The Fundamentals are Sound
December 18, 2008 at 11:56 AM • 7 comments
By AJ Bolino
Last Sunday afternoon at about 1:10 pm, I was not a happy man. I had just finished watching my 49ers lose...and "loudmouth idiot of the year" award winner, Joey Porter, made the play that sealed the deal. So, I sat...and I stewed. In my post-loss haze of fury, I poured myself some Glenlivet 12-year, turned on my Xbox 360, and proceeded to stomp the guts out of the Dolphins, 84-0.
As I finished the game, my lovely girlfriend Carrie came downstairs, noted the scotch/Xbox/pissed-off boyfriend combo, and asked: "So, baby...how did the game go?"
"Not bad", I replied.
My answer surprised me. Not bad? We lost. How is losing a winnable game "not bad"? I started going over the game again in my head, breaking down film, and when I was done...I came to the same conclusion...not bad.
You see, Niner fans, this team is not just better than it was last year. It is better than it was weeks ago. Just when I (and I'm sure many of you, too) thought that it was time for a roster purge, a complete administration change, and another total re-build, this team has begun to deliver on the promise it showed in its past two off-seasons. Now, as I look at this team from top to bottom, I don't see a roster devoid of talent...I see a roster with a lot of promise...even though it has a few holes.
That stated, lets look at the fundamentals of the team, and look objectively at where the team is headed:
At the start of the season, this group disgusted me. It seemed that the line had no sense of itself, no unit identity. Easy sacks given up to pedestrian opposing pass rushers, blown blitz pickups, and lack of fire in general had me wanting to fire the entire group. Over the course of the past few weeks, however, a few things about this group indicate they could be solid in coming seasons:
1)Chilo Rachal- This kid is the real thing. He has the on-field demeanor of a grade-school bully that would pop you in the face and take your lunch money...right in front of your teacher. Since his promotion to starter, he has become among the most consistent finishers on the line, playing from snap to whistle, finishing his blocks, and making it to the second level after finishing his first assignment. Give this kid a year or two (remember, he's only 20) and he could be one of the most physical interior linemen in the league.
2)Joe Staley- He has only gotten better. In his first year at LT, he had some learning to do early, but now he is technically sound, and is far and away the most complete o-lineman on the team. If he continues to improve as he has in his first two years, he will be a fixture on the left side of the line for a very long time.
There is nobody on the team right now that can consistently take on and shut down a weak side edge rusher to the right side. The team will need to address this issue in the draft, or in free agency. Though the hole at RT is worrisome, the group overall has been far more technically sound since the departure of much maligned O-Line coach George Warhop. Pass protection has improved, run blocking has improved, and penalties are down. This group is finding its feet, and if it continues to improve at the rate it has displayed in recent weeks, could have some real success next season.
For a unit that was about as effective at generating pressure as a busted air compressor at the beginning of the season, this group has really begun to come on in the past few weeks. While many point to the motivational prowess of newly appointed HC Mike Singletary, I point to something else: a radical change in philosophy up front. For the past few weeks, the 49ers have shaken up their defensive alignment, showing a 4-3 defensive front in which linemen are asked to play 1 gap rather than 2 (in layman's terms: the linemen are asked to attack one gap instead of holding up blockers, then reacting to the gap where the ball is headed). Given the relative lack of size the 49ers have upfront, the change as paid off. Their smaller, quicker defensive linemen are able to get penetration, collapse the pocket on pass plays, and force opposing runners to look for cutback lanes instead of barreling through the A and B gaps as they did earlier in the year. Some players of note:
1)Justin Smith-While his sack numbers are not eye-popping, his tackle numbers (61 on the season) and effort on every play is. His ability to play at DT or DE in a 4-3 look allows DC Greg Manusky to use his high motor style of play to create mismatches in opposing teams' protection schemes, creating opportunities for other linemen to make plays. While he may not be the pass rusher fans were praying for when the Niners signed him, he is without a doubt the most complete d-lineman on the team right now.
