Hello all, and welcome to the inaugural post of "Upon Further Review", in which the esteemed Diego Del Barco and the ever reviled (by Terry B, anyway) AJ Bolino share their not so subtle opinions on all things 49ers, and on occasion, hot topics around the NFL. In today's segment, we'll be discussing the rebirth of Alex Smith as a top tier QB, the sudden rise of Michael Crabtree, whether or not the 49er defense can continue to pound the pumice out of their opponents for the foreseeable future and our picks for week 6.
On the emergence of Alex Smith: Buying or Selling?
AJ: For all of the promise of multiple sets, "chunk plays" and offensive explosion, the 2012 49er offense has been a model of efficiency...but a little less than dynamic. For some, this has been a bit disconcerting. Where were the deep throws? Was our starting QB really all he was cracked up to be? Despite last season's success, a great many fans openly doubted the direction of the 2012 49ers, especially their QB.
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As the final gun sounded last Sunday afternoon, only one question remained: how can anybody doubt this guy?
It is time for the "game manager" talk to stop. It is time for the "average QB" talk to stop. Alex Smith has finally evolved into the QB that we've been waiting for him to become. He makes quick, intelligent decisions. He doesn't dip his shoulder when he delivers the ball. He no longer locks out his front leg when he loads up to throw. His ability to protect the football is unparalleled. As of Sunday night, Alex Smith was the highest rated quarterback in the NFL. I'm buying, big time.
Diego: Before I state this it would be important to get out on the record that I have never bashed Alex Smith even through his worst days with the franchise, always preaching the fact that he was put in situations that were setting him up to fail time and time again, always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. As the seasons went on, I started to doubt that he would ever be able to turn it around, at least with the 49ers, which made last season's performance so impressive for me - it gave me hope: in a second year under the same coach/coordinator/system, Smith would finally unleash the Phoenix within him and fulfill his potential.
I understand why it is easy to be so high on him after his performance last week vs the Bills, but my opinion of him is formed by his overall performance and not just last week's, and what I have constantly seen from him this season is inaccuracy, regardless of the improved mechanics. I continue to watch him throwing the ball high to his receivers, forcing them to stretch out in order to make a catch (instead of putting the ball in a place that allows them to get more yards) or just flat out missing them completely with the high throw. That's what made Sunday's performance so impressive to watch, his long tosses to Vernon Davis were placed perfectly on stride, the back shoulder throw to Kyle Williams for a 43-yard touchdown is probably one of the top five throws in his career, and the touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree was a thing of beauty as well. The thing is, I have learned to not fall in love with performances like this, and this isn't directed at Smith only, it applies to everyone - I will judge you by what you do consistently, and to this day Alex has consistently been far from the player-of-the-week candidate he showed up as last Sunday.
So I will watch carefully as I always do this Sunday against the Giants, and then four days later along with the nation on Thursday Night Football versus the Seahawks, and it won't be the stat line that will impress me, but rather whether he can continue to make the same types of throws he made last weekend. If he can, the stat line will more often than not look very good.
Has Michael Crabtree Finally Become a True #1 WR?
AJ: Michael Crabtree is coming off of what I think has been his best game as a 49er. He's always been a good blocker, a solid route runner and a pretty good pass catcher…but he's seldom done all three in the same game. On Sunday, he had about as good a game as a WR can have.
All he has to do now is do that consistently…or at least semi-consistently, and I'll be convinced. If you're asking whether I'm buying or selling, I'm asking if I can put him on layaway. I think that we'll know more about Crabtree's progress after the next few games. Let's see if he can duplicate Sunday's performance.
