Did Colin Kaepernick "grow up" as a QB last Sunday night in Foxboro?
AJ: What a difference a week makes. On Sunday night, the Niners grew up, big time. With the offense able to create mismatches against the Patriots secondary, Kaepernick was able to take advantage of deep reads for the first time in weeks. The net result was stunning: 4 passing TDs, all of which were the end result of "chunk" plays. In Foxboro. In December. In freezing rain.
That's big, kids. Really big.
The shift to the Pistol (at least part of the time) forced the Patriots to go with man coverage a lot of the time...and that is precisely what the 49ers want. Put plainly, there is no team in football right now that can employ man defense against this team with any hope of success...they are a man to man mismatch for any team left on their schedule, or any they might meet in the playoffs.
The real growth on Sunday night, however, took place under center. Colin Kaepernick managed to do what no QB has in years: out duel Tom Brady at home in December. His performance earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Kaepernick's development has been impressive, and there are three HUGE plays from Sunday's game that reflect that development:
1) 2nd quarter, 34-yard TD pass to Delanie Walker
On the play, the offense started out in the Pistol and shifted to single back twin TE strong right. Kaepernick looked the safety off left, then came back right, gave a hard look a Vernon Davis, then hooked up with Delanie Walker over the top. This is a play that Kaepernick simply wasn't making two weeks ago. The fact that he had the wherewithal to look off the safety in order to create space deep for Walker is big...it shows that he's learning to create plays in the passing game on his own.
2) 3rd Quarter, 27-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree
This time around, the play was from Shotgun, and the Pats ran with a Cover-2. In recent weeks, Kaepernick has avoided throwing deep or intermediate passes into zone coverage...but not on this play. As soon as the ball was snapped, Kaepernick correctly diagnosed the coverage and went to the one spot that's vulnerable in a Cover-2...right between the safeties. Crabtree was running the perfect route, and Kaepernick reacted immediately...something that he hasn't done over the past few weeks. In short, he's getting better at diagnosing and exploiting zone coverage.
3) 4th Quarter, 38-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree
After the 49ers loss to the Rams, I noted that Kaepernick had a difficult time reading pressure pre-snap. That was definitely not the case here. Before the ball was snapped, Kaepernick correctly read cover-0 (straight man coverage with two blitzers and no safety help over the top) and threw the ball to the perfect spot. Crabtree made a brilliant play afterward to get the ball into the end zone, but Kaepernick made a read that he'd been missing in weeks past...yet another sign of his improvement.
Of course, as with any young QB, his performance wasn't without its "sweet Jeezus please help us" moments (the fumbles were nerve wracking and the interception had one of my neighbors convinced that I was battling a legion of zombies in my living room). To his credit, he kept his head, stayed focused and made plays for his team when they mattered most. That doesn't excuse his mistakes...but it did make it possible for the 49ers to overcome adversity when they had to. The net-net here is that Kaepernick is a pretty good QB that still has some growing to do...and when he does get to his ceiling, he should be a hell of a player.
All told, Colin played a very good game, showing improvement as a big time, clutch passer...and it isn't a stretch to think he'll continue to improve when the 49ers wing north to face the Seahawks.
Diego: Colin Kaepernick eased a lot of my concerns about him with his performance last week against the New England Patriots, there is no doubt that. With a marvelous game plan in place, Kaepernick stepped right up and delivered from the very first play, and by the time he was done the 49ers had a 31-3 lead.
Yes, there were several fumbles issues, which there isn't really an excuse for (did Tom Brady struggle with fumbles?) and which Kaepernick diligently took responsibility for right after the game. Yes, the 49ers' defense set him up nicely with a couple of turnovers that put the ball inside the Patriots' 10-yard line for two scores, and yes, Frank Gore may have saved the day with his impressive fumble recovery touchdown. All that being said, the kid still had one hell of a game.