2)Aubrayo Franklin-Early in the season, Franklin was asked to play 2-gap NT in a pure 3-4...and he struggled mightily. Since the Niners shifted to a 1-gap philosophy up front, the results have been amazing. Franklin has been able to consistently beat opposing interior linemen off the ball, and has absolutely punished opposing runners (doing an especially good job against Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown in recent weeks). While he has hardly been a superstar, it is obvious that he is a far better 1-gap DT than he is a 2-gap NT.
3)Parys Haralson-This 5th round pick out of Tennessee has shown that he has what it takes to bring heat off the edge. His 7 sacks this season lead the team, and in recent weeks, he has done an especially good job of setting the edge, getting pressure, and hurrying opposing passers.
The addition of one sack master to this unit will reap huge benefits for the entire defense. The ability of Haralson to get pressure coupled with Smith's propensity to draw double teams will only make a pure pass rusher more effective. Since the remainder of the linemen on the squad are too slow or lack consistent ability to generate pressure from the edge, look for the team to draft a pass rushing DE and perhaps acquire some help in free agency.
Ah, the secondary...the group we fickle fans love to hate. At first blush, I was perplexed at the seeming inability of CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris to lock down opposing receivers. However...if you take the time to breakdown film of both Harris and Clements, it is obvious that both are doing precisely what they are asked. In recent weeks, a more aggressive approach has given these two the ability to play to their strength: bump & run. The soft coverage run by the defense early seems to have been an effort to hide FS Mark Roman's lack of deep cover ability. For those of you that watched Sunday's game, Roman's inability to provide any kind of support deep was painfully evident, as his two biggest mistakes resulted in Miami's only scores. Going forward, there are some positives to note, however:
1)Youth Movement-Youngsters Tarrel Brown, Dashon Goldson and Reggie Smith have played well in the limited action they've seen. Provided that Goldson can return to form when he's over his injury, look for him to supplant Mark Roman as starting FS. Brown has looked effective in man-to-man situations (especially against the Jets), and Smith is versatile enough to play CB, FS, or SS. The means for upgrading the secondary may already be on the roster.
2)Clements and Harris-Detractors will say that the Niners starting CBs leave much to be desired...a sentiment with which I cannot disagree more. Clements and Harris are the best two DBs in a group that can do big things against talented opponents. While neither is a world-beater, and Clements is being paid A LOT, their ability to show up against explosive receiver tandems like Larry Fitzgerald & Anquan Boldin, Laverneus Coles & Jerricho Cotchery, and Lee Evans & Josh Reed speak volumes about the talent level of the Niners starting CBs. They aren't Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright...but they aren't Antoastio Langham and Marques Toast, either.
Provided that Goldson finds his way into the starting lineup next season, and that the team's more aggressive, simplified 1-gap attack up front begins to pay off with consistent pressure, the secondary should become far more solid than it has been in years. It may not be a squad of all-pros...but it will be a squad that does its job well enough to get the defense off the field on third down.
At the beginning of the season, it was easy to look at this group and wonder: "Is this it?" The leader of the unit was considered by many to be over-the-hill, and its most intriguing player coming out of the preseason was a rookie. After a full season of play, Isaac Bruce is looking as good as ever and Josh Morgan is still intriguing...but a few surprises have emerged:
1)Jason Hill–The second year man has emerged in a big way since the promotion of Shaun Hill to starting QB. His ability to use his size and speed to gain position on opposing DBs is turning heads. As it looks now, he will likely get a shot at a starting role if free agent disappointment Bryant Johnson opts to walk in the offseason.
2)Dominique Ziegler-This guy has managed to elevate his game since being recently promoted from the practice squad. While he is hardly the fastest man in the room (both Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis are faster), he is also a very good route runner, and displays instinctive pass catching ability. His play in the slot over the last few games is intriguing enough that it would not be a stretch to imagine him developing into a solid third option at WR.
