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Welcome to another chapter of Upon Further Review. Week 13 was a great many things but for those of us that spend our Sundays watching 49er football, it was weak. Really, really weak. For week 14, Diego and AJ discuss what they learned about Colin Kaepernick after last Sunday's game against the Rams, play-calling/O-line issues, and whether it is time for David Akers to join the unemployment market. We'll finish this off with some extra thoughts in our Two-Minute Drill and we'll give you our picks for week 14 in the NFL.
After last Sunday, what have we learned about Colin Kaepernick?
AJ: Yet again, the QB question jumps to the fore...but not in the way you might think. Jim Harbaugh has all but crowned Colin Kaepernick as his starter...so this isn't about who is starting. This is about what we've learned about Kaep thus far positive and negative.
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The positive? Kaep has a big arm...no, a HUGE arm. The guy can gun passes into very tight windows versus man coverage. He has great elusiveness in the pocket. The guy can run like a wide receiver and cut on a dime. He is one of the most electric athletes on the team.
The negative? He's inexperienced. He struggles to identify pressure schemes pre-snap. He has real trouble diagnosing complex (cover 4, cover 6, zone blitzes) zone coverages, which inhibits his ability push the ball down field. He loses composure under pressure, which causes him to make very questionable decisions.
A lot of talk has been made of whether or not Kaepernick is to blame for Sunday's loss in St. Louis. The answer for all but the most hopelessly deluded is, of course he's to blame.
There are constants in football...things you do, and things you don't. These aren't opinion...they're basic truths shared with every player from the first time they strap on pads. Last Sunday, Kaep whiffed on three of these and directly affected the outcome of the game:
Never run backwards, especially into your own end zone. This play started at the 17...and ended deep in the end zone. It netted 2 points for the Rams and forced the 49ers to give up the ball. Many will bellyache about a blown call here, insisting that the refs got it wrong. The truth of the matter is that the refs should never have had to make the call. Kaep did the wrong thing, and it cost his team points and possession.
Never pitch the ball when you're under extreme pressure on your own 10 yard line. Many will fault the call here, but it is impossible to ignore the execution. Contrary to popular opinion, the pitch wasn't Kaep's only option here. The play was a triple-option...and the pitch was the last option on the play. Sometimes the smart play is to secure the ball , go to the ground and live to fight another down...especially when protecting a one possession lead. Instead, Kaep tossed the ball a country mile over Ted Ginn's head, and it gave the Rams their only touchdown of the game.
When killing the clock at the end of the game, never run out of bounds. This is the most inexcusable of the three, because it was an unforced error. Kaepernick had ample opportunity to go down in bounds. At the very least, the Rams would have had to use a time out (which they would need later). Instead, they got the ball back with 1:30 on the clock plus a time out, which allowed them to open their playbook, go down the field and push the game into overtime...and we all know what happened next.
So what do we know about Kaep? We know he's physically gifted. We know he has a big arm. We know that he can make absolutely spectacular plays when given the opportunity. We know that he has the potential to be the next great 49er QB. But we also know that he's inconsistent. We know that he makes questionable decisions under pressure. We know that he has trouble diagnosing complex coverages and zone blitzes...and now every team in the league knows it, too.
The 49ers are a Super Bowl caliber team, right now. The real question here isn't what we know about Kaep...it's whether this team can afford another game like last Sunday's, especially in the playoffs.
Diego: Many things. I learned that my fears about his lack of experience are real. I have already discussed at length what I thought of Kaepernick's mistakes against the Rams. Although many disagree, I hold him largely responsible for last week's loss in St. Louis. It is a team game, and you win as a team and you lose as a team, any player or coach of the 49ers will remind you of that and they are right, but for me giving the opposing team points when they couldn't get them themselves is the biggest flaw of them all. In my piece last Sunday I expressed concern over the lack of scoring by the offense against the Rams, which is supposed to be an area where the 49ers will improve with Kap at the helm. However, upon further review, it was unfair to place all the blame for the lack of scoring on Kap only (more on that in a second). On the other hand: giving points to the opposition? Unacceptable.