He completed 4 of 5 passes on the very first drive, giving the 49ers a much needed lead to begin the game with his 24-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss. After all, this wasn't a game where the 49ers wanted to be playing from behind. On his second touchdown pass, a 34-yard beauty to Delanie Walker, he diligently scanned the field and moved the safety, rookie Alfonzo Dennard, away from Walker to allow for his throw. In my eyes, his most impressive throw came on the 3rd quarter, the type of throw that separates him from Alex Smith, when he roped a 27-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree just in front of two lurking safeties who 1) did not have a chance to intercept a perfectly executed pass, and 2) did not have a chance to lay wood on Crabtree, again because of the outstanding throw by Kaepernick. As if that wasn't enough (and it wasn't), Kaepernick ended the night with a strike to Crabtree on a comeback route after recognizing the Patriots' aggressive defense in a cover zero play (more on the significance of this play later).
Colin Kaepernick grew up big time last week, and maybe the scariest aspect about that is that he still has a lot of kinks in his game that need to be worked out. He doesn't seem faced by anything, whether it is a loud dome in New Orleans, or costly turnovers in St. Louis, or the eyes of the nation expecting him to succumb to Patriots in New England. Colin Kaepernick flat out outplayed Tom Brady on the road. That is as big of a growing step as you can take in the NFL.
How will the 49ers attack the Seahawks?
AJ: After watching (and re-watching, then re-watching again) the 49ers win over the Patriots and the Seahawks win over the Bills, I've given a lot of thought to how the 49ers will approach this weekend's game in Seattle.
The Seahawks are finding their feet on offense, and it has really shown up over the last two weeks. Russell Wilson has become a very good QB, and his team goes as he does. If Wilson is allowed to play his brand of football, the Seahawks are very difficult to beat. On defense, a pretty good defensive front is complemented by an outstanding safety tandem and a stable of big, physical corners.
The aforementioned noted, I think that the 49ers are going to continue what they started in Foxboro last week.
Defensively, I fully expect the 49ers to play A LOT of 2-man coverage over a 4 man rush with minimal blitzing, challenging Wilson and his (somewhat overrated) receivers to gain their yards the hard way. Look for the front 7 to play a disciplined, gap control game early in order to contain the Seahawks' best offensive player, Marshawn Lynch. The absence of Justin Smith (as of this writing, it is uncertain if he'll go Sunday) will be critical...especially if the score is close. If the 49ers can manage it, they need to build a lead that makes Lynch a non-factor early. Additionally, look for Vic Fangio to take the leash off of Aldon Smith...he'll likely be tasked with putting the Seahawks young QB on his back early and often more than he will with dropping into coverage. Specific matchups to look for:
1) Breno Giacomini vs. Ricky Jean Francois/Aldon Smith: Jean Francois is fast, strong and has the skill set to play every position on the defensive line. Smith is, without question, the most dominant pass rusher the 49ers have had in decades. Both are gifted pass rushers who could take advantage of the Seahawks' solid but unspectacular RT. Don't be surprised if the 49ers try crossing him up a few stunts and alignment shifts.
2) Golden Tate vs. Carlos Rogers: Rogers isn't picking passes off at the pace that he did last season…but he's played a huge part in the 49ers' dominance vs. the pass this season. Look for him to be matched up on Tate, the Seahawks' premier pass catcher. Expect a lot of jamming, hand checking and jawing between these two.
3) Marshawn Lynch vs. the 49ers Front 7: Lynch has been a real thorn in the side of the 49er defense over the last two seasons…and with the exception of Adrian Peterson; he'll be the best runner that they face this season. The 49ers ability to contain lynch will fall squarely on the shoulders of Isaac Sopoaga. If Soap has a good night against Unger/McQuistan/Moffitt, he'll free up Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to unload on the Seahawks biggest offensive threat.
On offense, the 49ers need to focus on playing their brand of football. Even though the 49ers feature a different starting QB than they did the last time they played Seattle, their formula for winning has not changed. Look for the 49ers to exploit mismatches in coverage (pay close attention to Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker), run the ball to keep the defense honest, and employ the Pistol (then shifting to create single man coverage) to force Seattle into man coverage and draw the safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. Seattle's defense is very physical and aggressive...and a properly timed play action fake when they're looking for the read-option or a single back sweep could create favorable matchups over the top.Specific matchups to look for:
1) Joe Staley vs. Chris Clemons/Bruce Irvin: Staley grades out as one of the best tackles in the NFL, but he'll have his hands full against these two. Clemons has 11.5 sacks in the season, and Irvin has 8. Both of these guys like to set wide and come hard off the edge. Look for the 49ers to try running at them to keep them honest and force them to focus on contain instead of getting upfield.