3)Vernon Davis-Million dollar body, ten cent head? Maybe earlier in the year...but not lately. Whether or not you like his attitude, or are disappointed with his relatively skinny offensive production, the fact is, this guy can play football. While he may not be the next Tony Gonzalez, he is a guy that has the ability to dominate a team's best pass rusher. Looking at film of him singled up on the Giants' Justin Tuck (no sacks, no pressures), or the Dolphins' Joey Porter (no sacks, no pressures), it is easy to see why Mike Singletary likes him so much. His playmaking ability is coming along...but his blocking is already here. Like him or not, when he keeps his head, his complete game is a tremendous asset to the offense.
Overall, the group sill lacks a big time playmaker...but they can still make some noise when it counts. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker will continue to develop as playmakers, and must still be accounted for by opposing defenses. With two weeks left in the season to develop chemistry between the receiving corps and QB Shaun Hill, don't be surprised if more than a few of the guys rounding out the depth chart end up garnering consideration for increased playing time next season.
When you say running back in San Francisco, the masses call for Frank "the tank" Gore. He is easily the most talented player on the offense. He can run well. He's a receiving threat. He is a good blocker in pass protection. He can make defenders miss. He can run defenders over. It would not be a stretch to call him the most complete back San Francisco has seen since Roger Craig. That stated the group does not end with its star. Able-bodied backup DeShaun Foster, and multipurpose utility back Michael Robinson are able to gain yards when called upon. There is really only one x-factor at RB:
1)Thomas Clayton- Will he ever see the field? He's managed to show great things in preseason, but has yet to get significant playing time when it counts. All things being equal, it is likely that he will be at least a third string option next season, as it appears newly appointed head Coach Mike Singletary is a fan of the run.
Provided that Gore can stay healthy, this group should remain a position of strength for the 49ers for the immediately foreseeable future.
Shaun Hill is the beginning of the conversation here...but hardly the end. He is not flashy, and is not the most physically or technically impressive of the 49ers QBs. His failure to earn the starting job in training camp is a testament to that. There is one thing that sets him apart from the other QBs on the 49ers' roster however: his ability to win games. Since his promotion to starter, the team has gone 3-3, pushing his record as a starter to 5-3. His QB rating on the year is 91.8, good for 8th among qualifying NFL starters. That stated, there is one question that has reared its ugly head of late:
1) Will Alex Smith remain a 49er? He might. It depends on whether or not he is willing to re-negotiate his gargantuan contract. Provided that he can be brought in at an acceptable cap figure, why not? The team already knows what it has in Shaun Hill and JT O'Sullivan...could it hurt to see what Smith can do when he's healthy? One thing is certain: his best shot at getting a chance to prove what he can do is in San Francisco, where GM Scot McCloughan will do whatever he can to help him succeed...since it was McCloughan that wanted to draft him #1 overall.
As it stands now, Hill is and should be, the starter. He is not flashy...he does not have a big arm...and he does not have a big ego. He does complete passes, though. Lots of them. The Niners are lucky to have him, and it would be utter nonsense to suppose that he doesn't have the inside track for the starting job next season.
Coming into the season, fans were already tired of the Mike Nolan show. After 4 straight losses to cap a 2-1 start, ownership got tired of it, too. Since his departure the team is 3-4...hardly earth shattering. The team is playing at a level that belies that record, however. The fact is that this team is a mere two plays away from being 5-2 over the last 7 games. In my estimation, that should be enough to earn Mike Singletary a permanent job as the 49ers Head Coach. If that happens, and the team manages to retain the services of Mike Martz as OC, the team will have something that it hasn't had in the last 4 seasons: continuity. While I am hardly ready to anoint the 49ers as a dark horse for the Super Bowl next season, I am intrigued to see what this staff will be able to do in the draft, via free agency, and over the course of the offseason. At they very least, it should be fun to watch.
