Damn...that sucked, didn't it? For the second time this season, the 49ers were handed an unsightly defeat at home. More importantly, for the first time in the Harbaugh Era, the 49ers were beaten coming out of a bye week. Passes were dropped, uncharacteristic turnovers were committed and though the defense was sound, the 49er offense seemed completely out of its depth at times.
Some have called out Colin Kaepernick, some have called out Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh, and others have pointed to the 49er offensive line. But amid the screams of "the sky is falling!", "Kap is remedial!", "Roman is a dummy!" and "Harbaugh is losing it", something has been lost. That something is the truth of what actually went down at Candlestick on Sunday and how it can be remedied. This week, Diego and AJ will break down the loss, discuss what changes should be made going forward and what awaits the 49ers in the playoffs (yeah, that's right, kids...this is still a playoff team).
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What the F*#% Happened?
AJ: In the time since the 49ers lost their 3rd game of the season, the feedback has been predictable. Casual fans are screaming for Greg Roman's head. Local and national analysts are calling Colin Kaepernick a bust. Some are saying that the 49er offensive line is terrible. Still others think that Trent Baalke is to blame for failing to grab a wide receiver at the trade deadline.
You know what I think? I think that almost everyone commenting is over reacting...in addition to being dead wrong. This loss (and every 49er loss this season, for that matter) can be summed up quite simply: when Vernon Davis does not play, or is injured early, the 49ers lose. There is your root cause. The math is quite simple, really. Davis is the 49ers' most dangerous receiving option. He is also one of their best run blockers. When he isn't in the game, the 49er offense crumbles.
The numbers bear this out. When Davis has been on the field for the entire game, the 49ers are 6-0. When he's been injured, the 49ers are 0-3. When Davis has been on the the field for the entire game, Kaepernick has thrown 9 TDs. When he's been injured, Kap's TD total is a staggering 0. That's right kids...0.
Here is the total stat line for Kaepernick through the air when Davis is healthy: 87 of 143 (61%), 1307 yards (9.14 yards per attempt) and 9 TDs. When Davis is injured, Kap is 37 of 77 (48%), 368 yards (4.78 yards per attempt) and 0 TDs. What does this indicate? That's easy...it indicates that when Davis is out or limited, opposing defenses pack the box, bring extra heat, pin their ears back and dare the 49ers to beat them with anyone else through the air. As you might have guessed, they can't. So when the 49ers went to the air in the 2nd half, the results were predictably nightmarish.
That leaves the run (doesn't it always?) and after halftime, Frank Gore (who was averaging over 5 yards per carry) got exactly 4 carries. Essentially, after the 49ers lost their best aerial option, they failed to lean on their very successful rushing attack...and it cost them the game.
Diego: I find your analysis short-sighted AJ. Your argument is that the offense's struggles are due to Davis' absence on the field. My counter-argument (and I assume the one of many of our readers) is that the 49ers' offense is comprised or several other pro-bowlers as well as what's perceived to be a high-caliber coaching staff, therefore the struggles during Davis' time off the field are inexcusable. As it is the case more often than not during a loss, a review of this game tells me that there is plenty of blame to go around in San Francisco, just as there is usually plenty of praise to go around during a win.
- The offensive line gave up a season-high six sacks: for those of you who like quirky stats, the 49ers are 0-3 this season when they give up three sacks or more. Newsflash: this offensive line isn't really that good in pass blocking, and Kap's running threat plus defenses' commitment to contain him has helped skew the numbers to make this unit look better than they actually are. Enter a stout defense such as the Panthers' which was able to do both contain Kap AND get to him, and you are basically exposed.