2) Michael Crabtree vs. Richard Sherman: Michael Crabtree is becoming the guy that the 49ers were hoping to get when they drafted him in the top 10 picks of the first round. His route running has improved dramatically, and he's becoming a premier NFL pass catcher. This week, he'll be facing Richard "U madbro?" Sherman, whose appeal for his pending suspension for snorting Adderall has apparently been delayed until some time after he retires. Sherman is a big, physical corner that loves to jaw. Look for the 49ers to try isolating Sherman over the top and take advantage of his aggressiveness with quick slants and shake routes underneath.
3) Frank Gore vs. the Seahawks Front 7: Gore is going to be a huge part of the 49ers plans this Sunday…with one more TD, he'll be come the highest scoring running back in 49er history. This week, he'll be relied upon to chew clock against a defense that is almost as stingy as the 49ers. Expect the 49ers to use Gore to test Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane up the gut in order to create play action opportunities in the passing game. Though Gore may not run for a boatload of yards this weekend, don't be surprised to see the 49ers stay with the run in order to keep the front 7 packed in and create favorable matchups on the edges.
Diego: From time to time I will look at teams' stats on ESPN.com or NFL.com just for kicks, just to see if I run into anything out of the normal. While doing that this week, I was surprised to see how similar the 49ers and Seahawks are based on statistics only. San Francisco ranks 11th in offensive yards/game with 362.1, Seattle? 16th, with 350.1. SF is 26th in the league in passing yards/game with just 199.2, Seattle being right behind them at 27th with 189.4. They both compensate for their "below average" passing games with outstanding rushing offenses, San Francisco ranking 2nd in the league with 162.9 rushing yards/game (Redskins are the top team at 164.8), and Seattle again right behind them at 3rd with 160.7. Then I thought, well maybe the difference is in the scoring - No: San Francisco scores 25.5 points/game, good for 8th best in the league, while Seattle scores 25.0, 11th best.
But what about the defenses? Well, both are tied for 11th in the league (along with the Vikings) at 35 sacks. Seattle's defense has just 3 more passes defended than San Francisco's. Interceptions? Seattle has 16, San Francisco has 12. The Seahawks have forced 18 fumbles while the 49ers have forced 17, and Seattle has recovered 12 fumbles while San Francisco has recovered 10. Finally, Seattle's turnover differential is slightly better than San Francisco, with the Seahawks posting a +11 (28 takeaways, 17 giveaways) to the 49ers +8 (22 and 14). These teams are the best in the league as far as fewest points allowed per game, both giving up 15.6, with San Francisco having allowed just 1 less point overall than Seattle. Wow.
The Seahawks are 6-0 at home while the 49ers are 5-2 on the road this season. Seattle's defense gets even stingier at home in the defensive points/game department, only giving 11.5 per game. I was even more surprised to find out San Francisco scores above their average on the road, at 26.57 per game, and even higher since Kaepernick became the starter at 28.33 per game.
In order to win tomorrow's game against the Seahawks, the 49ers need to replicate the formula they used against the New England Patriots on offense. First, attack through the air - Seattle may boast the 3rd best passing defense according to yards/game (197.6), but they have not been tested since Brandon Browner started serving his 4-game suspension two weeks ago. Walter Thurmond is a significant downgrade at CB, and Marcus Trufant isn't a prototypical slot defender. The 49ers need to show that they can move the ball in the air to open up room for Frank Gore and the rushing offense. Seattle's defense may have declined these last few weeks in this department, but that has been mostly due to struggles on the road. Other than being murdered by Adrian Peterson, the Seahawks have been tough to run on at CenturyLink Field.
I was wrong about Russell Wilson. I have always liked him as a player since his days at North Carolina State, and I hated to see him go to Seattle for that reason, but I thought Pete Carroll's decision this pre-season to name him the starting QB would result in a season full of growing pains. Obviously, Wilson has more than stepped up to the challenge. In the previous match-up between these teams, a 49ers' 13-7 win in week 7, Wilson was the victim of several dropped passes that may have written a different book in that game, or at least forced the 49ers to step up their offensive performance. Wilson is in the middle of a hot streak, admittedly against some really bad teams, but he will be prepared and confident going into this game. Justin Smith's possible absence may ultimately play a huge role in the outcome of this game unless Ricky Jean-Francois is truly ready to step in his shoes.
