Heading into Thursday Night Football, the San Francisco 49ers were sitting with a losing record for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era. While their loss in Seattle at the hands of Richard Sherman and Co. was somewhat expected, the thrashing handed to them by Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts was not. Niner Nation was in panic mode for the first time in three years.
Then Thursday night happened. The 49ers smashed the Rams in St. Louis by a score of 35-11. Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick spearheaded the Niner offense, while Navorro Bowman anchored the defense. Fans were overjoyed; the 49ers were back. Even though 49ers had plenty of positives to take away from this win, there were also some signs of potential concern.
Good: The Return of the Running Game
When Jim Harbaugh left Stanford to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he brought with him the power run scheme the 49ers have had so much success with in the last few seasons. With the patient, elusive, and ageless Frank Gore leading the charge, the Niners became one of the most dominant running teams in the league. However, to begin the 2013 season, the Niner rushing game has struggled. The Green Bay and Seattle front lines were able to defeat supposedly the best run-blocking offensive line in the league and corral Gore and his running mate, Kendall Hunter.
The 49ers found success on the ground early in their matchup with the Colts, but for reasons unknown to me, they turned away from the ground game in the second half, even when the score was still close. In the St. Louis game, the rushing attack made a triumphant return.
The offensive line played aggressively and with a chip on their shoulder. Despite going up against a surprisingly good St. Louis front seven, they dominated, easily getting to the second level of the defense and opening up lanes for big runs from Frank Gore, who finished the night with 153 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. His understudy, Kendall Hunter, finished with 49 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
Two of the key contributors to the return to greatness of the rushing attack were left guard Mike Iupati and fullback Bruce Miller, two key players to this ground game who do not always get the credit they deserve. Iupati, who had a forgettable game against the Seahawks, paved the way in the middle, executing pulls and traps and consistently getting to the Rams’ linebackers.
Below is a video of Frank Gore’s touchdown run. Observe Mike Iupati (77) pull to the right and take out both the outside linebacker and the cornerback in one hit to pave a huge hole for Gore to run through.
The other unsung hero is fullback Bruce Miller. Miller too had an unspectacular game against the Seahawks, drawing a holding call that elicited a safety. Against the Rams, he acted as a fantastic lead blocker for Gore and a nice safety valve for Kaepernick in the flats. Miller has always had a nose for contact being a former defensive end.
In the 49er run system, he is asked to make a variety of blocks. On outside runs, he is often tasked with containing the outside linebacker. On inside runs, he is often asked to double team a middle linebacker to open a secondary running lane for Gore. For the past several years, he has gone relatively unnoticed by 49er fans and around the league. This season, with Kaepernick struggling to make his reads, he has been a factor in the passing game, acting as the safety valve in the short to intermediate regions. As his role in the 49er offense grows, so will his name around the league.
Bad: Kaepernick Still Struggling With His Reads
After Colin Kaepernick’s masterful game against the Packers in the season opener, we all thought he was invincible. A MVP season seemed in sights. However, for the past three games, Kaepernick has struggled with his progression in the pocket, often missing open receivers, holding on to the ball for too long, and looking generally hesitant with his decision making.
Kaepernick was never a traditional pocket-passing field general, yet that is exactly what he is attempting to be right now. As a young, inexperienced quarterback, growing pains in reading defenses are to be expected. However, the concern I see is his hesitancy in his decisions. Early in the season, he has been saved by having Anquan Boldin as his top target, a receiver who is open even when he is covered.
However, he is failing to make reads beyond that first option. Instead of either making the read and throwing it to the next available receiver or tucking the ball and running, Kaepernick is sitting in the middle. He isn’t looking at his other targets, and he is too hesitant in running the ball himself, resulting in a sack or a desperation throw out of bounds.
I believe Kaepernick is closer than people think in terms of his development. He has proved before he is capable of being a passer. But in order for him to reach his potential, he needs to simply relax. With the 49er offense struggling and the coaching staff discouraging him from exposing himself on scrambles, he is trying to do more than is necessary.
Just by emptying his head and playing his natural game, he can be a threat just by himself. His greatest strength is not his ability to run as people believe; rather, it is his dual ability as both a capable passer and a dangerous runner that makes him so impossible to defend and game plan against. To unlock this ability, Kaep needs to take a chill pill.
Good: The Defense is Back
Three games into the season, the vaunted 49ers defense had given up 28, 29, and 27 points respectively. The front line was struggling to pressure the quarterback. Ian Williams went down for the season in Week 2. Stud pass rusher Aldon Smith was arrested and checked into substance abuse rehab. All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha went down with injuries. The defense looked to be in shambles and a shell of its former dominant self.
But against Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams, the 49er defense made its return. Glenn Dorsey more than made up the loss of Ian Williams, recording a sack of Sam Bradford to go with four solo tackles. The defensive line feasted on a weak Rams offensive line, constantly pressuring Bradford without the use of the blitz. With two of the linebacker corps out of the lineup, Navorro Bowman took over. He wrecked havoc across the field, getting to the quarterback with two sacks, stuffing the run by holding starting running back Daryl Richardson to 16 rushing yards, and playing excellent pass coverage. C
orey Lemonier and Michael Wilhoite, the replacement linebackers, played very well in their own right, easing the pain of the loss of their two All-Pros. The Niners must be satisfied to know that should any injuries happen to the linebacker corps, solid backups are ready to fill the void.
Bad: Injuries Mounting
Despite leaving St. Louis with a win, the 49ers must be worried about the number of injuries piling up. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Tank Carradine, and Quinton Dial were injured before the start of the season and will be out until at least Week 7. Starting nose tackle Ian Williams went down for the season with a broken ankle. LaMichael James had a sprained MCL until returning for the St. Louis contest. Aldon Smith was arrested for a DUI and then checked into rehab for his substance abuse issues. Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, and Nnamdi Asomugha all also sustained injuries in recent weeks and have missed games as a result. Most worrisome of all, Joe Staley went down late in the St. Louis game with a leg injury. Though he walked off the field under his own power, his screams of pain made it look like a fairly serious injury.
For the last two seasons, the 49ers have been blessed with fairly good health. Most of their key players stayed relatively healthy, and their health was what enabled this franchise to be such a powerhouse. But with so many key figures going down with injuries so early in this season, will the 49ers be able to overcome these adversities? If anyone can do it, it is Harbaugh and his bunch. For the Niners to return to this promise land, staying healthy must be a top priority.