- Losing on first and second downs leading to unrealistic third down scenarios: I actually have to give Ted Robinson, the voice of the 49ers on KNBR, credit for this as he mentioned it in his weekly Monday chat in the Murph and Mac show (which is a must in my car every morning on my way to work). San Francisco in this game: 2 of 13 on third downs - but when you look closer at the 11 failed third down attempts, you see that eight of them were third-and-longs (seven yards or more), with five such situations asking Kap to pick up double-digit yardage (23, 17, 12, 25, and 13 yards). Even if Joe was back there throwing the ball, that's tough to ask of anyone. On this note it is worth mentioning that the coaches are not free of guilt on this issue, as the lack of screen passes (for one, hello Greg Roman) is a major head-scratcher to a lot of us.
- Kaepernick is failing to elevate his game: I hold the offensive line responsible for most of the sacks they give up, but Kaepernick isn't doing them any favors by displaying a regression in his pocket awareness. Unfortunately that's not the only area where he has regressed, as his accuracy is lacking as well, and his decision-making has certainly been questionable at times, the interception to end the game being an example. Much has been made of Trent Dilfer's comments about Kap becoming a "remedial" passer once his first read is taken away, but a review of the film doesn't necessarily show me that. Kap indeed went through his reads at several points in this game, but the offensive unit's performance as a whole simply worsened as the game went on. It went on the anti-clutch mode, for lack of a better description, which leads me to my last point.
- Players aren't making plays: and I get it, this sort of plays into AJ's point that arguably our best playmaker was not on the field, but twice on third-and-short Frank Gore rushed for negative yardage (once even with Snyder as an extra lineman when all that was needed was one yard), five of Kap's six sacks came on first down (going back to my second point), twice penalties turned third-and-longs into third-and-longer, Kendall Hunter fumbled, I already discussed the short-comings of Kap and the offensive line, and finally in what was really a back-breaker for me, both Mario Manningham and Vance McDonald had INEXCUSABLE drops back-to-back in the beginning of the fourth quarter, the latter which would had put the 49ers in the redzone. In a one-point game, turning any of these negative plays into a positive may have just helped San Francisco extend their winning streak to six.
What needs to change?
Diego: I would be a hypocrite if my answer here wasn't that everyone across the board in the offense, including the coaching staff, needs to step up. However, this team should also not lose sight of what has made them successful this season, and that's feeding Frank Gore.
Some people would argue that his workload is being limited so he can be fresh in January, to which I would point out that the 49ers are now the sixth (last) seed in the conference, and Arizona and Chicago are just one game behind (I'm not saying I think either team will finish with a better record than San Francisco, but crazier things have happened).
Gore was averaging FIVE yards per carry against Carolina in the first half (5 - as in the number of yards/carry the Saints give up this season, last in the NFL). So what happened in the second half? Well, simply put the Panthers made an adjustment to put eight and sometimes even nine people in the box, and the 49ers were not able to make them pay through the air (i.e.: McDonald's drop) to free up the box for Gore. One of two things needs to happen: either San Francisco makes defenses pay for loading up the box vs their run-heavy formations - regardless of whether Vernon is on the field - or the offense needs to be able to run out some pass formations (such as single back formations with three WR's). Players and coaches have some soul-searching to do, but the plan shouldn't go away from making Gore the focal point of this offense.
AJ: Diego, you just fell into the same trap that many who've "analyzed" this game did. On Sunday, the 49ers were failing on 1st down (especially in the 2nd half) regularly. The result was unmanageable 2nd and 3rd down opportunities. Why? The answers are simpler than some think...and tie into what MUST change (and my previous point, curiously enough) going forward for the 49ers to alter the course of their season.
First of all, the 49ers must stop asking Kap to do the impossible. I have heard fans shout, "why don't the 49ers just pass the ball like the Saints do?" The answer is pretty simple. They can't. Kap is not Drew Brees. He is not Tom Brady. Or Peyton Manning. What the 49ers have is a young QB who is physically gifted and quite obviously still learning the nuances of the position at the NFL level (pocket presence, adjustments at the line, etc). When you couple that with the fact that his #1 WR so far this season was intended to be a complementary player instead of a centerpiece, things become clearer. When you add to the aforementioned that this complementary player was surrounded by such forgettable names as Marlon Moore, Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin, things become plain as day: until the 49er passing attack gets is weapons back (all the way back), it is completely unreasonable to expect Kap to be a prolific passer or for the 49er passing attack to be at the forefront of the offense. Many of us (myself included) were so enamored with the passing attack after Week 1 that we lost sight of that. Right now, our coaching staff needs to be putting Kap in a position to succeed, not asking him to be a player that he is not (not yet, anyway).