Whether in the air or on the ground, the 49ers need to keep the Seahawks' offense from any possible explosive plays and force them to score methodically. That and an improved performance on offense from week 7 should give San Francisco a chance to win this game and earn a second straight NFC West title.
Given what we've seen since Colin took the reins, are the 49ers a Super Bowl contender?
AJ: Had you asked me this question a week ago, I'd have said maybe. Today, I'll say that I think they can be. Right now, the 49ers are the most complete team in football...but the most complete team doesn't always win the Super Bowl.
The 49ers hopes of making it to the big dance and coming home with a 6th Lombardi Trophy rest securely on the outcome of their next two games. Two more wins this season will earn them a first round bye...and that is more important than many fans think. In each of the 49ers' previous Super Bowl seasons, they enjoyed a first round bye and at least one home game.
For this team, the bye is critical...more critical than it is for any other team in the league. The 49ers sub less than almost any team in the league…and that can result in some of their best players wearing down by year end. If the 49ers can manage to win out and secure a first round bye, those players will get a chance to rest up…and when the most complete team in football gets a breather before their three biggest games of the year, they become much harder to beat.
If the 49ers go into the playoffs healthy and can secure at least one home game, the question isn't whether or not they can contend for a Super Bowl…its who will be able to stop them from winning a Super Bowl.
Diego: Obviously, questions remain about whether the 49ers would be able the beat the Giants should they meet again in the playoffs (that is IF the Giants make the playoffs this season), but other than that I feel confident saying that this 49ers team can win against any team at any time in any circumstance. Never mind their perfect 5-0 record in Super Bowls, that seems so long ago, San Francisco is thriving this year in primetime games, also going 5-0. They have an amazing combination of youth, talent, and experience as well one of the best coaching staffs in the league.
Maybe most importantly, they truly perform as a team. One of my biggest doubts about this team recently was the change at QB from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, and whether the timing of it was right. A young and inexperienced signal caller is more likely to turn the ball over, and this was reflected in week 12 at New Orleans when Kaepernick threw an interception that at the time seemed to turn all the momentum to Saints. Two plays later, however, the defense picked Kaepernick up, Ahmad Brooks intercepting Drew Brees and returning it 50-yard for a touchdown. Momentum back on the 49ers side, and the result was ultimately a win. Last week against the Patriots, Kaepernick returned the favor. After jumping out to a 31-3 lead, the nation saw Tom Brady mount a 28-point comeback between the 3rd and 4th quarters and suddenly New England had all the momentum with the game on the line. On the 49ers very next offensive snap, Kaerpernick picked up his defense, making a sound throw to Michael Crabtree who beat his defender in route to a 38-yard touchdown that was ultimately the winning score.
The only major question mark with this team right now is their special teams. Not only is David Akers going through a difficult slump, but the 49ers still do not have a kick/punt return for a touchdown this season. We have seen the offense and defense pick each other up at times this season, but should they both be struggling, will the special teams be able to pick them up? I'm not very confident about that.
Nonetheless, based on what I have seen this season and after their experience in the playoffs last season, I do believe the 2012 49ers are good enough to contend for a Super Bowl title.
Two Minute Drill
- Think Aldon Smith is pissed about not getting a sack against the Pats last weekend? I do. The Seahawks had better make sure that Breno Giacomini eats his Wheaties on Sunday. He's going to need them.
- There are a great many things about the NFL's approach to player safety that deserve applause…but levying a $21,000 fine against Dashon Goldson is not one of them. I watched, re-watched and re-re-watched his hit on Aaron Hernandez and it looked legal to me. Goldson didn't lead with the crown of his helmet, didn't target the head, and got there right when the ball did. The play was textbook. The fine? Not so much.
- The Pistol is working wonders for the 49ers…especially when they employ "full house" personnel. It forces a defense in its base personnel package to man up with at least on player in the backfield…and when Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis are the wingbacks that creates as surefire a mismatch as there is in the NFL. KJ Wright and Leroy Hill are going to have their hands full this weekend.
