Welcome to wildcard weekend 49er fans, and the bye week edition of Upon Further Review. Week 17 is in the books, the 49ers wound up as the second seed (do you believe in miracles?) and this weekend's action will determine who travels to Candlestick next Saturday.
The Niners have this week off, and while they rest up for the Divisional Playoff, we'll be taking a hard look back at the season that was. This week we'll be offering up our thoughts on the team's offensive MVP, defensive MVP and which of the 49ers assistants is most likely to depart for a head coaching gig next season.
AJ: At the outset of the season, I figured that the 49ers would shift their "ground and pound" offensive strategy a bit, and to some degree, they did.
This season saw the 49ers offense produce its first 1,000 yard receiver since 2003. It saw the team change starting QBs in order to open up the deep passing game...but none of that changed the foundation of the 49er offense. This team's offensive production begins with none other than Frank Gore.
This offense goes as Gore does. When the run works, the pass works, Kaepernick gets time in the pocket, defenses stay honest and the 49ers win games. This season hasn't been Gore's best, but when he's at his best, so is the 49er offense.
Before he was lost to injury, Kendall Hunter proved to be an effective change of pace. LaMichael James has stepped up in recent weeks, flashing eye popping explosiveness. Both will prove valuable to this team in the future...but when the rubber meets the road, Frank is the engine that makes this offense go (in addition to being the 49ers all time leading rusher, and all time TD leader among running backs). His 4.7 ypc average is good enough for 8th best among NFL running backs, and his 1,214 yards rank 10th.
But rank that matters is 2. Right now the 49ers are the #2 seed in the playoffs, and they got there on the legs of Frank Gore. His knack for gaining tough yards, finding creases in opposing defenses and his ability to grind out yards after contact make him a very special player.
Frank probably isn't the best player on the offense anymore. He doesn't score the most. He isn't the fastest. He isn't the strongest. He isn't the most exciting. But make no mistake...he is the most valuable.
Diego: It should come as no shock that my pick for offensive MVP is none other than Michael Crabtree. You may remember that back in August of 2012 I wrote a piece on Crabtree and whether he was a bust, inspired by a poll in the 49erswebzone forums where 49% of the fan base voted that he was. Five weeks into the season, I stated Crabtree had arrived as a true #1 WR, and midway through this season I selected him to have a breakout second half of the year.
He put together the best statistical season by a 49ers wideout since Terrell Owens was dancing with pompoms after touchdowns, and if you're trying to remember what year that was the answer is 2002: Crabtree actually bested Owens' 2003 season, by a very small margin.
Crabtree in 2012: 85 catches, 1,105 yards (13 per catch, 69.1 per game), 9 touchdowns, 465 YAC, and 57 first downs.
Owens in 2003: 80 catches, 1,102 yards (13.8 per catch, 73.5 per game), 9 touchdowns, 371 YAC, and 55 first downs.
Putting aside the feat of the 1,000-yard season, Crabtree's performance was instrumental to the team's success this season, especially when it came to moving the chains as reflected by his YAC and first downs - he turned a 3rd down into a 1st down 22 times this season, tied for 5th best in the league according to STATS LLC. His production this season was of special value to the team due to disappearance of Vernon Davis as the season went along, Mario Manningham's season being cut short by injury, and Randy Moss's limited role with the team.
All of that being said, Crabtree's statistical output this season also put the league on notice that the 49ers now have a legitimate presence at the receiver position. He ranked 13th in receptions, 14th in yards, 11th in touchdowns, 7th in YAC, and 13th in first downs. He did not fumble this season. Perhaps my favorite stat of them all is how often he recorded a catch based on the number of times he was targeted: Crabtree hauled in 67% of passes thrown his way, 5th best in the league behind Jason Witten (73%), Eric Decker (69%), Andre Johson (68%), and Wes Welker (68%) - that's some elite company.
AJ: The 49er defense is one of the more frightening units in the game today. It features a tandem of safeties that can hit like trucks, the best pair of inside linebackers in football and one of the most exciting pass rushers the league has seen in years...but my pick for MVP isn't any of the aforementioned.