Upon reviewing the game, I conclude more and more that the "safety" charged on him it's just a rough break even before the offense lines up. For whatever reason, Kaepernick does not come into the huddle with the play called until there are 13 seconds left on the play clock, and the offense isn't set to go until there are 4 seconds left at that point you either call a timeout or snap the ball and go, and Kaepernick did the latter it went all downhill from there. The Rams zone blitzed sending seven players to the QB, the 49ers only protected with six. The only conceivable throwing target was Bruce Miller, but by the time he gets open on the left flat there were already three defenders in pursuit of the 49ers QB. When you add up the late play called into the huddle (which prevented Kap from calling an audible), the advantage of the defensive play called, and the offensive line's inability to win their matchups (it was 7 on 6 but 3 defenders got through), Kaepernick was put in a really tough situation. Still, it was a very costly decision, much like the missed pitch to Ginn in the 4th quarter that resulted in a Rams' defensive touchdown, the only time in the game when St. Louis reached the end zone. Kaepernick gave the Rams 8 points and set them up for 2 more, we can only hope this experience will serve as a lesson going forward.
I also learned the 49ers QB has an immense competitive fire, and you can tell he absolutely hates to let the team down when he makes mistakes like the ones just mentioned. There are three throws by Kaepernick in this game that really impressed me, and each one of them came on drives that followed the safety and the fumble returned for a touchdown. The first two were back-to-back in the 49ers' ninth drive of the game. On 1st&10 from the SF 1, Kap stepped back to throw out of a running formation and hit Crabtree on a slant to the left for a gain of 10 yards. It was a bullet located exactly where it needed to be for Crabtree to beat Janoris Jenkins who on this particular play was all over the 49ers wideout any less juice on the ball and Jenkins breaks it up. On the very next snap on 1st&15 (after an illegal motion penalty on Will Tukuafu), Kaepernick throws a dime to Crabtree again, this time on an out route, against a Cover 3 look at least 10 yards in the air, accurate, past Quintin Mikell on the flat and in front of Cortland Finnegan who was deep. It was a gain of 22. Finally, on the very next offensive play following the Rams' defensive score, Kaepernick finds Crabtree again along the right sideline for a gain of 16 against a Cover 2 look Kap places the ball perfectly beyond Finnegan's reach underneath and on Crabtree's chest in front of the safety. The very next play of course shows all of Kaepernick's built-in frustrations as he gets really pumped up following his 50-yard scramble. You love seeing that on your QB, seeing him bounce back after a hard fall each and every time, and even after mind-boggling running out of bounds at the end of that drive (which helped the Rams preserve one of their timeouts), he gave the team a chance to win the game at the end.
But maybe the biggest thing I learned about Kaepernick is that he is not very comfortable playing against zone defenses, especially zone blitzes. Over 90% of the 49ers passing plays saw some kind of zone look from the defense, and my calculations show Kaepernick completed 15 of 23 passes for 167 yards, with 5 scrambles. Zone defense created 2 of the 3 sacks he suffered, and both the safety and fumble TD were against zone blitzes. Kap converted 10 first downs against zone defenses, but was only 3/8 on 3rd down conversions against them. With the exception of the two throws against zone that impressed me, Kap had to settle for dumping the ball off short. It'll be interesting to see how he performs against zone coverage going forward.
Why are we seeing regression with play calling and offensive line performance?
AJ: Contrary to popular opinion, the offensive line didn't magically start sucking after kickoff in St. Louis. The explanation of their performance is a bit less black and white but no less alarming.
The Rams identified a critical weakness in the 49er offense (that the QB was slow to read zone coverage) and then picked the perfect way to exploit it. Basically, the Rams crowded the line to hide their defensive alignment, and then brought pressure from every position on the defense throughout the course of the game to disrupt the 49ers protection schemes.
What we saw Sunday was a little bit of what the Rams rolled out in their first meeting with the 49ers this season, but with added elements of what the Saints employed against the 49ers.
The "prowl" look upfront did a good job of disguising the Rams' blitzes, making it difficult for Kaepernick to identify pressure and make proper pre snap reads. As a result, there were times when pressure seemed almost immediate.
The zone shell over the top of the blitzes was ranged from vanilla cover 2 to cover 6, and everything in between. In some instances, linemen dropped into coverage. In short, the Rams threw everything but the kitchen sink at the 49er offense.
The net result was horribly uneven protection, poor pre snap adjustments, almost no deep passes and eventually very conservative play calling (designed primarily to protect possession, run the clock and keep the QB alive). While the line could have done a much better job of picking up blitzes, there were times where the Rams simply did a better job of hiding their alignment than the 49ers did of sniffing it out.
Unless the coaching staff gets this little wrinkle ironed out, other teams are going to emulate the Rams' game plan...which does not bode well for the 49er offense over the next 4 weeks.
Look for the 49ers to employ more 3-step drops, quick hitting pass plays (slants, hooks, drags) and more (yes, more) runs to soften up the defense for the pass.