- At the beginning of the season I had hopes that Michael Crabtree would break the 1,000-yard receiving mark this year, becoming the first 49ers WR to do so since Terrell Owens in 2003. By week 13, I had all but given up hope, but his hot streak since then has put him in pretty good position to actually accomplish the feat. He already has a career-high 73 catches, surpassing his previous best of 72 which he accomplished last season. With 868 yards up to this point, he's only 7 yards from a new personal best (874 yards, also last season), and would need to average only 66 receiving yards over these next two games to get into quadruple digits for receiving yards this season. Moreover, his 7 receiving touchdowns are not only also a career best, but they tie him for the most by a 49ers WR since … well, Terrell Owens' 9 receiving touchdowns in 2003 (Isaac Bruce also had 7 touchdowns in 2008). The last time a 49ers WR had double digit TD's in a season? Well that would also be T.O., in 2002 with 13. Yes, I think Crabtree could reach 10 touchdowns this season.
- How close is Frank Gore to a legitimate discussion for a place in the NFL Hall of Fame? Six 1000-yard rushing season in his 8-year career, and the two times he missed the mark were 1) his rookie season when he was sharing time in the backfield with Kevan Barlow, and 2) the 2010 season in which he only played 11 games (projected over the 14 games/season he's averaged over his career, he would had surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in 2010 as well). He has been the heart and soul of the 49ers during his NFL career, and regardless of the year rumors regarding the end of his road, I think he has enough left in the tank for a couple more outstanding seasons. A Super Bowl ring would certainly boost his resume.
Week 16 Picks
This is it…the battle for the NFC West comes down to the 49ers' showdown with the Seahawks. Usually, I'd use the intro to provide a little color on what we saw last week or what we could hope to see this week across the league…but my level of excitement coupled with the Macallan I'm sipping right now is making me decidedly Niner-centric…so f*ck that noise. Without further ado, here are our picks for the week:
Falcons at Lions:
AJ: The Lions have proven adept at a great many things this season…but winning games hasn't been one of them. Since the outcome of this game will not be judged by whether Ndomakong Suh can manage to kick Matt Ryan in the stones, the visitors are going to romp in this one. Falcons.
Diego: I can easily make a case for the Detroit being THE most disappointing team this season. This game would most likely help my argument. Falcons.
Saints at Dallas:
AJ: Tony Romo and "clutch" go together like peanut butter and mayonnaise…like Pamela and Tommy Lee…like Lewinsky and Clinton…like Starbucks and Mormons…like…you get the idea. Saints.
Diego: Amazingly enough, New Orleans still has a chance to make the playoffs, and beating Dallas would keep the hope alive. So long as it's a possibility, I will take Drew Brees over Tony Romo in a must-win game. Saints.
Titans at Packers:
AJ: I consulted my magic 8-ball for this one, and it laughed at me. Packers.
Diego:Tennessee saw the Jets put on possibly their worst performance in the history of the franchise, and they still only beat them by 4 points and had a chance to lose the game at the end. C'mon. Packers.
Colts at Chiefs:
AJ: This is the weekend that Andrew Luck cements his position as the NFL's rookie of the year…and the Chiefs strengthen their bid for the first overall pick in the draft. Colts.
Diego: Kansas City's last chance to get picked to win a game by me came last week, and even that came to a coin toss. Which didn't favor them. And the coin was right. Colts.
Bills at Dolphins:
AJ: How do you think Bills fans feel about the big money extension that Ryan Fitzpatrick got last season? Evidently, though the Ivy League churns out some pretty good lawyers, its post grad programs for quarterbacks leave something to be desired. Dolphins.
Diego: I was going to say I'm done picking Buffalo too, but they do play the Jets next week. Regardless, the only teams they've beaten on the road this season are the Browns and Cardinals. I'm not impressed. Dolphins.
Chargers at Jets:
AJ: I recently invested in a "smart TV." When I tried to find this game in my progam schedule, all that was there was a message the read, "I'm not watching this crap AJ, whether you want to or not." Apparently, the TV is smarter than I thought. Jets.
