Welcome to a very special installment of Upon Further Review. For Week 14, AJ and Diego put this space in the hands of our readers...heaven help us. In order to address as many of your questions as possible, we'll be departing from our usual format. In today's installment, we'll be covering everything from the explosiveness (or lack thereof) of the 49er offense to the possible destinations for Alex Smith in 2013 and everything in between (or as much as we can fit into one column, anyway). Bet before we begin, thanks for submitting your questions (yes even you, Terry and Ken even you).
Where is the "explosiveness" in the 49er offense that we've been hearing so much about? - submitted by multiple readers, including Mouse, Mike and Ceadderman
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AJ: For the purposes of this discussion, we're going to assume that explosiveness means "chunk plays" or plays that go for more than 20 yards.
Since his first start, Kaepernick has flashed the ability to go deep almost effortlessly, and to do so with surprising accuracy. But since his first start, Kaep has had fewer chunk plays with each game and hasn't thrown a TD pass in 9 quarters. Most troubling about this trend is that he's faced some fairly average defenses along the way (including his matchup last week...Miami is ranked 26th against the pass).
So what's the deal? Has Kaep forgotten how to throw deep? Is he hurt? Is he just unable to consistently beat deep coverage? The answer to the aforementioned is no. Kaep is the exact same player that he was against Chicago. He is a lights out athlete with a huge arm, minimal experience and a boatload of upside. And that's part of the problem.
A few weeks back, some random guy wrote that given Kaepernick's success against man coverage in the Chicago game, it was highly likely that upcoming opponents would try to confuse him with more complicated coverage schemes. It turns out that guy was right. Kaep isn't throwing deep because he's seeing a lot more complex deep coverage than he did against the Bears (who went with a single safety deep over man coverage or with 2 deep over man coverage almost exclusively).
Now teams that face the 49ers are hiding coverage schemes pre snap, then shifting when the play starts. To his credit, Kaep only thrown one pick, but the shift in strategy is forcing him to hold the ball longer in order to read what the defense is doing which throws off the timing of the passing game which is why Kaep will often go short. It's the safest pass, the easiest to read, and the least likely to result in a negative play.
Explosion will come. More chunk plays will come. Even against zone coverage. But they will come with time. Kaep has shown the ability to create big plays...but those big plays will only come consistently once he has enough experience to read what the defense is hiding pre snap so he can better exploit it.
Are the Niners going to unleash a hidden reserve of explosiveness this weekend? Probably not. But all is not lost there is a viable quick fix to kick start the offense: The Pistol.
Going to the Pistol will increase Kaepernick's effectiveness...and decrease the number of reads he'll need to make on a given play, allowing him to get rid of the ball more quickly. The Pistol offense will allow him a measure of comfort, provide the threat of the run (in order to better set up the read option), and if necessary, maximum protection on passing downs. In short, it will allow Kaep to be Kaep.
Look for the 49ers to exploit the Pistol going forward to a larger degree in Foxboro this Sunday night in order to tailor the offense to Kaepernick. While it may not be explosive, it can be effective...and at the end of the day, that's all that matters. How effective? We'll see on Sunday night.
Where the hell is Vernon Davis? submitted by Mike, Gonzola
AJ: Since his starring role in the evisceration of the Bears, Vernon Davis has all but disappeared on game day...in the passing game anyway.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Davis isn't hurt, blocking more often than he has in the past or out of sync with Colin Kaepernick. The fact is, Vernon is the player most focused on by opposing defenses.
The Bears played Vernon with single coverage...usually with Major Wright or Lance Briggs...and that is the textbook definition of a mismatch. Hence, it is hardly surprising that Vernon was the 49ers leading receiver against the Bears.
Needless to say, the Rams, Saints and Dolphins took notice, and adjusted to take Vernon out of the 49er passing game. Over the last 3 games, Vernon has been almost always either double covered, or bracketed by two defenders playing zone. The net result: not very much offensive production from number 85.
Given the attention that he's seen and the 49ers' penchant for avoiding risky throws downfield, it is no wonder that Davis has been a virtual non-factor as it pertains to passing offense over the past 3 weeks.