Diego: There was some questionable play-calling in this game, most notably the triple option call that led to the Rams' defensive score, but upon further review the performance of the offensive line definitely deserves most of the blame here.
Don't get me wrong, I too am baffled by calling a pass play (resulting in an incomplete pass) right before Akers' 51-yard miss in OT, and calling run plays on a pair of 2nd&20's, but other than that you won't see many plays called that made you scratch your head. If anything, coaching decisions - playing Ted Ginn Jr. over Randy moss in several 3-WR sets, playing Ginn Jr. over AJ Jenkins, or keeping LaMichael James on the inactive's list are more questionable than the play-calling itself. Were you wondering why we didn't call any outside runs? Well who was going to run to the outside? Brandon Jacobs?
The performance of the offensive line is more to blame than the play-calling. Mike Iupati had forgettable game in both pass and run blocking. Anthony Davis repeatedly got beat like a drum on pass protection, and Jonathan Goodwin had one of his poorest games in a 49ers uniform. As a unit, they struggled constantly in the run game and were unable to get a push or open lanes at the line of scrimmage very often. One particular play stood out for me one of those 2nd&20 runs San Francisco ran a power run play off a heavy I-formation, but Vernon Davis was blown up at the line and Anthony Davis nor Alex Boone were able to open any lanes. As Mike Iupati pulls around to the right side of the line he has nowhere to go, and as Frank Gore heads that way he trips with the back of Iupati's feet and both of them trip, resulting in a 1-yard loss. For as much as the O-line's performance allowed Kaepernick to play well in his first two starts, their effort against the Rams limited the 49ers' QB last Sunday.
Is it time for Mr. Akers to seek greener pastures?
AJ: What a difference a year makes. Akers was a beast last season. He opened this season by tying the NFL record for longest field goal.
Now, he's an aging kicker that can't consistently deliver on kicks outside of 40 yards. He's missed two game winners in the last three weeks and for an aging special teamer, that is bad. Really bad. That stated, what else have the 49ers got? Who can they turn to? Billy Cundiff? Nate Kaeding? Hm. Maybe Akers isn't so bad after all.
At the end of the day, the key to this dilemma boils down to Akers himself. We know he's a proven performer, so what's the deal? Is he hurt? Playing through an undisclosed injury?
If Akers is physically unable to get it done, then the 49ers need to make a move but if Akers is physically able to get his job done, then its time for Special Teams coach Brad Seely to earn his pay. When healthy, Akers is a far better option than Cundiff or Kaeding.
As an aside, just ask yourself this: if the 49ers season came down to a kick, would you really want the 49ers to relay on Billy Cundiff? If the 49ers needed a long field goal, would you really want Nate Kaeding (not famous for his leg strength) lining up to boot a 50 yarder?
Diego: I was ready to rant on this topic then I read Mike Sando's take on the topic and thought better of it. Those are some pretty telling stats he gives out. There are two main differences between Akers' magical season last year and his performance this season: 1) a lot less field goal attempts from 39 yards or less (32 such attempts last season, 15 so far this season), and Akers is struggling with the 50-plus yard field goals, missing all four such attempts after his NFL record 63-yard field goal in week 1 at Green Bay.
You would think Harbaugh and Seely would be aware of this and perhaps try to gain a couple extra yards on that last 3rd down in overtime so that instead of attempting a 51-yarder Akers could have tried a kick in the 40-49 range, where he is actually better than he was last season. Check out Sando,
Quote:... much better -- from 40 to 49 this season. He made only 42.9 percent (3 of 7) of those kicks through Week 13 last season. He has made 60 percent (6 of 10) this season.
As AJ already pointed out, there aren't really any free agent kickers that present a better option than Akers. I always say be careful what you wish for regardless of the fact the 49ers' kicker seemingly cannot accurately hit from 50-plus yards (he still has the leg, by the way), he is the team's best possible option and the coaches need to account for that by understanding that if a given drive is destined to end in a field goal attempt, then the offense needs to do their best to put Akers in the range where he has been just as good as last season.
Two Minute Drill:
- The next time the 49ers play the Rams, Cortland Finnegan had better keep his head on a swivel by the time I stopped counting, he had jawed with or mixed it up with just about everyone on the 49er offense.
- As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the competition has picked up on the fact that Kaepernick is slow to read zone coverage. For as long as Kaep remains under center, look for Harbaugh and Roman to employ more creative personnel packages to force their opponents into man coverage.
