Before we begin the post-mortem on last Sunday's 49er implosion, a logistical note: because he's earned the break, Diego del Barco will be on a three week hiatus from UFR...so it looks like you are stuck with AJ Bolino...until week 5, anyway.
This week, we'll be focusing on the meat of the one question that seems to be on everyone's mind (as it pertains to the 49ers, anyway): what went wrong?
So...What the F$#% Happened?
Heading into Week 2 of this very young NFL season, the 49ers had been all but crowned champions...some had gone so far as to say that Colin Kaepernick had the "stuff" to be the best quarterback in the history of forever.
Then, Sunday night happened. Damn...what a difference a game makes.
Now, opinions are all over the board...and all mostly negative. Visit the comment section of any 49er themed article posted this week, and you'll read that the 49ers are doomed to suffer losing season...or that they've lost the ability to run the ball...or that Kaepernick is overrated...or that the offense is regressing...or that Coach Harbaugh is out of ideas...or that the 49ers have just gotten lucky for the past two seasons.
Is any of the aforementioned true? No. Not really anyway. Losses have a way of amplifying half truths and rumors here in 49erland...and this loss is no different. The truth of the matter is simpler. Much simpler.
Truth #1: Crowd Noise Matters...Especially to This Offense
Whether or not the fan base cares to admit it, the 49er offense is a work in progress. What started out as a run heavy WCO variant has developed into a multiple set, assignment driven offense that can be anything from a 3 TE Jumbo ground pounder to a Spread Option aerial circus.
The basic premise behind the 49er offense is to move its players around in order to achieve the best possible matchup given what the opposing defense is showing. While this strategy has been wildly effective over the past two seasons, it has made the offense heavily dependent on shifts, motion and audibles. Shifts, motions and audibles typically rely on audible cues. No sound means no audible cues. No audible cues mean that a team unaccustomed to running silent had to adjust on the fly...in fact, it forced the 49ers to almost completely abandon what works for them on offense...which rendered them almost completely ineffective.
Truth #2: The 49ers MUST Establish the Ground Game
The Seahawks defensive front thrives on applying steady gap pressure...which makes them particularly vulnerable to traps, wham runs and off balance power runs...yet Frank Gore, the 49ers bell cow, only had 9 carries last Sunday. I can appreciate the 49ers desire to flaunt Kap's arm...to stretch the field with the pass...to do what they did to Green Bay in Week 1...but make no mistake...Seattle is NOT Green Bay.
Beating the Seahawks with a throw first, 4 wide, no huddle set sounds good in theory...but in practice, not so much. The strength of the Seahawks is their secondary. They excel at upsetting timing routes, playing press coverage and disguising their coverages. A no huddle spread attack might have taken the crowd out of the game it it had worked...but all it did was allow the Seahawks to pin their ears back, ignore the run altogether and get after the QB. That put pressure on the O-line, which ended up putting pressure on Kap...and we all saw what happened after that.
The way to beat Seattle is actually really simple: run the ball. A lot.
Some will call this a gross oversimplification...but that isn't the case. the Seahawks love gap pressure, and as I stated earlier, that makes them particularly vulnerable to trap, wham and power runs. Attacking the heart of a pressure heavy defense (especially one that enjoys playing press man coverage) takes the teeth out of the edge rush, and forces the secondary to play closer to the line of scrimmage and/or mix their coverages...which opens opportunities via play play action...which is precisely what the 49ers need to do in order to get the better of what might be the best secondary in football.
The Seahawks may not be easy to run on...but forcing them to respect the ground game will keep them honest...and that is the key to beating them.
Truth #3: Undisciplined Teams Do Not Win Football Games
In the wake of Clay Matthews' late hit on Colin Kaepernick in Week 1, I wrote that the 49ers have a giant target on their respective backs. If Sunday night's game was any indication, they still do.. They played in a Super Bowl last season, and every team on their schedule is going to use them as a measuring stick...in addition to doing anything...yes, anything...to take the 49ers out of their game.
Over the course of the first two weeks of the season, the 49ers have been penalized 23 times. That's an average of 11.5 per game. Last season, they averaged 6.63 penalties per game, including the playoffs. Last week alone, two penalties (of the 15 yard, personal foul variety) extended drives that ended in Seahawk touchdowns. Essentially, the 49ers handed their opponent 14 points. It cost them a division game.