Astute fans will note that the 49ers have countered by placing Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis on the field together...and Walker has faced a TON of single coverage...and as a result has seen a dramatic increase in the number of passes thrown his way.
I am curious to see how the Patriots decide to defend Davis. He is a complete mismatch for any of their defenders in single coverage. My guess is that they'll double him up and roll the dice with single coverage on whomever else the 49ers run out on passing downs.
Dude what's with all the f*#$ing timeouts? submitted by Montman
AJ: Over the past few weeks, the 49ers have been going through time outs like Lindsey Lohan goes through second chances. Many (including Montman, who submitted this question), are wondering what the hell is going on. What's going on is pretty simple a team with a very complex offense installed a second year quarterback as its starter.
There are some who think that the QB just takes the snap and throws the ball but nothing could be further from the truth. The QB's job is extensive from managing the clock to calling the plays, to calling audibles to modifying protection schemes, the QB is responsible for A LOT.
The timeouts aren't indicative of a broken team, a clueless coach or a busted headset they are indicative of a young quarterback who still needs to adjust to the speed of the game at the NFL level.
By all accounts, Kapernick is a bright, studious young player. He'll get there. But don't be surprised if we burn though a few more timeouts before he does.
Where will Alex Smith play next year? submitted by Chris DeMarco
Diego: It seems like the majority of people keeping an eye on this topic have set their minds on the idea that the former 49ers starting QB will play for the Arizona Cardinals next season. I don't think so.
Smith is just smarter than that. He has gone through a gauntlet throughout his career to achieve some kind of success, and I think he would realize that playing for the Cardinals would definitely not result on the kind of success he would strive for, and would significantly be hazardous to his health. Look, the Cardinals have the worst offensive line in the NFL the eye tells you this, but just in case you were wondering if we were wrong about this, Pro Football Focus agrees. Alex Smith knows firsthand that playing behind a mediocre offensive line is a recipe for disaster. Moreover, Arizona has a very little promise on the running game with Beanie Wells being as injury-prone as it was feared he would be coming out of Ohio State and Ryan Williams following a similar pattern. Larry Fitzgerald is a stud, and Michael Floyd will break out eventually, but the passing game will never get going behind a mediocre front-five and underwhelming running production. Again, Smith is smarer than that.
If the Kansas City Chiefs work out an extension with Branden Albert (and they should), Alex Smith and his agents should make Arrowhead their number one priority. You may not believe this, but the Chiefs possess one of the best offensive lines in the league, and should they be able to bring Albert back (franchise-tag him, at least) they should remain among the best units in the league next season. You see all the reasons I list when saying going to Arizona wouldn't be a good decision for Smith? Well, it's the opposite in Kansas City. Besides possible playing behind a great offensive line, the Chiefs also possess one of the league's top running backs in Jamaal Charles, who is currently 5th in the NFL in rushing yards and boasts a 5.1 yard/carry average. Their pass-catchers have been a disappointment this season, and Dwayne Bowe will probably not be there next season, but by the same token this unit was considered a strength going into the season and I find it unfair to really judge their performance based on the pathetic QB play. The struggles in rush defense should be aided by high draft picks as well as improved offensive performance which will keep the defensive unit fresher. Alex Smith could possibly help the Chiefs return to the playoffs next season. I wouldn't be ready to say that they would take the throne from the Broncos in the AFC West, but they would have a definite shot at earning a wild card berth.
But wait, you didn't want me to correctly predict where Alex Smith will play next year, did you?
Can you please talk about how the offense has actually regressed with Kaep in at center. Kaep has not thrown a consistent deep ball, or a TD to a WR or TE in about 2 straight games now. The kid definitely has talent, but it seems more like people wanna make him ready now, when he still has a little growing to do. That his "hot hand" is now cold, and besides a run here or there, no consistent Td's and like yesterday horrible 3rd down percentage. submitted by Jersey9er
Diego: That was a handful.
I would like to believe avid readers of Upon Further Review and Straight Out of the Rabbit's Hole know my stand on the Smith/Kaepernick debate by now. That being said, let's get this out on the open: Colin Kaepernick may not be making this offense more "explosive", but he is certainly not making it regress either.