The 49er defensive line features the player who I consider to be the best 3-4 defensive lineman in the NFL, Justin Smith. This is the part where some will stand up and scream "but what about JJ Watt?"
Watt has sacks...but he can't carry a defense like Justin Smith. He has the ability to get after the passer, eat up blocks, stuff the run and play the "grab game" (a perfectly legal part of defensive line play...despite Kevin Gilbride's whining to the contrary). Though his sack totals are down this season, his tackle numbers (65 through 14 games) have remained steady...and his value to this defense is unquestionable. In the two games he's missed since he was injured, a defense that averages 65.5 snaps per game averaged 94.5, and the entire defense has suffered as a result.
Smith is more than a dynamic player...he elevates the play of those around him...and that is why he's the MVP of this defense.
Diego: AJ already told you why Justin Smith is the MVP of the 49ers defense, but for the sake of argument I'm going to throw another name into the conversation: Dashon Goldson.
Aside from being one of the best tacklers on the team, he has become one of the most feared safeties in the game for both quarterbacks and skill position players due to his knack for getting turnovers and jarring hits. Along with Donte Whitner, Goldson roams the back end of the defense and seldom allows plays to go past his zone, but more importantly he punishes players that come within his range, having delivered several bone-crushing hits this season.
This season he made 69 tackles (1 for loss), defended 11 passes, had a team-high 3 interceptions, forced 1 fumble, and recovered 2. His 5 takeaways are also a team best, and although they represent a slight drop from the 7 takeaways he had last season, Goldson's overall performance has done nothing but improve, which will make him very expensive to bring him back to the team in 2013. Nevertheless, the 49ers must find a way to have him back in red and gold for the next few years, because his blend of agility, range, coverage, and ball-hawking skills, as well as his excellent health (he's missed only 2 games in the last 4 seasons), will be very difficult to replace, and that's what makes him so valuable to this team.
Which Assistant is most likely to depart this off season?
AJ: Last offseason, Jim Harbaugh managed to keep his coaching staff largely intact...but after a second straight successful season, he probably won't be able to do it again.
Given the climate of the league, and the demand for coaches that can create immediate change, don't be surprised if Greg Roman is shoulder tapped to interview for one of the seven currently vacant head coaching gigs in the NFL.
The NFL is trending toward offense, and the 49ers run one if the most complex, multiple front schemes in the league. Over the course of the season, the 49ers have run variations of the spread option, pistol, old school shotgun, WCO and any number of power run looks. That kind of offensive identity is rare...and valuable.
Any team with a solid talent level on offense and the means to improve its QB situation (and possibly trade for Alex Smith in the offseason) would be a perfect landing spot for Roman.
Diego: Black Monday has already gone by, and as a result several coaching vacancies are in place at the moment making this a very stressful time for fans of teams with outstanding coaching, such as the 49ers, who may see some of their coordinators get the call to a promotion.
While much of the focus, deservedly so, is on offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the one name that may be flying under the radar is Jim Tomsula. After all, Tomsula has the repertoire and peer respect to take the next step into a defensive coordinator position, but getting tabbed to be a head coach isn't totally out of the question.
Tomsula has experience as both a defensive coordinator and head coach during his time in NFL Europe, but more importantly he's the the type of coach who obtains the attention and respect of his players. You may remember he acted as the interim head coach for the 49ers back in the last game of 2010 after Mike Singletary was fired, a 38-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The 49ers' personnel executive, Tom Gamble, has perhaps been the hottest name out on the media this week as a possible General Manager candidate. To that end, Adam Stites from bigcatcountry.com reported on January 1st that Tomsula could be a head coaching candidate for a team that hires Gamble as a GM. Don't sleep on Tomsula getting a much deserved promotion.
Two Minute Drill:
- The 49ers will face the Packers, Seahawks or Redskins next week at Candlestick. Some are hoping for a retribution matchup with Seattle, others for an RGIII/Kaep showdown...but the 49ers match up best with the Packers. Offensively and defensively, the Packers are vulnerable to the Niners...even though they have the clear advantage at QB and a better road record than the Redskins or Seahawks.
- Justin Smith was a full participant in practice this week. The 49ers had better hope he's able to go next week, no matter who they play. The 49er defense is a different unit with him on the field, and the last two games prove it.
