Possibly the best news is that it’s not just the San Francisco 49ers. Right now, fans of the Giants, Redskins, Steelers, Falcons, and Vikings can all share with each other in the fact that their teams are performing immeasurably under expectations when compared to last season.
In some instances it’s injuries; in others it’s mistakes. On Sunday, the 49ers lost at home to the Colts. This was the first consecutive loss for the Harbaugh-era 49ers. Some things were done well, others not so well.
I like getting my bad news out of the way first, so let’s look at what’s I think has been going wrong.
First we’ll start with something very fixable. Penalties. The 49ers are one of the most penalized teams in the NFL today.
(Stats compiled from ESPN.com )
The worst part about penalties is their ability to extend a drive beyond the point where normal play would have ended it. Suddenly a punt situation is now 1st and 10 even further down the field, and the offense feels good because they got you to move the ball for them. It feels, after three games, that the 49ers find reasons to be penalized at the worst possible times.
Another issue that can be fixed, is actually two-fold. Let’s call it ‘ball security’ or simply ‘turnovers’. Fumbles and and interceptions are momentum killers, and game changers. A quick look at the league leaders shows us some fairly dismal statistics. The 49ers have seven turnovers in just three games. Here’s the comparison to their opponents.
(Stats compiled from ESPN.com )
So that means the 49ers, on average, give their opponents one momentum-changing moment more than their opponents give them, per game. In close games, this is going to come back and bite them. It doesn’t sound like much, but in a normally efficient offense, it’s enough. Especially when you consider that Colin Kaepernick already has more interceptions in three starts than he had in ten starts in last year’s regular season.
The only way to extend drives is getting first downs. Unfortunately, you can’t throw or run for 10+ yards on every play. And third down is a must-convert down.
In the game against Green Bay, San Francisco had a whopping 50% conversion rate. The two games following, they managed only a 25% completion percentage. That means against the Colts, the 49ers turned 3 of their 12 third down situations into first downs. This is part of why offensively the game couldn’t go the way they planned.
After halftime, I’m not sure what happened to the game plan. I can only tell you that the run game was almost abandoned. Now whether that was by design or a call made by the quarterback, I don’t know. If you watched the first two quarters of the game, you saw a very effective Niners offensive line and a VERY effective Frank Gore. Then after halftime, in what I’m sure the coaches would call something like “preserving balance,” the run game disappeared.
Balance is important to a football team; it’s how you play your poker/chess against the other team, but watching the game I saw the run game working very well and keeping a defense off balance. The run game has been a large part of the 49ers forte for the last few years, and it should not be abandoned.
I hate to harp on this, but after the game against the Seahawks and against the Colts, Kaepernick, the receivers and the passing game as a whole looked absolutely terrible. The young quarterback isn’t getting any help from his wide receivers downfield. He did improve from the first half to the second, going 2-for-8 (25%) in the first two quarters, and 11-for-19 (58%) in the second half.
Receivers in general found little separation throughout the game. The team longs mightily for a second clear receiver in Mario Manningham’s absence. Kyle Williams is very quick, but he misses balls he should be catching. This doesn’t even factor in that his size makes it near impossible to beat good press coverage, and defenses are learning that the Niners suffer greatly when pressed. Not having Vernon Davis clearly hurt this offense, and the other two tight ends on the roster cannot bring what he does to the game.
The secondary, when considered as a whole, looked very soft as well. This has been getting worse since about the middle of last year. The loss of Chris Culliver has hurt the Niners more than I think they want to admit. I feel like there needs to be some revisiting of their backs further down the depth chart. Nnamdi Asomugha has his flashes of looking like he did in Oakland, but for the most part, he’s showing somewhere between Oakland and Philly. Someplace around the middle of Nebraska, maybe. Maybe Eric Wright, when he finally comes off the non-football injury list, will enjoy the relocation and maybe leave his troubled past behind.
Finally, on to the good stuff; things that make you feel warm and fuzzy for the team again. Brace yourself though, this section won’t be nearly as long.
In the first and most of the second quarter of the game, San Francisco looked nearly unstoppable on the ground. It was like watching a game from last year, seeing the offensive line maul a defense and open up holes for Gore and Hunter to run through. Moving forward, the Niners must harness the attitude and the execution they showed in the first half against the Colts.
Colin Kaepernick, in the second half, looked much more like the Kaepernick we’ve been expecting to see this year. It seems like the play calling isn’t doing him any favors, but there’s no denying that he has the tools. However, whether it be the pressures of such a public life, or the league catching on to his tendencies, it’s been a rough season so far. I expect this will even itself out as the games progress.
Eric Reid. If there was ever a spiritual successor to the type of play we loved out of Dashon Goldson, it is being channeled by the rookie. All in all, I know I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what he’s shown. I feel like after this season or possibly later this season, there’s a distinct possibility we could see play out of him that surpasses that of the player he replaced.
I loved the pass rush for most of this game.There was a fair amount of pressure put on Andrew Luck by the San Francisco 49ers. Justin Smith had one sack, and hit the quarterback four times. Ahmad Brooks registered two hits too, showing that getting into the backfield remains important to the defense.
With all that being said, this is a very strong looking roster on both sides of the ball. Everyone knows that it’s not how you start a season, it’s how you finish. Just look at the Ravens last year. They lost three straight late in the season, and still managed to make the playoffs and ultimately win the Super Bowl.
It’s far too early in the season to count this team out yet.