Diego: As much as I'm afraid to say it, I think Michael Crabtree has arrived. Even with the undeniable chemistry Smith and Vernon Davis have on the field, Crabtree now leads the team in the following receiving categories: targets, catches, yardage (and yards/game) and YAC. He is on pace for 995 yards for the season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him surpass 1,000 yards with all the looks he's getting, and if you take away the game against the Jets where the passing game was barely a factor (although he still had a team-high 7 targets) he would be averaging 74 yards/game, which would easily make him the first 49ers pass-catcher to go into quadruple digits in receiving yards for a season since Terrell Owens did it in 2003. On top of that, he continues to be an excellent blocker in the running game, his route running seems to be improving (he ran a beautiful corner route for his touchdown catch vs the Bills), and most importantly seems to be 100% healthy maybe for the first time in his NFL career. The way he made clutch play after clutch play on third downs against the Lions in the week two home opener was something I have never seen from him before in the NFL, and even with Randy Moss and Mario Manningham on this roster you can confidently say he is the best wide receiver of the bunch. Looks like playing in pre-season games does matter.
Can the 49ers Maintain Their Defensive Dominance?
AJ: I am going to get a ton of crap for this…but I wonder whether or not the 49ers can maintain their current defensive dominance over the long haul. Before any of you run off to grab your torches and pitchforks, just hear me out.
This defense is amazing. The linebacking corps is easily the finest in the NFL. The secondary is turning heads with its improved play (especially from Brown and Culliver). The D-Line is strong at the point of attack, and can generate pressure without blitzing…a rarity for a 3-4 defensive front.
So where is the weakness? Depth. This team was EXTREMELY fortunate on the injury front last season. In order to duplicate last season's success, they'll need to remain healthy in addition to elevating their already superior level of performance. The drop off from starters to back ups is steep across all of the NFL…but this team has four or five starters that are the best in the NFL at their positions. Losing even one of them could negatively affect the dominance of this unit, big time. Can they maintain their dominance? Sure. If they stay healthy.
Diego: Who has a better defensive unit in the NFL? NOBODY!!! Using last season's remarkable numbers as a standard, the 49ers defense is not on pace to replicate the number of sacks and turnovers they had last season, but they are currently holding opponents to less yards per game and points per game than last year. There are 30 teams in the league wishing they had J.J. Watt in their team, but 49ers fans have been watching Justin Smith perform at that high level ever since he put on a San Francisco jersey. This defense simply does not have a glaring weakness in their starting unit, having shown remarkable improvement in the passing game. The most astonishing aspect of their game is the fact that they have sustained this level of performance since the beginning of last season, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to Vic Fangio and the defensive coaching staff that continuously coaches and puts these players in a position to succeed.
Week 6 Picks
Steelers at Titans:
AJ: There are times when a home underdog shocks us all, stepping up to take on a superior challenger and showing the football watching world that they are contenders. This is not one of those times. Steelers.
Diego: Rashard Mendenhall takes the Steelers' offense to another level, while the Titans offense has yet to get into a rhythm. I have very little faith in Hasselbeck, and the Titans rank near the bottom of the league in both rushing and passing defense. Steelers.
Chiefs at Buccaneers:
AJ: The Chiefs were supposed to contend for the AFC West this season. In other news, Dewey was supposed to defeat Truman, and the Edsel was supposed to be Ford's "secret weapon". The Bucs will run wild on the hapless Chiefs, who are now led by Brady "he's still in the NFL?" Quinn. Bucs.
Diego: Be careful what you wish for, Chiefs fans. Brady Quinn has not played a full game since 2009. Kansas City will want to lean heavily on Jamaal Charles against the 4th ranked run defense. On the road. Ok. Bucs.
Cowboys at Ravens:
AJ: Apparently, after his meltdown in week 5, Tony Romo threw a postgame temper tantrum in the locker room…which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. The Ravens will be licking their chops…and they'll win. Ravens.
Diego: The Cowboys went into their bye week looking forward to working out their kinks and be ready to go this week. Too bad they're facing Baltimore. Ravens.
Raiders at Falcons:
AJ: Though Matt Ryan is long overdue to return to his painfully average self, it probably won't happen at home against the Raiders. Atlanta could win this one with a safety. Only a safety. Falcons.
Diego: Darren McFadden gets a juicy match-up against the 27th ranked run defense in the league, too bad the Raiders will most likely be trailing for most of the game. Falcons.
Bills at Cardinals:
AJ: In the battle of the NFL's most overrated versus the NFL's most overmatched, the Cards pull out a win here. After the win, all fifteen of the Cardinals' remaining bandwagoners will demand that they be rated in the AP's top 5. Cardinals.
