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To say that this is what the 49ers needed would be euphemistic. After underperforming for two weeks in a row, they needed a statement win. A beatdown. On Monday night in Landover, that is exactly what they got.
It wasn't always pretty. The run game was less than stellar. There were a few instances where pass protection fell apart. Colin Kaepernick was forced to burn a time out because he couldn't get a play called in time. At the beginning of the game, the 49er offense just didn't seem to be clicking.
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But the 49ers won. Convincingly.
This week, we'll be taking a look at what went right, what needs work, and what to expect when the Rams come to town this Sunday.
What Went Right
Though the 1st quarter was less than impressive (offensively, at least) the 49ers turned in their most complete performance in recent memory...and in my estimation, three things really stood out.
* The 49ers have a championship caliber defense. No matter where RGIII ran, it seemed that he had nowhere to hide. Alfred Morris was repeatedly stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage. Pierre Garçon and Company had an incredibly difficult time finding space against the 49er secondary.
While no defensive player had a bad game, there were three in particular who seemed bound and determined to win the game all by themselves: Ahmad Brooks, Tony Jerrod-Eddie and Aldon Smith. Brooks was in the offensive backfield so much that he should have been paying rent. Jerrod-Eddie, a backup until Ray McDonald's injury, played more snaps than any of the 49ers defensive linemen and was downright dominant. And finally, Aldon Smith spent most of the night abusing Trent Williams, who is widely regarded as one of the finest Tackles in the NFL.
But the truest metric of the 49ers dominance is as follows: the NFL's top ranked rushing attack (and 7th ranked offense overall) could only muster 100 yards on the ground (as opposed to their average per game of 151.5)...and 190 yards overall. That is absolute dominance, kids...and it's worth noting.
*Though he was far from perfect, Colin Kaepernick is growing as a QB and it is beginning to show up on the field. For the first time since week 1, Colin Kaepernick threw his receivers open. When he threw the ball, he was decisive. He looked comfortable under center. When he saw what he wanted, he pulled the trigger and allowed his receivers to do the rest...and that is something that has been noticeably absent over the past few weeks.
While there were some rough patches (especially early in the game), Kap's footwork looked smoother, his reaction time a bit quicker and most notably, less double clutching. His command of the playbook is growing...and as a result, his execution has improved somewhat. The stat line bears this out (as Kap posted his best ever QB rating on Monday night)...but so does his body language. Less tenatitive. More confident. Less frowning. More swagger.
As the game progressed, his confidence grew. With each completion, his play improved.This isn't an indication that Kap has arrived...but it is an indication that he's on his way. And for now, that is exactly what the 49ers need from him.
*LaMichael James is a COLOSSAL improvement over Kyle Williams. The key moment for LaMichael James came with 4:15 left in the 3rd quarter. Sav Rocca hit a so-so 42 yard punt which James cleanly fielded...right before he exploded up the left sideline for about 40 yards.
Without a doubt, that was the most explosive punt return of the season. Truth be told, the 49ers haven't had a punt returner flash that kind of explosiveness in years. If the 49ers are going to get hot down the stretch, they'll need to see that kind of explosiveness from their return game...and if Monday night is any indication, they've found just the player to provide it.
What Went Wrong
Every game has its share of ups and downs...and this game was no different. In my estimation there were two glaring faults that really jumped off the screen on Monday night.
*The 49er offense cannot afford slow starts. Yet again, the 49ers came out of the gate like their offense had just overdosed on Qualudes. Slow starts do not often bode well for football teams...especially those in the hunt for a playoff spot. The 2013 49ers have been frustratingly ineffective early in games...a trend that cannot continue...especially against elite competition.
Are the slow starts a symptom of poor play calling? Poor execution? A lack of confidence? Odds are that the root of the issue is some combination of the three. Monday night's game went a long way toward alleviating to concerns most of us have about this 49er team...but their start against the Rams this Sunday will say a lot about how far they've come so far this season.
*Colin Kaepernick MUST trust his instincts more often. You've seen it. I've seen it. It usually goes some thing like this: Kap falls back to pass...he's got nowhere to go...it looks like he's going to run...but he doesn't.
