Another week has come and gone, and as always, Diego and AJ are back with another installment of "Upon Further Review". The 49ers are coming into their bye week on a high note after beating the bejeezus out of the hapless Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night. Given that the 49ers have officially hit the halfway point of the 2012 season, we'll do a little looking back this week as we discuss our pick for the best individual offensive and defensive performances from the first half of the season. We'll also do a little looking forward with our picks for the "breakout" player of the second half of the season, along with our picks for the week.
Best Offensive Performance of the Season's First 8 Games
AJ: This is a tough one. The 49ers have had more than a few outstanding offensive performances this season…but only one set an NFL record. On Monday night, in front of a national audience and against a very stingy Cardinal defense, Alex Smith was "lights out". Historically so. Smith completed 18 of his 19 pass attempts for 232 yards, 3 TDs, a 157.1 QB rating and an otherworldly 94.7% completion rate.
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Kids, that isn't good. It isn't great. It is RIDICULOUS. It sounds made up. In the history of the league, it has never been done. By anyone. Ever. Until last Monday, anyway. Smith has more to do…a lot more. But if his performance in Arizona proves anything, it's that he is capable of great things. If he can manage to become even a hair more consistent, the 49ers will be a very difficult team to beat over the second half of the season.
So there you have it…my pick for the 49ers best offensive performance of the year goes to Alex Smith. Flame away, haters. I'm ready for you.
Diego: I'm picking the same game, but a different player. Michael Crabtree's Monday Night Football performance on the road against Patrick Peterson and the Arizona Cardinals. Yes, Crabtree has fared well against Peterson in the past (7 catches on 10 targets for 120 yards in their first meeting last season, 7 catches on 12 targets for 63 yards in their second meeting), but this game stood out to me for a couple of reasons:
1) Crabtree gave Smith a scoring option in the red zone, an area where Smith and the 49ers overall have struggled in the past. San Francisco ranked 30th in touchdown scoring percentage in the red zone last season according to teamrankings.com, converting in just 40.68% of their trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Coming into the Arizona game, the 49ers had already improved, ranking 12th in the league at 56.52%, and after a going 2 of 2 on Monday night they are now ranked at #8 with a 60.87% in this category. Let me rephrase this: the 49ers were a bottom three team last year in red zone scoring percentage. They are now a top ten team. This is why Crabtree's performance was so important for the team this first half of the season, the 49ers can get a bit predictable at times with multiple running plays, but Crabtree's performance should only help the team continue to maintain their status as one of the best in the NFL inside the red zone.
2) Crabtree's dominance against a much improved Peterson. As of 10/25/12, Pro Football Focus reported that Peterson ranked as a top five cornerback in NFL Rating Allowed: of 42 passes to guys he was covering, only 19 had been completed for 249 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions for a 42.7 NFL rating. Enter Crabtree, who caught all four passes thrown his way when covered by Peterson for 42 yards and two touchdowns. Smith's rating when targeting Crabtree in this game? 150.0. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the most impressive offensive performance by a 49er so far this season.
Best Defensive Performance of the Season's First 8 Games
AJ: Offense was tough…but this is tougher. Dashon Goldson has been playing lights out. Tarell Brown is greatly improved. Aldon Smith has been brilliant. Patrick Willis is…well, he's Patrick Willis. But for my best individual defensive performance thus far, I'm going back to Week 1.
In a venue the 49ers were expected to march into and lose (badly), one man stepped up to change the course of the game. NaVorro Bowman was all over the field against the Packers, and he intercepted an Aaron Rodgers pass on one of the best QB traps I have ever seen. His 8 tackles and game changing interception get my vote, primarily because they set the tone for a defense that many thought would backslide, but is now ranked #1 in the league.
Diego: Great minds thing alike. I may have to admit something I have been trying to deny for quite some time now: Navorro Bowman is slowly but surely becoming the best player in this outstanding 49ers' defense. Take his game against the Vikings, for example: Bowman gobbled up 7 solo tackles and assisted in 11 more for a total of 18, 10 of which were in plays where the Vikings did not get more than three yards. Bowman's instincts always lead him to the ball carrier, and in this game his tackles stopped 30.51% of all the offensive plays by Minnesota. That, is impressive. Many experts around the league where hesitant to anoint Bowman as an elite linebacker after last season's pro bowl year, wondering whether it was a fluke. Nowadays, there's no denying Bowman is one of the top linebackers in the game, even if he's surrounded by arguably the best defensive lineup in the NFL. As a matter of fact, as of 10/18/12, Pro Football Focus stated Bowman had surpassed Ray Lewis as "The Premier Run Stuffer" in the league, calling him their top graded linebacker after earning said recognition last season as well, and reporting he had only had one missed tackled up to that point. Navorro Bowman has been an elite player so far this season, and in my opinion his game against the Vikings was the best by a 49er so far this year.
Who will Break Out over the Second Half of the Season?
AJ: This one is easy. When the 49ers signed Mario Manningham in the offseason, I thought for sure that he'd become a favorite target of Alex Smith. Outside of a few very eye-opening plays, Manningham has been largely ineffective.
Over the next 8 games, expect that to change. While Michael Crabtree is continuing to build chemistry with Alex Smith and Vernon Davis is a time bomb just waiting to explode for 3 TDs, Manningham is something that the 49ers have sorely needed since the inception of the Harbaugh Era: a viable third option though the air.
Manningham is a gifted route runner, and though he has more quickness than all out speed, he gets out of his cuts will little wasted movement, making him the most capable 49er wide out when it comes to creating separation. Look for Alex Smith to exploit that, and for "Super Mario" to be just that for the 49ers over the next 8 games.