Diego: I hate Tebowmania, but at the same time the only chance I was giving the Jets to pull this off was going to be if Tebow got the start this week. I'm supposed to be excited about Greg McElroy? I don't think very highly of the Chargers, but I still place them above Rex Ryan's circus, even if they're the road team. Chargers.
Redskins at Eagles:
AJ: The Eagles are bad. Really bad. So bad that me, Diego, my mom and my kid sisters could probably put up 21 points on them. In the 1st Quarter. Redskins.
Diego: I'm going to go ahead and tell you in case you didn't already figure it out: I'm picking Washington to win the NFC East. Accordingly … Redskins.
Bengals at Steelers:
AJ: Superman has kryptonite. Napoleon had Waterloo. Ben Affleck had Reindeer Games. France has almost every war they've fought for the last 300 years. And Andy Dalton has the Steelers. Steelers.
Diego: I'm actually pretty psyched to watch this game – hard-hitting defenses in a playoff-like setting. Cincinnati is on the rise, Pittsburgh is on the decline, but can the Bengals really take this next step? Part of me thinks I'm wrong, but I just don't see it. Steelers.
Rams at Bucs:
AJ: The Bucs can score in bunches…but they're giving up passing yards like Halloween candy. The Rams are going to win on the road and the Bucs are going to start thinking about drafting a new secondary. Rams.
Diego: I'm going with the home team on this one, but if you're struggling to find a decent QB to play in your fantasy football championship game this week you might want to take a flier on Sam Bradford against the 32nd ranked pass defense. I see shootout. Buccaneers.
Raiders at Panthers:
AJ: I was going to pick the Raiders to win in an upset…but then I sobered up. Panthers.
Diego: Oakland can't score a touchdown at home against the CHIEFS and I'm you're expecting me to pick them on the road in Carolina? Uh, 1) Cam Newton is going to torch the Raiders' defense, and 2) I don't do drugs. Panthers.
Pats at Jags:
AJ: The NFL is supposed to have "parity" now. Tell that to the Jags after they've been stomped by four scores. Pats.
Diego: Jacksonville fans (they exist, right?) were sitting there last Sunday night like "Damn, Brady is going to take it out on us next week." Yes he will, Jaguars' fan(s). Patriots.
Vikings at Texans:
AJ: As a wedding gift for Christian Ponder and Samanth Steele, the Texans have arranged a 5-sack beatdown for the groom. Even Purple Jesus won't be able to save the Vikes here. Texans.
Diego: This will be one of those games where Minnesota will not be able to win regardless of an out-of-this-world performance by Adrian Peterson. What? You're still sitting there thinking the Texans have a legit run defense? The Colts just averaged 5 yards/carry against them last week. In Houston. Vikings just won't be able to keep the score close enough. Texans.
Browns at Broncos:
AJ: If there were a mercy rule in the NFL, it would be exercised before kick off in this one. Broncos.
Diego: Yes Cleveland, you too are done getting picked to win games by me this season. Broncos.
Bears at Cards:
AJ: Even though Jay Cutler is the Jeff George of his generation, even he couldn't screw this one up. Bears.
Diego: Something tells me I should pick Arizona here to take advantage of yet another turnover-prone QB, but I just can't do it. Bears.
Giants at Ravens:
AJ: Baltimore is reeling…and in need of a win. Look for them to take out the frustration of recent weeks on the Giants, who seem to be falling apart at the wrong time. Ravens.
Diego: Baltimore is the worst of the seven teams who have already clinched a playoff spot. I'm buying Eli Manning and the Giants to bounce back from last week's embarrassing loss in Atlanta. Call me crazy. Giants.
49ers at Seahawks:
AJ: There are some who think that this game will be close…but I think that Harbaugh is going to make a statement against his arch nemesis. Look for the 49ers to open it up against the unsuspecting Seahawks. *Bold Prognostication*: in the post victory handshake, Harbaugh will say, "That's my deal, scrub." 49ers.
Diego: Another thing I'm done doing this season: picking against the 49ers. Even if their season timeline suggest they will not win, none of those non-wins came on primetime, and Jim Harbaugh has an edge over Pete Carroll. In a very close game … 49ers.