If Michael Crabtree's 60-yard catch and run towards the end of the third quarter in last week's game against the St. Louis Rams didn't put a big fat smile on your face, then it's time to start questioning whether you're a real 49ers fan. Crabtree's first game of the season helped San Francisco put together one of their best offensive performances of the season, which coupled with yet another dominant performance from the defense resulted in a comfortable 23-13 win that not only helped the 49ers retain the NFC's last playoff spot for the moment, but it also helped keep the hope of winning the division alive.
Not that the concept of San Francisco winning the NFC West is anywhere close to realistic after this week's opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, dismantled Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints on national TV. Following their superior performance on Monday Night Football, Seattle has gathered all of San Francisco's attention this week, which in some ways has led to a quick dismissal of the 49ers solid game last week.
In this week's installment of UFR, it is Diego who discusses all topics by himself while AJ takes some time to focus on some work projects. Let's take a look at whether Frank Gore is really struggling, what Crabtree's performance last week could mean for the offense going forward, and the key match-up(s) for Sunday's much anticipated game against the Seahawks.
Taking a closer look at Frank Gore's performance last Sunday
An interesting point of discussion nowadays in 49ersland is the fact that Frank Gore's numbers over the last three games are nearly mediocre (averaging 40 rushing yards/game, just under three yards/carry, and scoring just one touchdown over that span). This has led to speculation as to whether Gore's age is finally kicking in or if his heavy use earlier in the season is taking a toll on him nowadays. For this reason, I went back and looked at all 15 of his carries last week vs St. Louis, this is what I saw:
- The offensive line often failed to win at the line of scrimmage: Jonathan Goodwin and Joe Looney in particular were often culprits in my eyes, which I will kindly attribute to their lack of chemistry playing next to each other. Overall I often saw St. Louis win at the line of scrimmage, and when the opponent accomplishes this regularly you are just not going to have a good day running the ball.
- James Laurinaitis had a hell of a game: It didn't take long during this review to realize that #55 was all over Gore in most of these run plays. The Rams MLB often recognized plays well and did an excellent of getting to the ball quickly, either stopping Gore (he had 9 tackles overall, 6 solo) or disrupting the play enough to allow teammates to make a play. During a first down run in "22" personnel, for example, the 49ers lined up both TE on the right side and Gore ran to the weak side on the left, however #55 quickly covered that gap forcing Gore to make a cut back inside for a gain of only three yards. Laurinaitis was also an unsung here during Gore's fumble, as he was the one who initially wrapped up Gore, slowing him down enough so that Alec Ogletree was able to force the fumble.
A win by the Rams in the trenches plus Laurinaitis' strong game confirm that Frank Gore's poor numbers in this game were more a result of the opponent having a great game against the run and not so much a point of criticism for the 49ers all-time leading rusher. While the 49ers did a better job of keeping defenses from stacking the box in this game, the run blocking needs to improve before we can start jumping to conclusions about Gore.
The return of #15
Seeing Michael Crabtree back on the field for the 49ers was pleasant not only because he represents such a threat in the passing game, but also because his return coincided with the 49ers using more two and three WR formations than I have seen all season. San Francisco used two and three WR formations in over two thirds of Colin Kaepernick's 28 passing attempts last Sunday, a clear indication that at this point they are comfortable with the trio of Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Mario Manningham out on the field at the same time.
Of course, this means that we saw less passing plays coming out of their "22" personnel, and while reaching conclusions from such a short sample of those plays in this game would be a reach, it did seem that the sporadic use of this heavy personnel helped obtain better results from it: 23-yard pass to Vernon Davis in the first quarter, 22-yard pass to Davis in the third quarter, and of course the 17-yard touchdown pass to Davis in the 4th quarter.
This all turned out to give Colin Kaepernick a second consecutive strong statistical game for the first time all season (and he looked really good throughout the game as well). Hopefully Crabtree's return marks a continued evolution of San Francisco's passing game going forward, which will be much needed in games where Frank Gore and the running game are unable to get going.
Key match-up(s) vs the Seahawks.
I don't care how much people want to downplay it: Seattle is arguably the best team in the NFL at the moment. That means that when you go up against them, even if you're playing them away from CenturyLink Field, you have to bring your best.
There is a particular concern as to whether the 49ers will be able to bring their best on the inside of their offensive line against the Seahawks' stout defensive tackles. Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel have been strong against the run this season, and other than back-to-back hiccups against the Rams (200 rushing yards) and Buccaneers (205), Seattle has been tough to run against this season (and those STL/TB games seem like forever ago don't they?). Even a front of Mike Iupati, Goodwin, and Alex Boone would need to put together one of their best efforts to succeed against Mebane/McDaniel on the inside, so the fact that San Francisco may need to ask Adam Snyder and Looney (or Daniel Kilgore?) to replace Iupati and Boone respectively (with Boone starting at LT) makes this the key match-up to watch on Sunday. If the 49ers can win this matchup they may just be able to hand their hated rivals their second loss of the season and continue to keep the hope of winning the division alive.
