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Happy Wednesday, 49er fans. Why happy? Because I am finally done re-watching last week's game. To say that it sucked would be a mild euphemism. For the 49ers, last Sunday was the worst-case scenario of worst case scenarios...they lost to an inferior team for the second straight week...and a division rival, to boot. In this week's edition of UFR, we'll delve into what went wrong, what can be done about it, and what to expect in this weekend's showdown with the Eagles.
Any Given Sunday
Last week I wrote that "This game will be a tight one...but at the end of the day, I think the more talented team will pull away. This one will come down the a 4th quarter TD for the visiting team." The 49ers were well on their way to that late touchdown when Anquan Boldin got chipped after the whistle, then decided to get into the offending player's face with what some have called a head butt (I won't go that far...but I can see how it would draw a flag). That mistake (of all the mistakes in the game) was a knife through the heart of the 49ers chances to pull out a win. For the second week in a row excess officiating (some appropriate, some inappropriate) altered the course of the contest...and that is a disturbing trend. If this lack of discipline continues, it will be difficult for the 49ers to pull out of their funk.
But forgetting the flags for a moment, the 49ers' two weakest links on offense, Alex Boone and Jonathan Martin showed up on film again...and still for all the wrong reasons. Boone's pass blocking went from solid to average to awful as the game progressed and Martin took turns between imitating a turnstile and drawing a personal foul for throwing a chop block. When the 49ers needed their pass protection the most, the right side of the line crumpled like an empty beer can...over and over and over again. Many have argued that the 49ers need Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith back...but I would counter that getting Anthony Davis back is far more critical. His ability could shore up the biggest hole on this team.
In retrospect, this game is a perfect reflection of a very frustrated, very talented team. And while the 49ers have a very deep roster and a starting lineup that can go toe to toe with any team in the league...talent alone is not enough to win an NFL game. Scheme, execution and concentration are just as critical. To date, execution and concentration have been in short supply.
The downside of Murphy's Law has kicked the 49ers square in the teeth over the past two weeks. To ensure that this Sunday isn't another "any given Sunday," they'll need to dial up a better second half than they have all season against a more talented team (on offense at least) than they have seen through week 3.
What To Do?
Over the course of the last week, I've heard what I consider to be some if the most entertaining 49er sound bytes in years. Some of the best:
Phil: "What is your impression or suggestion to turn this sh*t wagon around?"
Matt: "F*ck this sh*t. I'm gonna trade my SBL for a pack of Bubblicious and an offensive line that can block."
Mike: "So who do you think our next coach will be?"
Some guy on BART: "These guys suck."
And while I share the frustration of those quoted above, there is a silver lining to this early season cloudiness. I swear there is. If there is a team built to overcome a start like this, it is the San Francisco 49ers. I know that sounds like a stretch...but it's true.
To date, the 49ers have stayed away from their greatest strength: the run. I know what you're thinking: "But AJ, the 49ers have all these new weapons in the passing game!"
Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd represent a truly frightening array of pass catchers. Experts have been prognosticating a shift in offensive philosophy for the 49ers...and for the most part, they are correct (sort of, anyway). And while the passing game is critical to the growth of this team going forward, the 49ers' tried and true formula for winning involves one thing: the clock. And in each of their last 3 games (yes, even the win), the 49ers have failed to dominate time of possession, or to kill clock when they need to. If they plan on reversing their fortunes (especially this Sunday) they'll need to chew clock on offense in addition to grabbing an early lead. Can they? Sure. Will they? Check back with me on Monday for the answer to that one.
Two Minute Drill
* To date in the 2014 season, the 49ers have surrendered 17 first downs by penalty. That, my friends, is ridiculous. Is it indicative of sloppy play? To some degree, sure it is. But to say that the 49ers have seen more than their fair share of penalties thus far would be a mild understatement.
* Any shot to the QB between the waist and shoulders, from snap to within two steps of release should be called clean. Defenders are forbidden from driving into the QB's legs (except for Colin Kaepernick, apparently) and cannot even graze the head. Pretty soon, defenders will be limited to harsh language. Enough is enough.
* Last week, the 49ers all but abandoned the run. As Alex Boone gets into football shape (this will be week 4 since the end of his holdout), and with the pending (hopefully) return of Anthony Davis, expect to see the ground game help balance the 49ers new 5-wide look. If the 49ers can demonstrate the ability to run out of 3 and 4 wide sets, it will keep defenses from running the middle overloads that Arizona employed so well last week.
*Lack of composure really took center stage late in last week's contest. Let's see what Coach Harbaugh (or the veteran leaders of this team) do to nip that in the bud. We'll know the instant the 49ers face their first moment of adversity this Sunday.
Week 4 Picks
NY Giants At Washington (-3.5)
The Giants finally managed to win a game last week, but their MVP was Ryan Fitzpatrick...the QB for the Texans. Kirk Cousins won't be so generous. WASHINGTON
Miami (-4) At Oakland
Ah, the Dolphins. The last two weeks are beginning to make that week 1 upset of the Patriots look like a fluke. Good thing for the Dolphins they're playing Oakland this weekend. MIAMI
Green Bay (-1.5) At Chicago
The Packers are on the road, their defense is AWFUL, and the Bears are coming off a win. This one might get ugly...but not the way most people think. CHICAGO
Buffalo At Houston (-3)
Ugh. I wouldn't wish watching this game on Mike Florio. HOUSTON
Tennessee At Indianapolis (-7.5)
Tennessee is worse than I thought they'd be. A lot worse. INDIANAPOLIS
Carolina At Baltimore (-3)
Can Carolina bounce back from the beat down they received at the hands of the Steelers? Can Baltimore look like an actual football team against quality competition? Survey says: CAROLINA
Detroit (-1.5) At NY Jets
Never bet the dog unless you think they can win. I (along with anyone who has watched the Jets play four consecutive quarters of football) don't think the dog has a very good shot in this one. DETROIT
Tampa Bay At Pittsburgh (-7.5)
Pittsburgh has been so hot and cold this season that it is conceivable that they could follow up an impressive win with a real stinker...but not at home against Tampa (who is now officially Offensive Coordinator-less). PITTSBURGH
Jacksonville At San Diego (-13)
I almost feel bad for anyone with a vested interest in the fortunes of the Jaguars. Almost. SAN DIEGO
Atlanta (-3) At Minnesota
Rumor has it that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will be starting up an airmail business in the offseason. From what I saw last week, it looks like they've got their business plan nailed down. ATLANTA
New Orleans (-3) At Dallas
Two flukey comebacks in a row? Not for a team led by Tony Romo. NEW ORLEANS
New England (-3.5) At Kansas City
Can KC step up and win convincingly for a second straight week? I'd love to say yes...but the KC offensive line almost got Alex Smith killed last week. If the Chiefs somehow pull out a win on Sunday, it won't be by more than a field goal. NEW ENGLAND
Philadelphia At San Francisco (-5.5)
After the last two stinkers the 49ers have played, I am shocked to see them favored here. This team has yet to put together four consecutive quarters of good football...and they'll need to if they plan on slowing down the Chuck n' Duck project. On thing is for sure...if the 49ers can't manage to keep their cool, they will not win this game. And even if they put together a complete game...I'm not sure that this injury depleted defense has the juice to completely shut down the Eagles. If the 49ers pull this off (which I think they can), I doubt it will be by more than a field goal. EAGLES