Welcome ladies and gentlemen to this week's installment of Upon Further Review, where we'll be looking at what it will take for Colin Kaepernick's first season under center to be viewed as a success, rating the 49ers current safety tandem, which of the 49er assistants has had the biggest impact on the team this season, running through a two minute drill and making our picks for the week.
Now the Colin Kaepernick has been named the starter, what will it take for this season to be viewed as a success?
AJ: As of yesterday, Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers starting quarterback. Though Coach Harbaugh has left the door open to re-insert Alex Smith at some point in the future, the likelihood of that is slim. That stated, its time to determine what it will take to deem this season a success.
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The immediate temptation is to give the younger QB the benefit of the doubt. To say, "Well I guess if we make the playoffs, we could say that this season was a success."
To give in to that temptation would be a mistake. This team has too much talent to waste a season gearing up for a Super Bowl. After the way last season ended, there is only one way to look at this season as anything but a failure…the 49ers must make it to the big dance.
Needless to say, such expectations put an inordinate amount of pressure on the 49ers new starting QB. Especially when one considers that only two first year starters, Kurt Warner and Tom Brady, have ever managed to lead their teams to the Super Bowl. Can Kaep do it? Only time (and the next 5+ games) will tell.
This much is certain: Kaepernick has the physical tools to succeed. Whether or not he will is another question altogether.
Diego: To not be the reason why the 49ers do not win the Super Bowl. Sounds easy enough, right? Say what you would like about Alex Smith, but he had the best season of his career last year. Then, in the playoffs, he led the 49ers to a comeback win against the Saints in arguably the most exciting game of the year, and although he was not able to repeat that performance against the Giants, Smith battled throughout that game, accounting for both of San Francisco's touchdowns and leading the 49ers on a short drive to tie the game in the 4th quarter. I am sure many would find a way to argue he was the reason the 49ers lost the game, but needless to say I would disagree.
One of the main reasons I would had preferred for Smith to remain the team's starter is that the experience he gained last year in the playoffs is invaluable, and I had a lot of confidence that he would be able to improve his performance in the playoffs this season just like his numbers this regular season were even better than his career year in 2011. His game-management style of play is a perfect complement to the team's dominating defense.
Enter Colin Kaepernick, whose most recent NFL comparison is apparently Brett Favre. It makes sense, Kaepernick grew up was born in Wisconsin and got to watch a lot of Favre's games, and his playing style definitely resembles the league's all-time leader in touchdown passes: very confident in his arm, not afraid to throw it downfield. Kaepernick's game definitely brings a different level of excitement when watching the team, but one of the biggest key to his success will be to mold part of his game to that of Alex Smith's - don't lose the game. Kaepernick has a lot going on for him: deep knowledge of Greg Roman's offense, command of the huddle, the respect of his teammates, a great arm, much improved accuracy, and the ability to become a running threat at any time. However, he needs to remember that at the end of the day the pressure is not on him to carry this team to a title, not when the 49ers' defense is capable of holding opponents to just over 14 points/game. On the other hand, the defense will very seldom score right after he throws an interception (they did so for the first time this season against the Saints). If Kaepernick is able to find the middle point between Brett Favre, who is also the league's all-time leader in interceptions thrown, and Alex Smith's game-management style, the odds of him being viewed as a success will be pretty good.
Just how good is the 49ers safety tandem? Could they be the best this team has seen since the 90's?
AJ: If there is one thing about the 2012 49ers that really stands out, it is the play of the back end of the defense…especially at the safety position. At present, the 49ers are ranked #2 against the pass, giving up a meager 187 passing yards per game.
That number is stunning…especially when you consider the fact that the 49ers haven't been ranked that high since 1997. Curiously, the back end of the 49er defense was held down by an impressive tandem of safeties back then, too: Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald.
This begs the question…just how good are Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson? The answer: Really. F'ing. Good.
Goldson and Whitner add an element to the 49er secondary that has been missing for almost 20 years: hitting power. Both players have displayed the ability to ball hawk. Both have excelled in run support. But what makes them special in comparison to their counterparts around the league is that they hit harder than any safety tandem in the NFL…and word is getting out. The beat down that they issued on the Saints last week was eye opening. Look for that to continue this Sunday.
