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The loss on Sunday to the Rams left fans angry and frustrated at a team that seemed to be capable of winning another game on the road and propelling themselves into playoff contention. It seems, though, that what is left after a heart-breaking loss in the city of blues is just question, after question, after question. Here are a few questions that crossed my mind after the 20-17 loss.
Will the coaching staff ever trust Vernon Davis?
It's quite simple really. When you need a play you go to the people that you think can make the play. It's obvious from the playcalling that the 49ers coaching staff, at least Norv Turner, trusts Eric Johnson more than he trusts Vernon Davis. On 3rd and goal, when Turner called a play action pass, QB boot to the right - it was Johnson that was the primary receiver. It doesn't take a retired Don Shula to recognize that Davis' suspect hands play a part in this. Davis is simply not trusted to make the game changing plays he was brought in to make. Yes, he is faster, bigger, and stronger than Eric Johnson- but right now the more complete tight end is Johnson, not the high-priced rookie. How much money is the organization willing to tie up in the tight end position? We will soon find out.
Will the 49ers be able to correct their third down woes?
3rd down conversion has been a concern all season. There are really two components of this problem - the short yardage offense, and the rest of the offense. At the outset, the short yardage offense was plagued by Gore's fumbling near the goal line. That problem seems to be corrected, although I am not totally convinced that Gore has his fumbilitis immunization. He certainly has a better grip than he did early in the season, but I am sure that fan's hearts still skip a beat when they see a defender attempt to strip the ball.
But now, even with the maulers that the 49ers have on the offensive line, 3rd and inches should be a given - but it's not. Pending Monday night's game, the 49ers are the leagues 4th ranked rushing attack in both total yards, and rushing yards per game. The 49ers have shown, though, that they cannot gain though yards when they need to. Since the game against the Vikings, the 49ers have had 13 3rd and 2 or less situations. Of those 12, the 49ers passed on 6 plays. Of the other 6, the 49ers only converted 2 with a straight up run play. One play was a designed quarterback boot that did not rely on a push up front.
Part of the reason is the short yardage package. Michael Robinson may be a punishing hitter, and is certainly handling his transition from quarterback to running back well. However, he does not look to be someone who runs down hill. He often runs laterally in an attempt to make a move and is bottled up. There are a few times when his sheer power gets him positive yards. And who can forget his punishing hit at the goal line against Philadelphia. For the 49ers to be the power running team that Nolan wants them to be, they will have to begin to convert third and short situations.
Then there are the 3rd and 5 or longer situations. The 49ers had several opportunities to convert these types of plays and yet they could not. It seems that the 49ers are going to the screen or roll out well too many times. They are both plays that can work well, but when a defense studies you, your tendencies begin to be your weakness. Looking teams with 3rd down conversion rates over 40% the teams that are in the hunt for the playoffs seem to dominate the list - Indianapolis, Dallas, San Diego, New Orleans, New England and Baltimore. For the 49ers to have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, they have to get their 34.3% 3rd down conversion rate up to at least 40%. When they can do that they will be able to keep drives alive, wear down defenses, and put up more points.
Is Brandon Williams a bust?
No. He has sure hands at the punt returner position, hands that would have definitely helped the 49ers, since an Arnaz Battle fumble cost the 49ers 7 points. It seems that Full Back Chris Heatherington was active against the Rams, and this was the only change not related to an injury. IN other words, it seems as though the 49ers deactivated Williams to activate their second string full back. The puzzling thing is that so was Moran Norris, the full back that seems to have taken the permanent full back job, given his recent contract extension. The 49ers do not typically activate more than one full back per game. The move is perplexing, and perhaps there is more to the Williams benching than we know right now. Nevertheless, to label Williams a bust at this point of his career is premature to say the least.
Were the last three games an aberration or is the 49er defense really improved?
The defense is improved, but they still lack a dominant front 7. The defense has relied on turnovers in order to lift the team to victory, and today, they almost had enough. Walt Harris' forced fumble on Torry Holt was, quite simply, a blown call by the officials. At the very least, there was not enough visual evidence to overturn the call on the field. It was obvious, though, that he had both hands over the nose of the ball and made a step upfield. Last I checked, there is not rule that you must control the ball at the center of the ball in order to establish control.
Manny Lawson also showed his athleticism on a fantastic interception on Marc Bulger, a quarterback that is very difficult to intercept. This year, he's only thrown 4 interceptions in 398 attempts.
Roderick Green is showing flashed as a pass rushing defensive end/linebacker. The last few games it seems as though Green and standout linebacker Brandon Moore call "meet you at the quarterback" in the huddle.
The defense still only allowed 20 points this game, a far cry from the over 33 they were averaging up to the second half of the Chicago debacle. There is no doubt that this defense is improved. However, they are not at the level where they can shut down an offense consistently without the help of a few turnovers.
And finally, the question on everyone's mind...
Did Nolan Make the right call by kicking the field goal?
This is definitely the talk of the town after the loss. A touchdown would have made the Rams get a touchdown and a two-point conversion in order to send the game into overtime. Kicking the field goal, though, was the right call.
If the 49ers did not get the first down, it would have lifted the energy in that stadium and energized the offense. The pendulum that is momentum would have swung towards the Rams' sideline for the most pivotal drive of the game.
The short yardage offense had been plagued by problems all season. The Rams would have stacked 9 people in the box for the play. It's one thing to run on a defense when there is at least the illusion of a pass play. But running on a defense that knows you will most likely run left and is blitzing linebackers into the gaps to stop the run is a tough task for any offense. Sure, Frank Gore, who was injured for the series anyway, could get 10 yards on first down. That does not automatically mean that a yard was a given. The high percentage play was a field goal. Had the 49ers not made it the Rams would have needed 35 less yards on the ensuing drive to win the game.
Nolan also showed trust in a defense that led the 49ers resurgence the last three weeks. The 49ers rode the back of their opportunistic defense. Unlike in Detroit though, there was no last second turnover than sealed the game for the 49ers. An elite team, a playoff team probably would have stopped the Rams. Let's face it though, despite all the recent buzz and hype, the 49ers are a team on the cusp. Sometimes they pull out games, and other times the cracks in their armor look like full blown craters. Beefing up the defensive line for next year should help the 49ers on those 4th down plays, plays that make the difference between a wild-card spot, and a spot in a lazy-boy in January.