This trend cannot continue if the 49ers plan to retain their NFC West crown.
Truth #4: It's a Long Season
So far, the truth sounds pretty damn depressing, doesn't it? Well, the last truth is among the most important on this list: it's a long season. Really long.
Plenty can happen over the course of a season. Rookies can find their feet. Position groups can jell. Fortunes can change. And it happens from Week 1 to Week 17, every single season. This one will be no different.
49er fans have seen it before. We've seen great teams fall to pieces when it matters (see: 1987 49ers) and we've seen teams that looked downright bad at times pull it together when it matters (see: 1988 49ers). Some fans have mailed it in for the season, proclaiming that the 49ers are done. That is as silly as crowning them champions before they had played a game.
The 49ers are going to be around in the playoffs (despite what you hear from Grant or Lowell Cohn). They will have good games. They will have bad games. And they will see the Seahawks again.
It's a long season, kids...and it is far from over.
2 Minute Drill
* There are some who call JR Sweezy's block on Ian Williams "legal". I call BS. Williams was engaged with Max Unger, and Sweezy hit him below the waist...and that is a chop block...which is illegal.
*Contrary to popular opinion, Frank Gore can still run the ball. Well. Expect to see the 49ers bring the run into their game plan this week.
*Many fans I've spoken with over the last week don't understand why the Seahawks weren't flagged for illegal contact against the 49ers' receivers last week. The fact is, Seattle's secondary is good. Very good. They'll get the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Especially at home.
*This week, some 49er "fans" sent a letter to the SF Chronicle which intones that Seattle's fans need to quiet down in the spirit of good sportsmanship. I thought is was a joke...sadly, it wasn't. Crowd noise is what it is, kids. It's a part of the game, and this 49er team is going to have to find a way to deal with it.
*The Browns have traded Trent Richardson to the Colts. While he likely won't have a huge effect on the game this week, this move is an absolute steal for the Colts. Luck, Hilton and Richardson have a chance to evolve into something very special. The Browns, on the other hand, just got worse. Big time.
Week 3 Picks
Chiefs at Eagles (-3)
Does anyone remember Steve Spurrier's "fun gun" offense when he was the head coach of the Redskins for about 15 minutes? It was supposed to be the "next big thing" in the NFL passing game. It wasn't. Chip Kelly fans, take note. CHIEFS.
Browns at Vikings (-6.5)
When the season started, the one good thing that I could say about the browns was that they had Trent Richardson. Now they don't. VIKINGS.
Buccaneers at Patriots (-7)
The Bucs are flagging, and the Pats are finally finding their feet. Look for Tommy Terrific to do his thing at home against an inferior opponent. PATRIOTS.
Cardinals at Saints (-7.5)
Carson Palmer can still throw...but not as well as Drew Brees. If this becomes a shoot out, it could get ugly. SAINTS.
Chargers at Titans (-3)
I cannot lay points on the Titans. I just can't. Especially now that it looks like the Chargers can play on the road. CHARGERS.
Giants at Panthers (-1)
In as much as I believe that the Panthers are on their way to respectability...they just aren't there yet. GIANTS.
Lions at Redskins (-2)
RG3 isn't all the way back yet...and it shows. Add to that the fact that the Redskins defense has been anything but stout and that makes this one a no brainer. LIONS.
Packers (-2) at Bengals
The Bengals are quite possibly the best team in their division...but that won't mean jack when Aaron Rodgers does what he does best. PACKERS.
Rams at Cowboys (-4)
The Rams are intriguing...and not good enough to win a road game against a better team that's a little salty about losing last week. COWBOYS.
Texans (-2.5) at Ravens
The Ravens won convincingly against the Browns last week. This just in: The Texans are WAY better than the Browns. TEXANS.
Falcons at Dolphins (-2.5)
The Falcons are too much for the Dolphins. Tannehill and company are on their way to winning games like this...but they aren't there yet. FALCONS.
Bills at Jets (-2.5)
In a matchup of perpetual also-rans, I've consulted the magic 8-ball. Its response: "Butt Fumble". BILLS.
Jaguars at Seahawks (-19.5)
The Jaguars are a veritable cornucopia of awful. They will lose in Seattle. Badly. As much as I hate to do it...SEAHAWKS.
Bears (-2.5) at Steelers
The Steelers are a lot like a stripper that's been at it for a year too long...their effort is admirable, but the end result just isn't very fun to watch. BEARS.