Next, the 49ers must work with what they've got. Another fact often missed by pundits an local analysts alike is that the 49ers are not running the same offense that they did last season. Much of their aerial success last year came from utilizing all of their receivers to create mismatches at the line...and one of those receivers, Delanie Walker, is gone. Michael Crabtree has been recovering from injury through the season's first 10 weeks. Mario Manningham just returned from a horrific knee injury. The net result of all those personnel losses? The 49ers were forced to adapt...and they did that quite nicely. They became a run first, grind-it-out kind of team whose passing attack is reliant on play action to be effective. Utilizing Davis (or McDonald if Davis goes down) to create the threat of the pass, even in heavy/jumbo sets and continuing to feature the league's best rushing attack will go a long way toward getting this team back on track.
Finally, the 49ers need to take advantage of their most underutilized position group...the running backs. Each of the 49ers 5 running backs (Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon and Bruce Miller) presents a unique skill set, each of which can be used to exploit opposing defenses. Gore is a top tier back that excels at finding space, even against stacked defensive fronts. Hunter and James are fast and could create all sorts of problems for opposing defenses in the short passing game (think swings, screens, wheels and drags). Dixon is a viable short yardage option. Miller is a surprisingly gifted receiver who should be utilized more often...especially out of the "diamond" set, which would isolate him on an inside linebacker or strong safety. Basically, the 49ers corps of running backs is more talented that its corps of wide receivers (for now at least). Going forward, the 49ers should think about using them more creatively to shore up the gaps in the passing game.
Playoffs? Playoffs? You want to talk about playoffs?
AJ: Despite all of the doom and gloom in 49erland these days, I believe that the 49ers are still a playoff team (though you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that agrees with me in the local sports media). If the playoffs were to start today, the 49ers would be the 6th (and last) seed in the NFC. But there is something that most doomsayers are overlooking...THE PLAYOFFS DON'T START TODAY.
There are still seven weeks left in the season, and barring a catastrophic collapse, the 49ers will be going to the post season. And the fact is that the 49ers could be in the best shape of any playoff caliber team over the next few weeks. With Michael Crabtree set to return, the activation of Eric Wright, and the recent addition of Mario Manningham to the active roster, this team is getting its weapons back at the right time. The 49ers are going to look a lot different by the end of the season.
A lot can happen over the course of seven weeks. Injuries can heal, perennial favorites can lose, teams can get hot and teams can get cold. To think that today's snapshot of the NFC playoff picture is what we'll be seeing down the road is ridiculous. There is entirely too much football to be played...but there is one bit of prognostication I am willing to venture. When the playoffs do come around, the 49ers will be in the field...and very likely playing a road game somewhere in Texas.
Diego: I agree that the there is no question as to whether the 49ers will make the playoffs - I would be shocked if this team ins't playing games in January. However, until San Francisco can prove otherwise, you have to wonder how they will be able to perform against the top teams in the NFC, and hopefully the Super Bowl.
I'm not saying that this is an accurate reflection of who the 49ers are, but facts are facts: San Francisco six wins have come against teams with a combined winning percentage of .381, while their three defeats have come against teams with a combined winning percentage of .741. Sure a potential wildcard matchup against the NFC East champion seems like a sure win on paper regardless of the opponent, but can San Francisco take their game up to the next level and start beating some super bowl contenders? Luckily we will get an update to this question after this weekend's game against the Saints (7-2) in New Orleans.