- Vernon Davis has been largely invisible over the past six games...but if last season's playoff games were any indicator, that will likely change. Look for the 49ers to work on specific plays to get Vernon some deep looks in their next game.
- Some have raised concerns that Aldon Smith simply can't get to the QB without Justin Smith. While Justin no doubt makes Aldon's job easier, it should be noted that fatigue has played a big part in his sudden lull in the sack department. Not so sure? Consider this: Aldon's snap count more than doubled this year.
- You may have noticed that while we went with an offensive and defensive MVP, we stayed away from naming a Special Teams MVP since the only guy on the unit that had a decent season was Andy Lee.
- Billy Cundiff is now a 49er after signing with the team earlier in the week. He'll be competing in practice with David Akers as coaches keep a close eye on them to figure out who gives the team the best chance to win as they prepare for their first playoff game next Saturday. My money is on Cundiff to win that competition, and by money, I mean pennies, which is the most I would put on Cundiff to actually come through for this team in the playoffs.
- On a semi-related note, apparently Akers had a double sports hernia surgery last February, an issue that flared up during the year and no doubt must be contributing to his struggles this season. I guess that's what Harbaugh meant when he said Akers was "working through something."
- AJ Jenkins had a rough gamelast week, lining up on the wrong places during formations and dropping the only pass thrown his way, which was placed right on his hands and had the chance to become a big play. Jenkins remains without a catch in his short NFL career, and it will be interesting to see how (if) he bounces back during the playoffs. This team NEEDS him to step up.
Wild Card Picks
Wildcard weekend is finally here, and with it comes a slate of very interesting contests. While most of us will be paying close attention to the Packers/Vikings game this evening, the Seahawks/Redskins matchup will be worth watching, as will the Texans/Bengals and Ravens/Colts game. Here are our picks for the week:
Bengals at Texans:
AJ: The Bengals really heated up over their last 7 games, and the Texans are falling to pieces. Still, when it comes right down to it, the Texans have the juice to win this game, and with home field advantage, I think they will. The Bengals have been hot, but I question their ability to run the ball against the Texans, which will leave Andy Dalton exposed. Texans.
Diego: Houston has been a disappointment late in the season, thanks in part to Matt Schaub's declining performance to end the year (1 TD, 3 interceptions). Cincinnati on the other hand is red hot, having won 7 of their last 8 games to get into the playoffs with a balanced production. The playoffs will start off with an upset. Bengals.
Vikings at Packers:
AJ: Last week's game at the Metrodome was nothing short of amazing. Adrian Peterson played one of the best games of his career, and the Vikings got production and clutch throws from Christian Ponder. As much as I'd love nothing more than to see the Packers go one and done for a second straight season, everything about this game points to the Vikings losing at Lambeau. Packers.
Diego: What Adrian Peterson and Minnesota accomplished last week was phenomenal (especially since it gave the 49ers a much needed bye week), but I don't feel that they can repeat that performance and/or the result this time around, not in Green Bay anyways. Packers.
Colts at Ravens:
AJ: Last week, the Colts pulled out a convincing victory against the Texans. Even though the Ravens have home field advantage, and will be riding a wave of emotion stemming from the announcement that Ray Lewis will retire at the end of this season, The Colts are a more complete team and that will carry them to victory here. Colts.
Diego: I was actually pretty sold on the Colts winning this game, but Ray Lewis' retirement announcement does change things for me. Plus, Joe Flacco and this whole Baltimore team definitely play a lot better at home. It's not time for the greatest linebacker of all time to call it quits yet, not this weekend anyways. Ravens.
Seahawks at Redskins:
AJ: The Seahawks have improved by leaps and bounds over the second half of this season but they still suck on the road. Without the magic of Artificialnoiselink Stadium, they are a good but beatable team. Look for Mike Shanahan to out-scheme Pete Carroll in order to earn his team another game. Redskins.
Diego: Easily my favorite matchup of the week. The RGIII vs Russell Wilson debate will be put to rest (for now), as Griffin will lead his team to a thrilling victory at home. At least that's what I see in my head, which probably means this game will turn out to be a 10-6 game, but even so ... Redskins.
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