So, are Goldson and Whitner as good as Hanks and McDonald? No…they're better. Whether you're talking about range, run support, or the ability to hawk the ball, these two have the potential to be really special. I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do against the Patriots in Week 15.
Diego: Damn you AJ and your questions comparing players to 49ers from the past, whereas you can simply go on your memory and recall these players I have to get on a computer on do a bunch or research. Do you want to know what my research says? It says your memory is pretty good ...
There have been some pretty good safeties in this franchise's history, the first one I ever saw being Tony Parrish (that's as far as my memory goes, the rest is research). Right before him we had Lance Schulters, McDonald, Hanks, some guy named Ronnie Lott, and Dwight Hicks if we stop in the 80's. Those are some pretty good names, but only McDonald and Hanks had the opportunity to play alongside one another and create a tandem as special as the one the 49ers have out there today in Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.
Goldson and Whitner bring the THUMP – ABC tv stations wish this pair were around back in the 60's so they could record the sounds of their tackles for their Batman episodes – Kapow! Zok! Whammm! OOOff!! Vic Fangio, Ed Donatell, and the rest of this coaching staff has done a hell of a job putting these guys in schemes that perfectly match each other's skills, and the result has become a nightmare for opposing skill players. Dashon Goldson: the hard-hitting, rangy Free Safety with a non-ending knack for getting takeaways; Donte Whitner, the harder-hitting Strong Safety embedded with tackling thirst and improving coverage skills. They are Bash Brothers out there on the field and Whitner's interception and return for a touchdown against the Saints is just the latest exhibit of their prowess – on that play it was the FS Goldson delivering the punishing hit on Marquees Colston and the SS Whitner getting the interception and turning it into a score. I have not seen a pair of safeties play this well since Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis wrecked havoc nearly 10 years ago for the Philadelphia Eagles, and yes AJ, this pair has been the best the 49ers have had since Hanks and McDonald in the 90's, and they're possibly better, but you know what would seal this argument? A Super Bowl ring.
The 49er Coaching Staff is good. Really good. But which of them (with the exception of Coach Harbaugh) has had the biggest impact on the team this season?
AJ: Well, considering that I just spent four paragraphs gushing over the secondary, care to guess which assistant I'm going with? Make no mistake; Ed Donatell has made his mark on this defense.
For most of the past few years, every season has had its "sweet Jesus, we just got aced for a 45 yard TD" moment. Most of them have starred Mark Roman, Nate Clements, and/or Reggie Smith. What a difference a new secondary coach and a few free agents make, huh?
The fact is, the 49ers are ranked #2 against the pass for the first time in over 15 years. Culliver, Brown, Goldson and Whitner are a huge part of that…but the man that coaches them deserves acknowledgement. This secondary is the best coached group that the 49ers have had in over a decade.
Diego: Mike Solari. I am the kind of person who likes to simplify things, and regardless of who the starting quarterback is, or whether the running backs and receivers are Pro Bowl caliber, the key to the offense's success comes down to the effectiveness of the offensive line. Games are won in the trenches. It is a cliché, but nonetheless it is an accurate one.
Solari joined the team in January of 2010 and quickly received a couple of new shiny toys to play with: Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis. Both of these players became starters since week one of their rookie years and have steadily improved since thanks in big part to Solari's coaching. Patience was key with Solari' work, however, as the 49ers' pass-blocking performance was among the worse in the league yielding 44 sacks, tied for 6th-worst in the league. The run-blocking that year was nothing to brag about either, ranking in the middle of the league with a 4.1 yard/run average and just 103.6 rushing yards/game. That 2010 starting unit in the trenches also included Joe Staley, David Bass, and Chilo Rachal.
In 2011 Baas was replaced with Jonathan Goodwin, and although the unit again gave up 44 sacks and remained in the middle of the league with a 4.1 yard/run average, they ranked in the top-ten of the league in rushing yards/game with 127.8, an improvement of over 24 yards from Solari's first season. It's also important to point out that although the stats don't indicate an improvement in pass protection, some of the sacks need to be pinned on Alex Smith's safe approach and his willingness to take a sack over forcing a throw that could result in a turnover. An improvement in pass blocking was noticeable in comparison to 2010.