After all, the 49ers are going against the odds that come with being the team that lost the last Super Bowl (typically leading to a letdown season). A return to the playoffs will kill some of those ghosts, but let's not forget that the team went into this season with the expectation to win a championship, and there is no (logical) reason to lower those expectations at this point. This team is simply much better than how they have performed this season (even in their wins) and it will be interesting to see whether they can improve their performance in these last seven weeks, especially once they are back closer to full strength in the injuries department.
- Perrish Cox was cut to make room for Eric Wright on the 49ers active roster. Wright is a HUGE upgrade over Cox. With the Saints' penchant for multiple WR sets, it is entirely plausible that he could see action this Sunday in New Orleans.
- The health of Vernon Davis is tremendously important to the 49ers' chances this weekend. He is the sole quick strike weapon on the 49ers roster...and when he sits, the 49er offense stalls.
- With Ray McDonald likely sidelined for this weekend's game, it appears that Tank Carradine could see significant playing time this weekend. When he's in, keep an eye on his first step off the snap. He has elite burst for his size. It will be very interesting to see how he fares.
- The Saints are AWFUL against the run. Look for The 49ers to serve up a healthy dose of ground n' pound smash mouth football in an attempt to keep Drew Brees on the sidelines.
- I will start by saying that I was very encouraged by what I saw from LaMichael James in punt returns vs the Panthers. Not only did he look far more comfortable in these duties than he ever has as a 49er, he provided an instant upgrade to what we saw for most of the season from Kyle Williams. Alas, we have yet to see specific plays called to utilize LMJ's skill set with the offense, so I hope to see that too pretty soon.
- A quick open note to Kyle Williams: you broke our hearts on January 22, 2012. Regardless, I respect your effort to bounce back not just from the disappointment that came with letting down so many people with the team and the fan base, but also for handling the embarrassing treatment from some knuckle heads in the social media like a grown person should. I hate to see your comeback effort fall short (in my eyes at least), and wish you well in Kansas City and wherever else your career may go.
- I would also like to take this space to make sure to acknowledge one thing: the Carolina Panthers are one hell of a football team. We take this column to write about what the 49ers could have done better and what note, but that should not take away from the fact that the Panthers are an outstanding team in all three facets of the game and earned their victory at Candlestick last Sunday.
Week 11 Picks
Last week AJ went 5-9, Diego went 6-8. Ouch.
Colts (-3) at Titans:
AJ: It appears that my "root against Irsay at all costs" campaign is gaining some momentum. Sadly, though I'd love nothing more than to see his team fail in the Music City, that probably won't happen...especially to a team that just lost to the freakin' Jags. COLTS.
Diego: The Rams and the Jaguars kindly reminded us last week that anything can happen any given Sunday ... but today is Thursday. COLTS.
Browns at Bengals (-6):
AJ: The Browns defeated the Ravens headed into their bye week...but that isn't going to mean much in a road game against the best team in their division. BENGALS.
Diego: Will the real Cincinnati Bengals PLEASE stand up? This isn't a confident pick, FYI. BENGALS.
Cardinals (-7) at Jaguars:
AJ: The Jaguars shocked the world by getting their first win of the season last week against a non-Pop Warner team. But this week they play a surprising Cardinal team. I say surprising because I am surprised that Carson Palmer hasn't fossilized yet. CARDINALS.
Diego: Part of me wants to pick Jacksonville to get started on a winning streak, but Arizona's defense is going to prove too much for them. CARDINALS.
Chargers (-1.5) at Dolphins:
AJ: If the Incognito Curse cost the Dolphins a win against the Bucs, Phillip Rivers and Co should be licking their chops. CHARGERS.
Diego: Past all the Incognito-Martin drama there is the fact that this a matchup between two 4-5 teams that are right in the middle of the hunt for the last playoff spot in the AFC. Yet, you can't fully ignore the fact that Miami at the moment surely isn't able to focus entirely on their next opponent. Advantage ... CHARGERS.
