that run away from the Panthers, they would have had 84 yards on 29 rushes, which is good for 2.89 yards per carry. The run defense had one letdown, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
Cam Newton had a similarly ineffective game as Kaepernick, but will get credit for the W. Tramaine Brock had another strong game in the secondary, and is pushing for a lucrative contract when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March. Brock made a brilliant play on the ball, cutting off Steve Smith and taking the ball right at the catch point. He continues to show his return chops, too, as he took the ball nearly 50 yards and set up a field goal for the Niners.
While Brock continues to provide some surprisingly, above-average play, the Niners continue to fight injuries. Ray McDonald, already nursing a partially-torn bicep, picked up a knock on his ankle in the second quarter and was out. With the defensive line getting healthier, McDonald’s injury isn’t a complete disaster. However, no team wants to lose a starting defensive end. It’s a situation to monitor.
In a more troubling situation, Eric Reid left the game with a concussion. It was his second of the season. Reid came back quickly and didn’t miss a game following his first concussion. This time, Reid has to be watched closely by team physicians to make sure his symptoms aren't persistent. At best, Reid can only be considered very questionable for Sunday’s game against the Saints. The downgrade from Eric Reid to Craig Dahl is substantial, and Drew Brees will exploit it.
The prospect of playing without Vernon Davis and Eric Reid is very real for the Niners against New Orleans. After this week’s loss, the pressure is naturally starting to heap on San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh has rarely faced adversity in the NFL, so this week will be a good test of his coaching.