Diego: You and I are on similar wavelengths this week AJ – I am picking a wide receiver too. I wrote about him in the offseason in attempt to dismiss the conception that he was a bust, I have said that he has arrived as a true number one wide receiver in the NFL, and I most recently singled him out as having the most outstanding offensive performance by a 49er so far this season, so guess what? I'm picking Michael Crabtree to break out in the second half of this season. The standard for me, as shallow as it may be, is a 1,000-yard season, which although he isn't on pace to accomplish it I believe he can achieve it based on how we have seen him perform so far. Any questions about lack of chemistry with Alex Smith can be put to rest - he has been targeted nearly 20 times more than Vernon Davis, and he continues to lead the team in targets, catches, yardage, yards/game, YAC, and first downs. He will continue to see a steady number of balls thrown his way, not only because he has proven he can be the leading receiver for this team, but more importantly because becoming such a leader will go a long way in determining whether the 49ers can be Super Bowl contenders this season.
Week 9 Picks
In Week 8, AJ went a respectable 10 for 14 (.714). As such, he won't be changing his name to Nostradamus…but he has managed to avoid the dunce cap…for this week anyway. Diego was just 9-5 after taking leap of faith on the Rams vs the Patriots that he still can't really explain. Let's see how the UFR crew fares this week:
Chiefs at Chargers:
AJ: Phillip Rivers has been so bad this season that he could f*ck up a wet dream. Fortunately for him, Matt Cassel couldn't win this game if he played it on Xbox. Set to "rookie". Chargers.
Diego: Amazing how this could be such a tough game to pick. Which one of these teams will stop keeping themselves from earning a victory? Chargers.
Bills at Texans:
AJ: This offseason, the Bills went out and bought a defense. Too bad it can't stop anybody. Texans.
Diego: Maybe this is the week it all comes together for the Bills, I mean they're due, right? Right ... Texans
Cardinals at Packers:
AJ: The Cardinals have the great misfortune of playing a resurgent Packer team at home. The Pack will bust out the whipping stick in this one, and the Cards will crumble. Packers.
Diego: At what point do you guys think we'll see Ryan Lindley forced into this game due to injury? Second, third quarter? After the game, Clay Matthews may get booked for murder. Packers
Lions at Jaguars:
AJ: The Lions are bad…but not as bad as the Jags. Lions.
Diego: The Lions showed me something last week after I picked the Seahawks to beat them in Detroit, are they finally putting it together? Then again, would we really be shocked if they had a letdown against Jacksonville this week? Lions.
Ravens at Browns:
AJ: The Ravens got beat down in their last game. Look for them to rebound against the leagues worst team. Ravens.
Diego: Brandon Weeden has been looking good lately, Trent Richardson is becoming a dominant RB in the league, Josh Gordon is showing the potential to be a legitimate threat for this team … don't forget any of those things after this game, Browns fans. Ravens.
Vikings at Seahawks:
AJ: Christian Ponder has come crashing back to earth over the past few weeks…and Qwest Field isn't exactly the best venue for "rebound" games. Seahawks.
Diego: I just hope Purple Jesus gets me enough to win my fantasy league matchups. Seahawks.
Cowboys at Falcons:
AJ: The NFL's biggest underachiever will take on the leagues biggest overachiever…and Tony Romo will throw three more interceptions. Falcons.
Diego: More disappointing team so far this season: Bills or Cowboys? I got burned picking against the ATL last week. Falcons.
Bears at Titans:
AJ: Cutler is overrated, but Forte is good. Really good. Da Bears get it done on the road against a forgettable Titans squad. And CJ2K will find out exactly how hard it is to run against a good defense. Bears.
Diego: Cutler may be overrated, but the Titans' pass defense is awful, largely due to a non-existent pass rush. Bears.
Broncos at Bengals:
AJ: "The Neck" vs. "The Red Rifle". Maybe Dalton has it in him to stand up to the Broncos. Probably not, though. Broncos.
Diego: By the time this game is done Peyton Manning will own an 8-0 record against the Bengals. Broncos.
Dolphins at Colts:
AJ: The Dolphins won't win two on the road. Especially since Andrew Luck is already better than Mark Sanchez. Colts.
Diego: And I was worried we were going to agree on every pick this week. I think the world of Andrew Luck, but the Colts' defense is still suspect and Luck will not be getting a lot of help from the running game this week. Dolphins.
Panthers at Redskins:
AJ: Cam will fall short on the road. A quick note for his "suggestion box": quit whining and lead your team, putz. Redskins.
Diego: If you don't find a way to watch this game on Sunday, chances are you will regret it. Dual threat QB's against bad defenses? Yes please. May the best QB win – is there any question who the best QB will be on FedEx Field? Redskins.
Bucs at Raiders:
AJ: The Bucs are notoriously streaky. The Raiders are notoriously bad. After consulting my magic 8-ball, I am convinced that notoriously streaky will beat notoriously bad. This week, anyway. Bucs.
Diego: That Oakland passing game is starting to get going, and that will benefit Darren McFadden as well. Back-to-back road wins for Tampa Bay? I doubt it. Raiders.
Steelers at Giants:
AJ: The Giants are peaking. The Steelers are old and beat up. Anyone care to guess what's going to happen in New York this weekend? Giants.
Diego: I care to guess – Ben Roethlisberger will put the team on his shoulders, carve up the Giants defense, and lead Pittsburgh to a road win that will put them back on the map. I mean, have you see just how bad this New York secondary is? Steelers.
Eagles at Saints:
AJ: In the matchup of the league's most overrated teams, Michael Vick will do what he does best: find a way to lose on the road, no matter how bad his opponent is. Saints.
Diego: I am done picking the Eagles to break out of their slump. Which may just lead to them breaking out of their slump. Saints.