- Coach Harbaugh has hinted that LaMichael James might see the field this week and his debut couldn't come at a better time. Frank Gore was showing serious signs of wear at the end of last week's game.
- If you want to be entertained this week, locate Alex Boone at the start of every 49er offensive snap. Almost without exception, he's been absolutely dominant this season, often driving his man completely out of the play. In my opinion, he's been the second best 49er lineman this season, behind Mike Iupati.
- Though the Dolphins aren't exactly lighting the league on fire this season, they have a surprisingly stout defense. If you think this weekend's matchup is going to be a blowout, you could be in for a surprise.
- Can we PLEASE get LaMichael James on the field? I understand all indications seem to tell us he will finally be active this week, but we also thought he would be active last week only to see him in street clothes once again. The 49ers did not attempt a single run to the outside against the Rams not one and this rushing attack cannot afford to lose its multi-dimension. Look, it's not like when Kendall Hunter got to carry the ball defenses didn't know he was going to the outside. I understand LMJ still has limitations as an NFL running back (pass protection, see Frank Gore's comments on him this week), but this rushing attack NEEDS an outside running presence, and LMJ is all they've got.
- If the Rams' Michael Brockers continues to play that way he did against us last week, he's going to be a headache in the division for the next decade. A 21-year old rookie out of LSU, Brockers proved to be very versatile playing against the run, pressuring the QB (Iupati may or may not be having nightmares about him) and even dropping back into zone coverage (he did this the most out of all St. Louis linemen this past game). As I re-watched the game he really stood out, definitely a find 1st round pick for the Rams.
- Colin Kaepernick better turn it around quickly these next two weeks. On top of being a top-10 defense against the run, Miami's defense is deceptively good against the pass also. Although they have given up the 6th most passing yards in the league, they're only allowing opposing QB's to complete 58.3% of their attempts (8th best in the league), and they yield just an 82.3 QB rating (ranking 12th) . They rank 6th in sacks with 33. Joe Staley will have his hands full with Cameron Wake.
Week 14 Picks
In Week 13, we saw the Chiefs overcome tragedy to win at home and RG III out-duel Eli Manning. The 49ers offense gave away points like Halloween candy, and the Raiders suffered a Brown-out. Ndamakog Suh didn't kick anyone in the crotch, and the Packers pulled even in the race for the NFC North division crown. But the capper for the week was undoubtedly Charlie Batch's surprise victory over the Ravens. For those of us in 49erland, its time to start paying attention with 4 games left, the Seahawks are only a game and a half off the pace for the NFC West Division crown. Here are our picks for week 14:
Broncos at Raiders:
AJ: Some of the best games in NFL history have featured these two teams. This will not be one of those games. Broncos.
Diego: Forget about Peyton Manning for a second, Denver's defense ranks 6th and 7th against the pass and the run respectively, and Darren McFadden coming off an ankle injury isn't going to help Carlson Palmer and the Oakland offense to stay balanced and effective. Broncos.
Chargers at Steelers:
AJ: If Big Ben plays, this will get ugly. If not, it will probably still be ugly. Steelers.
Diego: I really like Jonathan Dwyer as the new running back for Pittsburgh. On the other hand, Phillip Rivers's numbers in the 4th quarter are as uglier than getting kicked on the nuts. Even if this ends up being a close game, I can't trust Rivers to pull off a win. Steelers.
Cowboys at Bengals:
AJ: The Cowboys served notice to the Eagles last week. Unfortunately for those hoping that last weekend's game indicated a reversal of fortune, they play an actual football team this week. Bengals.
Diego: The Bengals' defensive line against the Cowboys offensive line may just be the biggest mismatch of the week across the NFL. Bengals.
Falcons at Panthers:
AJ: I would love nothing more than to watch the Panthers upset the Falcons. Except maybe to open my front door to find Alessandra Ambrosio standing there in licorice lingerie. I'm just spit-balling here but I don't think either is going to happen. Falcons.
Diego: I was going to argue home-field advantage, but then I saw the Falcons are 0-5 at home this season since beating the Saints back on week 2. Falcons.
Rams at Bills:
AJ: The universe delivers a karmic bitch-slap to Cortland Finnegan and co, as the Bills finally manage to string together a pair of victories. Bills.
Diego: The Bills' defense ranks 30th in the NFL in rushing yards/game. Since their bye week, however, they're only giving up 86.4 rushing yards/game, including road games against the Texans (118 yards) and the Patriots (117); they've been even better their last three games only yielding 65.67 rushing yards/game and winning two of those games. Looks like this defense may have finally arrived. Bills.