- Although this piece once again focused mostly on the offense, I did mention at the beginning that the defense was once again dominant last Sunday, and I'm sure they were happy to see the offense match their effort. Strong games from Vic Fangio's group at all three levels.
- LaMichael James is starting to regress from his strong games as a punt returner by struggling to catch the ball. He has clearly been the best returner that the 49ers have had this season, but that won't mean much if he can't secure the ball before starting the return.
- Speaking of LaMichael, Matt Maiocco brought up an interesting point this week, arguing that James' lack of use in the offense is due to him not being a good fit with the offensive line. It discusses San Francisco's lack of use of screen plays. I'm not saying Maiocco is right in his analysis, but it's definitely something to think about.
- Don't be angry at the 49ers for sending you all a guide on how-to be a fan. Is it embarrasing? Yes. Is it warranted? Absolutely. Maybe not to the many of you who know exactly how to behave at games, but unfortunately many others have tainted the image of the 49ers fanbase to the point that the team itself felt the need to take action. AJ and I did sit there in disgust while A LOT of Candlestick was doing the wave during an injury timeout for Calais Campbell a couple of months ago. This guide was a long time coming.
Week 14 picks
While I went 12-4 last week picking winners straight up, I haven't been too successful against the spread. Let's see if I can do better than AJ's 8-8 last week.
Texans (-3) at Jaguars
Let's see: Jacksonville has won 3 of 4, Houston has loss 10 in a row, including losing to the Jaguars at home two weeks ago. We usually throw all kinds of jab at the Jags around here, but Gary Kubiak's team is the one that deserves the punches at this point. Jaguars.
Chiefs (-3) at Redskins
Kansas City's defense has seen a decline in their performance, especially with their pass rushers being dinged up, but even at less than 100% they should be able to push Washington closer to the edge (of firing Mike Shanahan). CHIEFS.
Vikings at Ravens (-6.5)
In totally unrelated news, I picked up Joe Flacco in one of my fantasy teams for this week (and I'm starting him over a struggling Andrew Luck #FantasyPlayoffs). RAVENS.
Browns at Patriots (-12)
Apparently Alex Tanney and Caleb Hanie are "battling" it out for a chance to start for Cleveland this week as we await to see whether Jason Campbell will be cleared to play. What do you want from me, Browns fans? PATRIOTS.
Raiders at Jets (-3)
I know the folks in Vegas are pretty good at setting these spreads, but they're trolling on this one, right? RAIDERS.
Colts at Bengals (-6)
I already told you I'm benching Luck in my fantasy team, so where do you think I'm going here? I mean I know they won, but if they couldn't score a touchdown against Tennessee until under two minutes left AT HOME, I can't have any kind of confidence on Chuck Pagano's team in a tough road test. BENGALS.
Panthers at Saints (-3)
Look for New Orleans to bounce back from that embarrassing performance in the northwest, just enough to pull this off at home. SAINTS.
Lions at Eagles (-3)
Load up your fantasy lineups with players from these teams folks, because neither one can stop the pass (which means they will, and it will be something like a 9-6 game, and we will all be very upset). EAGLES.
Dolphins at Steelers (-3)
It turns out Pittsburgh doesn't miss Mike Wallace and his overpaid contract one little bit. Miami may have the better record, but they are certainly not the better team over the last few weeks. STEELERS.
Bills at Buccanners (-2.5)
I can't see Buffalo successfully running against Tampa Bay, which means they would have to rely on their passing game, and I wouldn't put my money there. BUCCANEERS.
Titans at Broncos (-12)
Ryan Fitzpatrick has only beaten one team this season: the Raiders. Denver is a tiny bit better, I think. BRONCOS.
Rams at Cardinals (-6.5)
Look for Arizona's defense and maybe even their special teams to help them stay in the hunt for a wildcard spot. CARDINALS.
Giants at Chargers (-3)
Eli Manning's second visit to San Diego since he decided he was too good to play for the Chargers. Even if he has a game as good as the one he had in 2005 (24/41, 352 yards, 2 TD) his defense will most likely let him down again (23-45 L back on 9/25/05). CHARGERS.
Falcons at Packers (-2.5)
I'm pretty confident that Aaron Rodgers will not play this week, and the Falcons have been playing a bit better these last couple of weeks while making Steven Jackson a bigger part of their offense. FALCONS.
Cowboys at Bears (-1)
This one has the makings of another juicy game for the fantasy football players. I have to roll with the least worst of the defenses, so ... COWBOYS.
Seahawks at 49ers (-2.5)
If you follow me on twitter, then you already know where this is going. I can't continue to pick the 49ers to win games against elite teams when they have failed to accomplish this all season long. Maybe the evolution of the passing game will change things, or maybe me picking against them will solve the problem, but I need San Francisco to show me that they can win games like this, so unfortunately ... SEAHAWKS.
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