Has his performance declined since the Bears' game? Ah, yes, what did you expect? Defenses have been adapting, and Kaepernick has been trying his best to adapt on the go. The regression you are referring cannot be placed mainly on the new young starting QB, the offensive line deserves as much blame as they deserved praise after the games against the Bears and Saints. Let's not nitpick at his touchdown production: rushing touchdowns count the same as passing touchdowns, and so long as he's helping the offense score while he continues to develop as a starter for this team is definitely a positive thing. Much like with regression, blaming Kaepernick for the increase in penalties lately just wouldn't be fair.
I can understand being upset at Jim Harbaugh for making this QB change at a questionable time, but a decision has been made and it is difficult to expect a well-oiled machine on offense when there is a new guy behind center. Contrary to your statements, Kaepernick is taking fewer sacks per game than Alex Smith and has just three turnovers in nearly five games. Inconsistency in the team's offensive performance (which let's be honest, has been present the whole season), and bumps on the road such as getting the right play called in and breaking the huddle on time aren't all that shocking. If we don't see an improvement with those issues over the next few games then there might be more founded reason to be concerned, but understand that is a risk Harbaugh seems willing to take.
I was at the Niners game this Sunday. Colin looked great. He moves great when in pressure.... but the play calling looks too safe in the red zone. Do you guys think they should open the play book some more to use his abilities in a better way? submitted by German
Diego: Do I think they should open the playbook? Yes. Will they? I'm not so sure.
As my colleague Oscar Aparicio pointed out in his December 5th Podcast, Jim Harbaugh is conservative in nature. Even while having Andrew Luck as a QB at Stanford, Harbaugh still chose to run the ball over 50% of the time and his offense used many of the same formations that the 49ers use today. I have to believe that the goal at the moment isn't to "experiment" different plays with Kaepernick while the 49ers look to remain among the top two teams in the standings and earn a bye week in the playoffs, but instead to just continue to do enough to win football games. Subtle changes are being made (see Pistol-Diamond formations last week vs the Dolphins) and will continue to be made, but I wouldn't expect to see any drastic changes be made these next three weeks. If the 49ers are able to clinch a bye week in the playoffs, that will give them time to implement some different kinks to their offense. Until then - don't hold your breath.
I do not think that "tatooed wonder" can get us to the playoffs and beyond. Don't you think it was too late in the season to make such a drastic change? Kap has not done anything to amaze me- he can run that's it. Where did the "hot hand " go ?? submitted by Charles
Diego: Whether you are referring to that awful piece criticizing Kaepernick's tattoes or not, the name calling is simply distasteful. That being said - yes, I do believe it wasn't the right time to make such a drastic change.
The 49ers offense has more potential with Kaepernick on the field, but that potential is not being reached at this moment. In the meantime the offense continues to produce at about the same rate it was while Alex Smith was the quarterback, and the variant in the offense is whether the young, potentially explosive QB will make a boneheaded play such as what he did a couple of weeks ago vs St. Louis, or if he will flash what separates him from Smith on a play such as the 50-yard TD run against Miami last week. Thing is, this is a debate that doesn't really have a set answer: would you rather have the potential for an explosive play or the feeling of security that your signal caller will not turn the ball over? The back-and-forth on this could be endless, and has been endless (have you read our forums?).
Personally, I rather have the veteran quarterback who has been getting the job done over the last year and a half, especially after watching the offense continue to perform at the same level with the new young quarterback. I guess I too am conservative. Then again, so is Harbaugh, and I am inclined to say he knows A LOT more about this business than I do, and he has a track record to support his decisions, so he continues to deserve the benefit of the doubt, especially because you and I disagree on Kap's performance - he HAS done some things to amaze me. The flashes are there: the arm strength, the improved accuracy, the knowledge of the offense and the respect he has earned from his teammates, and his RG3-like ability to be a difference maker with his legs.
My advice to you: forget about the "hot hand". Harbaugh will give Kaepernick as big an opportunity as he feels he can to allow the young QB to, hopefully, prove him right.