Diego: Maybe, just maybe, Kevin Kolb will be able to improve on last week's 3 to 1 completion to sack ratio. I expect Buffalo to straighten things up on defense pretty soon, just not on their second consecutive road game out west. Cardinals.
Packers at Texans:
AJ: Welcome back to earth, Mr. Rodgers. The Pack will struggle mightily against a very good defense, and even the vaunted "discount double check" will be unable to save them. Texans.
Diego: I see both sides of the ball for Green Bay playing with a newly found sense of urgency, they can't afford to fall further behind Chicago and Minnesota in the NFC North. Down goes another undefeated. Packers.
Bengals at Browns:
AJ: There are 2 teams in Ohio? Seriously? I've consulted my magic 8-ball for this one, and it says that the Bengals will pull it out, but in reality both teams will lose, because they live in Ohio. Bengals.
Diego: This is my upset special of the week, look for Cleveland's special teams to make a difference in this game while Trent Richardson continues to keep his name in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Browns.
Colts at Jets:
AJ: The Jets are mind-numbingly awful, and the "chuckstrong" Colts are fired up. Andrew luck will go nuts on the road, and Mark "Sanchise" might actually throw for negative yardage. Colts.
Diego: This game may turn out to be more entertaining than some people would think. Part of me thinks Rex Ryan's defense can provide the toughest test Andrew Luck has taken so far, but my gut feeling says … Colts.
Lions at Eagles:
AJ: If Michael Vick can sneak some stickum onto the field, the Eagles actually have a chance to pull this one out. The Lions can't run, Megatron has been eerily quiet and Stafford isn't as special as everybody thought (unless by "special", one means especially gifted at throwing interceptions). Eagles.
Diego: evenly matched and equally underperforming teams go head to head. Philly at home, with a more veteran team, and an offense I keep on waiting for to break out. Eagles.
Rams at Dolphins:
AJ: The Rams are surprisingly improved and the Dolphins…well, they're still the Dolphins. All the same, without combination WR/Swiss Army Knife Danny Amendola, I don't care how good the Rams' defense is…winning on the road will be difficult. The Dolphins will win because they can stop the run, and right now, that's all the Rams can do. Dolphins.
Diego: If you're going to beat Miami on the road you better plan to do it in the air, because their run defense is putting the breaks on every running back they have faced so far. Unless the Rams' rookie wide receivers step up big time … Dolphins.
Patriots at Seahawks:
AJ: Going into week 6, the Seahawks have the NFL's #1 ranked defense. Hope they enjoyed it, because Tom Brady is going to pick it to pieces like a fat kid going after a piñata. Patriots.
Diego: The Patriots' offense may struggle from time to time, especially if neither Gronkowski nor Hernandez is active, but I expect their defense to give them a little edge in this one. Patriots.
Vikings at Redskins:
AJ: The Vikings have been outplaying everyone's expectations this season. Though the Redskins are far from perfect, I expect Christian Ponder to struggle on the road. It will take more than Purple Jesus to deliver him from a hostile crowd and an aggressive Washington defense. Redskins.
Diego: I give this game an over under of 30, it comes down to Ponder vs RG3 … In case you didn't already know, I am a huge RG3 fan. Redskins.
Broncos at Chargers:
AJ: In order to get ready for this game, Phillip Rivers played it through on Madden 13…and threw 5 interceptions. Who says video games can't adequately imitate reality? Broncos.
Diego: this is simply not a good matchup for the Chargers' pass defense. If Peyton and company can stay away from turning the ball over … Broncos.
Giants at 49ers:
AJ: The 49ers have been waiting for this game for a long time. Look for the defense to put the clamps on Ahmad Bradshaw, Mario Manningham to exploit a marginal secondary, and Frank Gore to get about 5,000 carries. It won't be a blowout, but the Niners should be able to take this one, especially at home. 49ers.
Diego: look for the 49ers to reverse their game plan this time around and just run the ball down the Giants' defense's throat. As it has been the case throughout this season, San Francisco's dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage should dictate the game in their favor. 49ers.