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In his Monday press conference, Coach Harbaugh used the word "fix" nearly every other sentence. What, in fact, might the 49ers fix? First, a few of the usual suspects/scapegoats:
Frankly, Kaepernick's bounce-back first half against Arizona heartened me, and I don't just mean his stats. Impressively, he adapted to the 49ers' new game plan, a short-passing attack with multiple receivers. He released the ball quickly, hit various targets, and threw a plethora of accurate-enough short passes. True, he may never have the touch of Joe Montana, but in this game he proved himself more than just a one-trick pony, capable of power throws and little else. And, of course, he limited the turnovers, while still showcasing his foot-speed. Agreed, he did not adjust as well as he might have to the Cards' tighter second-half coverages, but, then, neither did his coaches.
We knew coming in that 2014 would mark a transition season for this rebuilt unit, and so it has. The youngsters have made mistakes, as expected, but so what? That's how youngsters learn. They must not only learn individually the rigors of NFL football, but must also learn to mesh with their teammates. This takes time, perseverance, and, yes, sometimes two steps forward, one step back. And they must undergo their trials without much of a pass rush.
The Defensive Front-Seven
Now, about that pass rush. Everyone knew the defense would miss the missing, and they have. Nor have their replacements necessarily played badly. But Aldon and NaVorro are not just stalwart starters, but extraordinarily gifted players, capable of plays that can turn defensive series around, for instance a sack by Smith or a shadow-coverage against a tight end by Bowman so close that the opposing quarterback doesn't even bother to throw. Their replacements may make all the expected plays, but, simply, they seldom make the unexpected game changers. In other words, beyond accomplishing merely the fundamentals, plays not being made can, and have, impacted the 49ers' 2014 defensive abilities.
Justin Smith and Ray McDonald have entered the decline phases of their careers. This doesn't mean they're not still fine players, formidable starters even. But they wear down as the game goes on, especially if called on for extensive pass rushing. This problem festered at the end of the 2011 and into the 2012 seasons as well. Last year, the 49ers brought Jerod-Eddie and Dobbs into the rotation earlier and more extensively. This helped to keep the starters fresher, but, on the other hand, neither of the backups exhibited front-of-the-rotation ability. Thus the loss of Dorsey diminishes the nose-tackle position, as well as the overall d-line rotation. Which brings us to two Niner players notable so far mostly by their absences: Second-year men Carradine and Dial.
In the second half of games, the 49ers lack oomph in their basic pass-rush. This, of course, strains the secondary and compels more blitzes. Frankly, I like creative blitz-schemes and unpredictability as part of an aggressive defensive plan, but said blitzes work much better when complimented by a hearty base pass-rush; otherwise, defensive coordinators quickly learn to counter them. Yes, Corey Lemonier has disappointed as a designated pass-rush specialist, and, even though he's still learning, doesn't show much feel for the game. He heretofore has had trouble translating his athletic ability into on-field results. Too soon to give up on him yet, and Lynch has been a bright spot, but, again: where are the Tank and Quinton? They seldom play, even when not stuck on the inactive list.
The 49ers need to fix their defensive line, and they might consider doing so even before the former starters return and the entire season slips away. Carradine and Dial represent the only options on the roster that have not yet been fairly tried. Maybe they're nursing injuries the Niners have kept secret. Maybe, as part of team discipline, they must await their turns and study more diligently. Maybe, as Vic Fangio hints, they have not yet fully mastered their assignments. But, what the hell. Why not put them in occasionally and see what they do? True, Harbaugh loathes mistakes, which lead to losses. But opposing quarterbacks who have several seconds to peruse the secondary also increase the odds of a 49er loss. Why not let the youngsters play, and live with their occasional mistakes? Too often in the second halves of games, and not just this season, the 49ers quit playing to win and, too soon, instead start playing not to lose. When you could overwhelm your opponents with superior front-line talent and a passable pass rush, that usually worked. But the 2014 Niners, sans their defensive stars, are not that team.
Some commentators have made much about the 49ers' so-called "abandonment of the running game," as if the coaches intentionally planned not to give Gore and Hyde the ball many times or had some preconceived number of carries beyond which they would not go. Let's review the Cardinal game-plan. From the late second quarter of the previous game onward, the Bears made it clear that they would not let the 49ers beat them by running the ball, even if the Midway Monsters had to stack the box and force Kaepernick to beat them. That provided a fresh template for beating the Niners. NFC West teams, Arizona among them, have used it before. Self-scouting, prior experience, and a realistic look at their own team, prompted the Niners brain trust to install, helped by tight-end injuries, multiple-receiver sets. Then they turned the Nevada Wolfpacker loose, and, for a while, he feasted. The 49ers usually do not display such creativity until the playoffs. I doubt many Niner fans complained too loudly about the lack of a running game during those two first successful drives.
In part, a realistic look at their own team entailed a sobering recognition that the 2014 49ers no longer have an elite offensive line. In 2011 and part of 2012 the line was great. Last year, the o-line devolved to mediocre. This season, so far, they threaten to sink even lower. This demise drastically affects both the running game and the deep passing game. Thus the development of last week's short, quickly delivered, passes. Why run the ball against a team prepared to stop the run? Even Bo Schembechler would never indulge such folly. In truth, stout defenses need not even stack the box to curtail 2014's version of a running game.
So, what can be done about this season's run-of-the-mill offensive line? Well, part of the problem derives from the fact that the real offensive line has not yet played together. Anthony Davis still languishes in injury-rehab mode. In addition, Boone, after his holdout, must now learn to play with a new center and tackle, and still lags in real-game preparedness (thus, he biffed on a saftey blitz Sunday). And, yes, Kilgore still must learn all the intricacies of NFL center play. Remember, an offensive line must function not only as individuals, but as a cohesive unit. More playing time together will help. But, I must say, I worry most about one of my favorite players, Mike Iupati.
Big Mike, alas, seems to have lost his feet. Never a twinkletoes, he now looks like a statue in pass protection, and has even lost some of his great burst when pulling around center on the 49ers' formerly vaunted power runs. Nor has Anthony Davis ever excelled as a pass protector. My guess: the 49ers will give their veterans time to play themselves back into some semblance of a decent offensive line. Look for attempted revivals of a dominant running game against weaker defenses. But the halcyon days of smash-mouth football, even when the opposition knew to expect it, may be over. Either way, with Looney and Jonathan Martin on the roster, and with recent draftees Thomas and Marcus Martin in the wings, the 49ers confront some difficult decisions. As with the defensive line, they must fix this unit.
The NFL hype machine conditions us to follow the stars. Analytics dazzles with chalkboard dreams and flatters us that we might ourselves design Walshian schemes. But without strong line play, none of that matters.
Complaints and Mistakes
Finally, just a word about the barrage of miscues, mistakes, and finger pointing indulged in by certain Niners these two weeks past. Notably, many of them have come from the veteran players, even the team leaders, from Willis's admittedly dubious penalty for leading with his helmet, to Bolden's ill-advised head butt. Yes, we're used to Harbaugh's sideline fulminations and Kaepernick's proclivity for being baited unto distraction. But Willis and Bolden are two of the most respected men on the team. Why such demonstrative frustration from them? Perhaps because they sense that they now play on a different team, one that can no longer impose its will physically, a team in transition, and, therefore, not a team for old men. Well, it's still too early to give up on 2014 just yet, and I'm sure that neither of them, upon further reflection, will throw in the towel either. Their intimations of football mortality need not be portentous. Let's hope not. Heck, we're only three games into the season.