Two Minute Drill:
- Lucky Phil: in answer to your inquiries, even though she was amused, Ms. Sinn has declined to give you her phone number. Sorry bro. And yes, she is quite enamored with the Jumbo Package which is part of the reason why she declined to give you her number.
- Terry B: Yes we'd be more than happy to get rid of our logo just as soon as you get a reverse mohawk, paint yourself neon purple and streak down Market Street from the Ferry Building to Union Square, screaming "I LOVE Alex Smith!" at the top of your lungs. And post it on YouTube. With subtitles in Italian and Spanish so Diego and I can share it with our friends and family overseas.
- In the gospel according to Harbaugh, thou shalt not put thyself before "the team, the team, the team." Because if you do, you'll get suspended. Apparently, Brandon Jacobs didn't get the memo or pay any attention to what happened to Braylon Edwards last season.
- Over the course of the next two weeks, the 49ers will play their two toughest games of the season and given how those games play out, the 49ers could have the inside track to the #2 seed in the playoffs or the wildcard. If you've been waiting to see what the 49ers will look like in the playoffs with Kaepernick under center, you're about to get your wish because for the 49ers, the playoffs start this Sunday night in Foxboro.
- Assuming he won't have a meltdown against the Patriots this week, Colin Kaepernick will get a bit of a break when he faces the Seahawks on week 16. Starting cornerback, Brandon Browner, will not play while in the midst of a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. Browner and Seattle's other starting CB, Richard Sherman, received the same suspensions shortly after their week 12 loss in Miami against the Dolphins. They both immediately appealed the suspensions, however Browner dropped his appeal as of last week. Walter Thurmond, a third year player out of Oregon, is starting alongside Sherman in the meantime.
- Love it or hate it, the 49ers' "Jumbo Package" is not going anywhere. This particular package is arguably the most used by San Francisco during Harbaugh's tenure here, and the teams' record during that time speaks for itself. The package is multidimensional in that it allows the offense to give opponents different looks with basically the same players. This is due to the versatility of tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker as well as Bruce Miller, arguably the best fullback in the game today. The formation also features added beef from time to time with appearances by Leonard Davis, Daniel Kilgore, and Will Tukuafu, and yes when they come on the field it pretty much tells the defense that the 49ers are about to run, but if the 49ers want to be the dominant running team they are perceived as around the league then they need to be able to muscle out yards when they put extra beef onto the field. The package needs to work on execution, but it should definitely not go away.
Week 15 Picks
In Week 14, we saw the Panthers beat the Falcons (no that is not a misprint and no, Alessandra Ambrosio didn't show up at my front door in licorice lingerie). For those of us in 49erland, its time to start SERIOUSLY paying attention with 3 games left, the Seahawks are only a game and a half off the pace for the NFC West Division crown...and after this week's matchup with the Pats, the 49ers will be headed to Seattle for a game that could decide the NFC West. Here are our picks for week 15:
Bengals at Eagles:
AJ: The Bengals finish the season against the Steelers and Ravens so for all intents and purposes, this is their first playoff game. Look for them to come out on fire. Bengals.
Diego: a team with a new young quarterback that doesn't have much to lose can be really dangerous. But 1) I've committed to no longer picking Philadelphia, and 2) Cincinnati should come into this one with an added sense of urgency following last week's loss against Dallas. Bengals
Bucs at Saints:
AJ: The Bucs are a team on the rise but I just don't think that they'll be able to pull out a win in the Superdome. Saints.
Diego: ok so Drew Brees didn't really bounce back from his career worst performance against Tampa Bay two weeks ago. I believe he'll bounce back against that same team this time around. Saints.
Giants at Falcons:
AJ: The Falcons were badly exposed by the Panthers last week .and the Giants looked really good. This one probably won't end well for the home team. Giants.
Diego: I am 57.83% sure that I will pick the losing team on this one, but I think Atlanta's pass rush will make the difference at home, whether sacking Eli Manning or forcing him into some errant throws. Falcons.
Packers at Bears:
AJ: The Bears defense has begun to fall off and Aaron Rodgers is back to being Aaron Rodgers. Packers.
Diego: Chicago hasn't beat Green Bay since week 3 of the 2010 season. The current performances by both teams tells me the losing streak will continue. Packers.