Titans at Colts:
AJ: Jake Locker is quite possibly the most inconsistent QB I have ever seen and Andrew Luck is going to get serious consideration as a candidate for NFL MVP. Colts.
Diego: Indianapolis is 5-1 at home this season but their average margin of victory is 4 points. This game may be more competitive than I would expect it to be. Colts.
Cardinals at Seahawks:
AJ: The Cardinals are really bad. Colossally bad. This team is the Yugo of the NFL. Don't know what a Yugo is? Google it. You'll see what I mean. Seahawks.
Diego: Hey I'm just glad John Skelton is starting at quarterback this week. I have Larry Fitzgerald in one of my money fantasy leagues and we're in the playoffs. But back on topic, Russell Wilson is for real. Seahawks.
Lions at Packers:
AJ: To call the Lions a disappointment would be about as big an understatement as calling John Goodman "pleasantly plump." Look for the Packers to illustrate just how bad the Lions really are. Packers.
Diego: That awkward moment when you feel AJ and I will agree on every pick I gave the Lions a vote of confidence last week and they got beat at the last second. Any other 9er fans out there enjoying this season for Detroit? Packers.
Bears at Vikings:
AJ: Christian Ponder couldn't buy a win right now. Look for a Bears team motivated to keep pace with the surging Packers to earn a tough road victory. Bears.
Diego: It still irks me he had the game of his life against San Francisco back on week 3. Good thing I was in Hawaii and didn't watch it live. As for this one, Percy Harvin is done for the year, and so is Minnesota. Purple Jesus can only do so much. Bears.
Chiefs at Browns:
AJ: The Chiefs will not be able to replicate last week's success against a surging Browns team. Browns.
Diego: I did change my pick last week for the Chiefs to win after they decided to play the game following the tragedy that took place Saturday, thought that emotional wave would carry them to a victory and indeed that happened. I feel like that effect is still on this team. Chiefs.
Eagles at Buccaneers:
AJ: The Eagles are without a doubt the most disappointing team in the NFL this season. The home team will win this one in a walk. Bucs.
Diego: Nick Foles is the permanent starting quarterback in Philadelphia. That's good news for Eagles fans. The bad news: your defense is still awful. Bucs.
Jets at Jaguars:
AJ: Rex Ryan has announced that Mark Sanchez will be starting for the Jets this week and that tells me everything I need to know. Jags.
Diego: seriously Rex, that was a ballsy call. Jags.
Ravens at Redskins:
AJ: RGIII is something else but the Ravens have a chip on their shoulder after last week's stunning loss. They have Ed Reed, too. Ravens.
Diego: I know what you guys are thinking "he's not really going to make another RG3/Redskins homer pick, is he?" Ah, yeah, I am. Baltimore's rush defense has improved as the result of facing 4 poor running teams in their last 5 games (they're still 23rd in the league), but they haven't seen a rushing attack this good since they got beaten soundly in Houston back in week 7. Redskins.
Saints at Giants:
AJ: The Saints are explosive on offense but this is the time of year when the Giants string together enough wins to lock up their division. This is going to be one of these games. Giants.
Diego: I have been back and forth on this, but Drew Brees will want blood coming off the worst game of his career, and he may just put up 400-plus yards against this secondary. Regardless of my confidence on the Giants beating the Packers two weeks ago, I'm really questioning whether they will finish the season strong. Saints.
Texans at Patriots:
AJ: Almost everything about this game is telling me to pick the home team. Even so, I can't shake the feeling that this is the season that the Texans finally grow up and take their place among the elite of the AFC. Texans.
Diego: This is a must-watch, marquee NFL game that may be a preview of the AFC Championship Game I agree AJ, for me Houston is the most complete team in that conference, and maybe in the NFL. Texans.
Dolphins at 49ers:
AJ: The Dolphins have a surprising defense .if the 49ers can't find a way to shore up pass protection and beat zone coverage, this could be a tough game. Look for the 49er defense to stymie the Dolphins offense, which should be enough to earn the victory. 49ers.
Diego: Miami over the last five seasons: 1-4 on the west coast with their only win against, you guessed it, the Raiders. Ryan Tannehill is a promising young QB but the Dolphins as a whole struggle on the road 12 of their 19 turnovers have been away from Miami. I don't know what to expect from Kaepernick and the offense (I hope to see improvement), but this looks like one of those games where as long as they don't beat themselves the 49ers should be able to come away with a victory. 49ers.
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