This season the unit is hands down the best in the NFL, and it is recognized as so by analysts around the league. The stats reflect it as well, with the 49ers leading the league in yards/run (5.4) and rushing yards/game (163.4). Although the number of sacks given up is once again on track for 44, the unit's pass blocking is arguably the best the team has seen this millennium, and they have only given up one sack in the two games Kaepernick has started, a trend that is likely to continue and that will most likely result in added improvement in the number of sacks given up. The unit now consists, from left to right, of Staley, Iupati, Goodwin, Alex Boone, and Davis. Boone has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise of them all, making a seemingly painless transition from Tackle to Guard and solidifying the unit.
The unit has Solari's work ethic stamped all over it, and their success should be largely attributed to Solari's coaching over the last two seasons. More importantly, their outstanding performance could be the main key to a Super Bowl run. Without a doubt, Solari has had a tremendous impact on this team.
Two Minute Drill:
- Aldon Smith has reached 30 sacks faster than anyone in the history of the league. Right now, he's 6 sacks from all time regular season record of 22.5…and he's on a pace to hit 24.
- Ndomakong Suh kicked Matt Schaub in the cojones (and was caught on film) yet he wasn't suspended. A bunch of Saints players were suspended because they were shown to have set bounties on opposing players. Is anyone else confused by the "even enforcement of the rules" currently being applied by the league?
- Colin Kaepernick has had a very impressive start to his career…but one NFL stat bears mentioning: only two NFL players have won a Super Bowl in their first season as a starting QB…Kurt Warner and Tom Brady. If the 49ers are truly looking to improve upon last season's finish, they'll have to buck history to do it.
- With Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter both placed on IR, this Sunday, 49er fans could get their first regular season glimpse of AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James.
- Was anyone else dancing like Snoopy when the team announced Navorro Bowman's contract extension? The 49ers' current starting linebacker core, arguably the best in the NFL, is now on track to remain together for at least another three seasons. Oh yeah.
- So much for my hopes that Michael Crabtree would crack 1,000 yards this season. Other than touchdowns, he's on track to put up the same numbers he put up last season, but with a new sheriff at QB his numbers could spike, it'll be interesting to keep an eye on that.
- Nobody predicted this chain of events would be what would get LaMichael James on the field, but it is time for the former Oregon Duck to make his presence felt in the NFL. He is the only running back on this roster who can replicate Kendall Hunter's running outside the tackles and everyone around the league is looking forward to seeing him next to Kaepernick in the backfield on read-option plays. If he's not active this week I would be very surprised/disappointed.
Week 13 Picks
In Week 12, we saw the Jaguars actually win a game ... and Cam Newton finally manage not to lose. The Rams won with defense, and Raiders fans wondered if their team still had one. The Browns beat down the Steelers (okay, maybe not THE Steelers…but a reasonable facsimile of the Steelers). But the capper for what can only be called the oddest week in the NFL to date would be Ray Rice's miraculous conversion of a 4th and 29, which led to a Ravens victory and almost certainly signaled the end of Norv Turner's stint as head coach of the Chargers. Given this week's slate of games, more hilarity is almost surely guaranteed:
Saints at Falcons:
AJ: After getting their hearts torn out by the 49ers last week, the Saints should be relieved that they get to play the Falcons. 10-1 or not, the Falcons are a beatable team, and the Saints match up well with them. Add in a dash of desperation, and that's enough to give the visitors the win. Saints.
Diego: We'll start off agreeing on this. Although part of me feel the Falcons have the edge at home this week, they just continue to show week after week that their record is clearly not a reflection of their performance. The Saints are responsible for Atlanta's lone loss, and they will do it again knowing that they're on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention. Saints.
Cardinals at Jets:
AJ: In a game that should be dubbed the "Toilet Bowl," the only sure thing besides the 6 combined turnovers we'll see is that someone will win ... no matter how hard they try to blow it. Jets.
Diego: Let's not underestimate the possibility of a tie here AJ. But I'll take the home team against the team whose QB is following Alex Smith's career path ... Jets.
Jaguars at Bills:
AJ: The Jags finally won a game last week ... but the home team will win this one. Bills.
Diego: Unlike the Cardinals-Jets match-up, this game has a chance to be entertaining. I misfired picking against Jacksonville last week, but I'm doing it again this week. Bills.
Patriots at Dolphins:
AJ: Gronk is out. Welker is hobbled. Hernandez will be limited. And absolutely none of that will save the Dolphins from a biblical beatdown. Pats.
Diego: I'm not even going to ... Patriots.