Vikings at Rams:
AJ: The universe delivers a karmic bitch-slap to Cortland Finnegan and co, as Purple Jesus runs for about 15 miles. Vikings.
Diego: St. Louis is on a three-game winning streak playing solid football as of late. Minnesota, on the other hand, continues to be really inconsistent except for Adrian Peterson, who is determined to break the single-season record for rushing yards. Vikings.
Panthers at Chargers:
AJ: Nothing inspires good play (okay satisfactory play) in San Diego like a desperate team, desperate head coach and a desperate GM. Chargers.
Diego: even though Carolina won't make the playoffs, Cam Newton is playing to prove to the league that he's a force to be reckoned with, and I believe San Diego's win last week was a fluke. Panthers.
Chiefs at Raiders:
AJ: If the Raiders are the Yugo of the NFL, then the Chiefs are the Daihatsu of the NFL. Raiders.
Diego: If there was ever a game I would pick for a 0-0 tie, this would be the one, but I need to pick a winner, so I'm going to flip a coin. Seriously. Heads = Chiefs, Tails = Raiders ... Raiders.
Broncos at Ravens:
AJ: There is no way that I can look at this game without wondering how in the name of all that's holy is a reeling Ravens defense going to stop Peyton Manning. Broncos.
Diego: the wild card here is the change at offensive coordinator for Baltimore, where Jim Caldwell replaces Cam Cameron. Nonetheless, I like Denver's defense in this matchup, therefore ... Broncos.
Colts at Texans:
AJ: Can you think of anything more terrifying than JJ Watt pissed off ? Neither can I. Texans.
Diego: Suddenly Indianapolis controls their own destiny in the division. That's going to end real quick. Texans.
Jags at Dolphins:
AJ: The Jags have used up their allotment of decent football for the season and Tannehill looks like he could develop into a pretty good NFL QB. Dolphins.
Diego: Neither team is very good, but Miami is certainly better. Chad Henne's mind-blowing performance against Houston four weeks ago is a distant memory now. Dolphins.
Redskins at Browns:
AJ: The Browns have managed to grow as an organization and the product on the field is improving dramatically. Add to that the fact that RGIII has a little hitch in his giddy up, and that seals this one for the home team. Browns.
Diego: my gut tells me Robert Griffin III will play in this one, and if so ... Redskins.
Lions at Cardinals:
AJ: The Cardinals might be the worst team I have ever seen especially after last week's beat down at the hands of the Seahawks. Lions.
Diego: I'm not even going to pick on Arizona anymore. Just ... Lions.
Seahawks at Bills:
AJ: As much as I'd love to see the Seahawks stumble on the road, it probably won't happen especially against Buffalo. Seahawks.
Diego: sure, they suffered a tough loss last week, but Buffalo continues to play the type of run defense that is expected of them given their lineup. Plus, with Fred Jackson done for the season, Chan Gailey can't find many more ways to keep CJ Spiller off the field, can he? Bills.
Steelers at Cowboys:
AJ: Ben was not himself last week, and it showed. If the Steelers couldn't get it together against the Chargers, I can't see how they can manage a win in Dallas. Cowboys.
Diego: A healthier Ben Roethlisberger will have a bounce back game, and Pittsburgh will keep pace with Cincinnati as they go into a deciding match-up next week. Steelers.
Jets at Titans:
AJ: The Titans are a pretty bad team with a good running back and a god awful QB. Even though the Jets are almost incapable of stringing together two plays, let alone two games, I think they'll fall into a victory here. Jets.
Diego: Did Mark Sanchez really say the Jets are "catching fire"? I'm still laughing. Titans.
49ers at Patriots:
AJ: I would love nothing more than to see the 49ers go to Foxboro and upset the Patriots but I don't think it will happen. The 49ers are bringing a young inexperienced QB into what may be the most hostile venue in the NFL to face the best QB of his generation. I hope I'm wrong but I don't know if the 49er offense wis going to be able to keep pace with the Patriots on their home turf. Patriots.
Diego: The New York Giants lost against the Patriots in the regular season finale in 2007. They lost that battle, but eventually they won the war. Patriots.
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