Falcons (-1.5) at Buccaneers:
AJ: The Falcons' meteoric descent into mediocrity will only become more painful when they lose in Tampa. BUCCANEERS.
Diego: I just hope Tony Gonzalez plays, my fantasy team NEEDS him. BUCCANEERS.
Jets at Bills (-1):
AJ: After looking at this game from every angle, I think that there should be a way for both teams to lose. BILLS.
Diego: I hate to say the words "Rex Ryan's team is better", but that's truly the case here, I don't know what to expect out of Buffalo any given week. No, can't do it. JETS.
Lions (-2) at Steelers:
AJ: In this episode of the Transformers, Megatron wins. LIONS.
Diego: Nice ... my gut feeling led me to a correct prediction with Pittsburgh last week, so I'm gonna go with my gut feeling on this one again. LIONS.
Raiders at Texans (-7):
AJ: The Raiders could be playing the Toadsuck State University Powder Puff team and I'd pick them to lose. TEXANS.
Diego: Prediction - game ball goes to Case Keenum. TEXANS
Ravens at Bears (-3):
AJ: Losing to the Browns is like sauntering into church with your fly down. People are too polite to point and laugh, but no one you know will be letting you live it down. BEARS.
Diego: I'm now surprised that you didn't have harsher comments for the Titans ... I can't come up with any logical reason to pick Baltimore. Other than "any given Sunday", of course, meh ... BEARS.
Redskins at Eagles (-3.5):
AJ: Diego might love him some RG III...but because the Redskins lost to the Vikings (who, rumor has it, got HOUSED in their annual Mother-Son game this week) they are not what I'd call road warriors. The Chuck n' Duck project will notch another one. EAGLES.
Diego: I'm doing it y'all! I'm picking against my boy! EAGLES.
Chiefs at Broncos (-8):
AJ: Peyton Manning is awesome, and I think the Broncos are playoff bound...but I'm not sure they can beat the Kansas City defense by more than a TD. CHIEFS.
Diego: Let's see ... Peyton can't shine in the spotlight, Kansas City seems to have the players on defense to pull off what Indianopolis did to Denver three weeks ago, and I am not an Alex Smith hater ... yet I still reach the same conclusion as my partner. Denver wins, but by more than a touchdown? Doubtful. CHIEFS.
Vikings at Seahawks (-12.5):
AJ: While it is highly unlikely that the Vikings will win this game, I doubt that they'll lose by 13 points, no matter how well the Seahawks play. VIKINGS.
Diego: Then again, whoever sets these spreads seems to be pretty good at it, and Seattle did just have a nice bounce-back performance in Atlanta last week (I know I know, the Falcons suck, yada yada). Seattle by 13? Why not? SEAHAWKS.
Packers at Giants (-5):
AJ: Scott Tolzien, come on down!! Looks like it's going to be a LONG winter in Wisconsin. GIANTS.
Diego: THE Lord Tolzien? Oh yeah, he'll pull the upset. PACKERS.
Patriots at Panthers (-2.5):
AJ: I realize that the Panthers are the talk of the NFL for snapping the 49ers' 5 game win streak...but I don't think they have the juice to beat Tommy Terrific and friends. PATRIOTS.
Diego: I see New England exposing Carolina's secondary. This will be a fun game to watch. PATRIOTS.
49ers at Saints (-3):
AJ: This game could break one of two ways: the 49ers could insist on going throw first, hoping that Kap goes off...or they could accept the fact that they are better on the ground than they are in the air (for right now, at least) and devote themselves to running the ball straight down the throat of a defense that is surrendering an eye-popping 5 yards per carry. If they go with the latter, the 49ers should be able to manage a win at the Superolddome. 49ERS.
Diego: New Orleans just does not match up well vs San Francisco. If one team has the linebackers to keep Jimmy Graham from putting up monster numbers, it's the one with the best LB duo in the NFL. On offense, we've mentioned throughout the piece, the 49ers can run on the Saints. 49ers.
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