On thing is for certain: Colin Kaepernick has the single most unique skill set of any QB in the NFL. His combination of arm strength, footspeed and elusiveness is one of a kind. But his seeming refusal to use his legs when things break down is limiting his effectiveness. Kap will become better than he is at present...but for that to happen, he needs to be himself...and until that happens, he'll be a physically gifted QB that is playing below his potential.
Over the course of the 49ers last five games, they play three division opponents (the Rams, Seahawks and Cardinals). Given the top heavy nature of the playoff pool in the NFC, the 49ers need to win out in order to secure a playoff berth. At this point, the 49ers hold the 6th (and last) seed in the NFC playoff field. At this point, they control their own destiny...and for that to remain the case, they cannot afford another loss.
What's next for the 49ers? Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: they control their own destiny.
*As of this writing, it has been widely speculated that Michael Crabtree will be playing this weekend. If that is the case, his presence will definitely help the 49er passing game...but I wouldn't expect his to have a "lights out" performance right out of the gate.
*The Rams have outscored their last two opponents 80-29. Since the 49ers played them last, the Rams have improved. Dramatically. If you were expecting a 35-11 blowout, you might want to alter your expectations somewhat.
*Some are beginning to wonder if Frank Gore is wearing down after a less than stellar game against the Redskins. The answer to this is...no way. Opponents are loading the box against the 49ers, absolutely selling out to stop the run. Expect to see more of the same from every team they play until the 49ers prove without a doubt that they can beat opponents through the air with consistency.
Packers at Lions (-6)
Matt Flynn, once the darling of the free agent QB world, is now just another reason his team is losing. LIONS.
Raiders at Cowboys (-9.5)
Raiders + road game = loss. Especially on a short week. COWBOYS.
Steelers at Ravens (-3)
This game will be worth watching, if only because these teams hate each other so much. Though both have fallen off dramatically, I expect a great game...which the home team will win, no matter how weighed down they are by the most cumbersome contract in NFL history. RAVENS.
Bears at Vikings (-1)
Right now, the Bears defense might be the worst I have ever seen. Expect "All Day" to go off. VIKINGS.
Broncos (-5) at Chiefs
I wonder how this will play out, especially away from Denver. The Broncos have looked very normal on the road...a trend I think could continue in KC this weekend. CHIEFS.
Buccaneers at Panthers (-8)
I want the Bucs to win this game...but I'm not sure that they can. PANTHERS.
Cardinals at Eagles (-3)
Count me among those that expect the Cards to fall apart down the stretch. Notch another win for the Chip Kelly Chuck n'Duck project. EAGLES.
Dolphins at Jets (-2)
It boggles the mind how any team led by Geno "here, have the ball" Smith is favored to win...even at home. DOLPHINS.
Jaguars at Browns (-7)
I am about to pick the Browns to win a game and cover...because even though they have won two in a row, the Jaguars are awful. Like brussel sprout awful. BROWNS.
Titans at Colts (-4.5)
Someone needs to tell Mr Irsay talking trash about your own team won't typically endear them to you. All the same, his team should notch a win against an improved but beatable opponent this weekend. COLTS.
Falcons at Bills (-3)
How bad are the Falcons? Bad enough that they will lose to a team like the Bills...by far more than 3 points. BILLS.
Bengals at Chargers (-1)
Are the Chargers suddenly for real? After watching them skewer what had been the toughest defense in the NFL last weekend, I certainly think so. CHARGERS.
Patriots (-7.5) at Texans
Do I really need to get into this one? The Texans are horrific. The Patriots, while beatable, are not horrific. PATRIOTS.
Giants (-1) at Redskins
RGIII should not be playing right now. His mobility is dramatically limited, and it is affecting his game. Until he's right, the 'Skins won't be. GIANTS.
Saints at Seahawks (-5)
This game will be one for the books. I smell a shootout. With Browner gone for a year and Thurmond out for the next 4 games, the Saints might be able to find some room to operate in the Seattle secondary. SAINTS.
Rams at 49ers (-8.5)
The 49ers are a better team than the Rams...but this game will not be easy. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has put together a great defense. I don't expect this to be a blowout...but I do expect the 49ers to improve through the air this week...which should help them cover. 49ERS.
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