Raiders at Broncos (-15)
The Raiders have become a very interesting team to watch. Terrelle Pryor has real potential. Darren McFadden is healthy and productive. And none of that will matter against the best team in the NFL right now. BRONCOS.
Colts at 49ers (-10)
10 points? Hm. Did these guys see last week's game? Truth be told, I smell a bounce back game. Look for the 49er defense to show up with something to prove. 49ers.
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Upon Further Review: The Niners Stink at the Clink
By: Hawksfan1337Date: Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 12:52 PMComment: Yes, the Seahawks secondary is "shutdown good", the hawks backups would start for SF or most other teams in the league at CB and maybe safety too
By: GonzolaDate: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 5:21 PMComment: Nice piece AJ! The other day I was daydreaming of the 80's and early 90's and remembering many a Madden broadcast talking about Terry Bradshaw or Johnny Unitas, etc. when referring to great quarterbacks while watching Joe Montana. Nowadays everyone is a franchise this or a franchise that and I could not believe after 3 super bowl rings many broadcasters still referred to "the greats" and shrugged off Joe Montana while reporting on live TV. Why is this? Why does Kappy have to be "great" or "franchise material"? Who cares? I miss the days when the players on the field were just that -- on the field -- and merely workers trying hard to make it to the day they could also be called "great". Back then those that had been enshrined acted like it and the broadcasters always gave them respect. Let's just play football and forget about "franchise" and "greatness" until we can not play football anymore. That is why players like Frank Gore, Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, Reggie White, etc. are/were truly great - because they let their play speak for itself. Why can't today's players just play f#@/in' ball? GO NINERS.
By: MonsterninerDate: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 6:00 PMComment: The Seahawks are better than the Niners at the CenturyLink but they are not better than the Niners at the Candlestick and the're not better than the Niners when both teams play on the road. The Seahawks still have to come to the Bay Area and both teams still have 7 games on the road so take it easy my friends because the season is very long.
By: pavloshDate: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 4:54 PMComment: I'm not ready to crown the Seahawks just yet. When they start winning on the road in places like Green Bay, New England, New Orleans and other tough road teams whom the Niners have beat, then come to me about them being better than the Niners. Many teams look like crap at their place but let's see what they do on the road.
By: Terry B.Date: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 1:02 PMComment: Diego "earned a break" after ONE UFR? Weren't the last seven months a break? Isn't the second week of the NFL season a strange time to take a break from your NFL column? Don't your loyal readers deserve a full complement of UFR every week?
By: Terry B.Date: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 12:11 PMComment: Don't look now, but Alex Smith is 2-0.
By: NateDate: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 10:39 AMComment: I actually think the Niner defense was pretty good last week. Sure, they got worn down over time because the offense couldn't stay on the field. Russell Wilson wasn't able to do alot and Lynch benefitted from a DEF that simply wore down later in the game. I think it's the Offense who has something to prove this week...namely the O-line and Frank Gore. Our running game has been weak to say the least and Gore needs to show he can still get the job done. For an O-line thats supposed to be one of the best in the league, they need to step up - Kap was running for his life alot. Need some separation from these receivers too. Sure, we are banged up, but Kap dropped back and had NO ONE open a dozen times. Is Seattles secondary that "shut down" good? We need to run against them to help free that passing game up. Looking forward to a bounceback vs the Colts
By: Uncle BubDate: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 10:36 AMComment: Nailed it...again, AJ. Makes an uncle, and lifetime 9er fan mighty proud.
By: CharlesDate: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 10:24 AMComment: Enjoyed your articel on the reasons why the Niners lost badly to the Seahawks.I think there's always a team that for some reason you simply can't beat-the Seahawks are that team. I also think other teams have caught on the the Niners style of play...but they will bounce back.
By: henn415Date: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 9:53 AMComment: Good read AJ. A lot of fans need to take a deep breath and relax a little bit. I feel that the Niners beat themselves in SEA and the crowd played a huge role in getting into the players heads and forcing them into costly mental breakdowns down the stretch. I agree with getting back to our run game, but what's your take on Franky and his 2 yds a pop the past two games? It's hard to admit it, but he has lost a step. I think he can crack 1000 yards just because of our o-line, but I don't think opposing teams fear Franky as much as they did a few years back.