Texans at Titans:
AJ: This game looks like a blowout on paper. It's going to look even worse on the field. Texans.
Diego: perfect opportunity for Houston to stop going to overtime, and for their defense to stop giving up 30-plus points, and for their own sake work our their issues because they visit the Patriots next week on Monday Night Footbal ... Texans.
Buccaneers at Broncos:
AJ: The Bucs are a surprisingly improved team this season. Unfortunately, that won't help them defeat the Broncos at home. Manning is going to go off, and the Bucs just don't have the juice to stop him. Broncos.
Diego: Rotoworld's Evan Silva has me convinced that this is a horrible match-for Josh Freeman and the Bucs, so ... Broncos.
Browns at Raiders:
AJ: The Raiders are epically awful. How awful, you ask? If you haven't yet seen it, I encourage you to watch the 1980's remake of "Flash Gordon." The Raiders are worse at football than the cast of that sad excuse for a movie was at acting.Browns.
Diego: Oakland is giving up just over 42 points/game over the last four games (all losses), I'm just wondering if Cleveland is really able to put up a 40-burger (their season high is 34). Browns.
Eagles at Cowboys:
AJ: Eagles ownership has announced that they'll be changing the team theme song from "Fly, Eagles, Fly" to "Cry, Eagles, Cry." Cowboys.
Diego: No, seriously, I'm done picking the Eagles to win this season, I swear. Cowboys.
Colts at Lions:
AJ: Is it wrong that I hope Ndomakong Suh gets kicked in the stones so hard that it precludes him from having children? The Lions are rapidly becoming a sideshow, and the Colts are rapidly becoming a legitimate playoff contender. Colts.
Diego: Something about last week's effort against Houston tells me Detroit finally gets back on the winning column this week, just before the Packers put them out of their misery for good next week. Lions
Panthers at Chiefs:
AJ: Don't look now, but here comes another game that even Cam Newton can't screw up. Panthers.
Diego: I don't think Kansas City could win another game this season even if you combined the QB's on their roster into one. Panthers.
Seahawks at Bears:
AJ: The Seahawks are going to have a tough time with the Chicago D. Look for them to go a little NCAA this weekend and dose their entire team with Adderall. It probably won't help, but it should be pretty fun to watch. Bears.
Diego: Seattle's latest road loss against the Dolphins only confirms that they're a hot mess away from CenturyLink Field, led by Russell Wilson, who has thrown all eight of his interceptions in road games against only six touchdowns. Bears.
Vikings at Packers:
AJ: Christian Ponder's streak of horribly inefficient play will sink the Vikings, even though the Packer defense is gut wrenchingly awful. Packers.
Diego: I would feel a little bit of confidence about the Vikings if Percy Harvin played this week, but reports say he's been "limping through practice." Packers.
Bengals at Chargers:
AJ: Bold prognostication: The Chargers will have a victory all sewn up…but the Bengals will convert a 4th and 59 to send the game into overtime, where they'll win with an 85 yard field goal. Into the wind. Bengals.
Diego: the question is: wherever Norv Turner ends up next year, will Alex Smith follow him? Bengals.
Steelers at Ravens:
AJ: Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse than Byron Leftwich dressed like a bumble bee, along comes Charlie Batch. Ravens.
Diego: I'm only willing to pick the Steelers to win if Ben Roethlisberger plays, and that apparently is not happening. Ravens.
Giants at Redskins:
AJ: This game will be intriguing. RGIII will have an opportunity to show that he can bring it against a real defense. Too bad the Redskins defense won't be able to stop Eli and Co. Giants.
Diego: But if RG3 is successful against the Giants, does it provide a blueprint for the Kaepernick-led 49ers to beat the Giants in a possible playoff match-up? Oh by the way, have I mentioned I am an RG3-homer? Redskins.
49ers at Rams:
AJ: The Rams jumped out to a quick 14 point lead the last time these teams met at Candlestick….and I'm willing to wager that the 49er defense hasn't forgotten. My prediction? Pain. Lots and lots of pain. 49ers.
Diego: last time these teams met the Rams outperformed the 49ers for long stretches of the game. We have seen these last two weeks what the San Francisco is capable of when they are fully ready for a challenge. They will prove that the infamous tie was a fluke, and continue to establish themselves as one of the top teams in the league. 49ers.
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