Over the next two weeks, the Niners have two very real chances at victory. Could anyone have made that statement in week 6? Whether you're a hater or a homer, when looking at this organization from top to bottom and comparing it to the 49ers of last season, or the 49ers of two months ago, this fact is undeniable as it pertains to the future of the 49ers: the fundamentals are sound.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
By: Mike in MDDate: December 23, 2008 at 6:50 PMComment: I too hope we keep Martz for some Sahari thirsty continuity but there's been some articles saying he'll most likely leave. My BIGGEST gripe with Martz is ALL SEASON LONG even when we got Hill & went to a WCO style NOT needing to keep VD in as much for blocking.......he has TOTALLY UNDERUTILIZED him. I'm beyond frustrated & can't blame the dude for exploding when Martz finally throws ONE to him. Keep feeding him the high percentage short stuff where he'll catch the ball & run for his YAC. Martz could EASILY add 5 more plays minimum per game for him. VD was coming along the 1st 2 years & with Martz's WR oriented Offense he's been ignored resulting in the stalling of his development. Sorry IMO Martz will not change here. TE's don't enter his mind with his Offense. I pleaded all season for him to get VD more involved, at this point why would that change?? The only hope is that Singletary points this out, Martz re-evaluates VD's involvement, THEN a light bulb goes on & he makes the adjustments. We'll have to wait & see.
By: Gary from OhioDate: December 23, 2008 at 11:26 AMComment: AJ, First time reader and responder. Really like what you had to say; I'm glad others out there are as optimistic as I am. I do have to say something, though. I would say Ziegler being slower than VD is no big deal, and other than Hill, I doubt anyone is faster than that beast of a manchild's 4.38 40. Man, if we could use him in the pass game as effectively as we use his blocking skills, best overall TE in the league! I know I have wishful thinking, but it's true, to a point. I wanna see him own Andre Carter next week. Great write up!
By: TComptonDate: December 22, 2008 at 8:22 AMComment: I think I agree with most of what you've said. I think our Defense is pretty solid. We need a stronger pass rush, but we're improving and I think that a Singletary lead team will eventually play a more consistent and threatening defense. But there's one thing I completely agree with and attribute a large part to the Niners lack of success over the past several season. This one thing was briefly stated at the end: "...and the team manages to retain the services of Mike Martz as OC, the team will have something that it hasn't had in the last 4 seasons: continuity." 2008 Mike Martz 2007 Jim Hostler 2006 Norv Turner 2005 Mike McCarthy If I were Singletary, when I received an offer from the Niners, I would make part of my agreement that Mike Martz must return next season. I'm not sure how good Alex Smith is. I'm not sure how good Shawn Hill is either. But one thing is certain, neither quarterback can succeed when they're consistently learning a new offense.
By: Mike McFeelyDate: December 20, 2008 at 3:15 PMComment: Mr. Bolino, Excellent observations! It sounds like you and I think on the same page. The Niners have found their heart, pure and simple, and his name is Mike Singletary. Only Ronnie Lott could give him a run for his money in this department and his players know this. What we thought was lack of talent was truly lack of desire and discipline -- an affliction which affects many human beings. With our heart restored look for great outcomes in 2009!!!
By: Mike NinerDate: December 19, 2008 at 11:04 AMComment: Excellent article AJ! Your response to the foregoing would be appreciated. In my opinion, the Niners are two players short on defense to contend for first place in the Division: Pass rusher and free safety. I believe a legitimate, viable rusher can only come from free agency. I do believe, however, that a studly, all pro kind of safety does not have to come from free agency or the draft! I believe we have that player already on the team: Nate Clements! The Niners are loaded at defensive back (Don't forget about Strickland and Shawntae Spencer). The Niners could afford to give up Clements to a safety position without compromising the whole secondary! The Niner Special Teams I think are good enough right now to help lead the team to a divisional first place. I like your idea about drafting a tackle for the offense. That's the only top proiority, I believe, for that unit. Again, that may be all the offense needs to contend for first place. Secondarily speaking, the Niners should look at the draft to find a speed merchant at WR and a back like a Coffee from Alabama. Your reaction!?
By: Mike in MDDate: December 18, 2008 at 5:19 PMComment: AJ...I hope you & the last poster are right about Goldson but I'm not 100% sold. In fact he scares me. I believe he runs a 4.6/40. A blogger got on me about relying on 40 times but it's just a baseline to start. You still have to watch the film. He's been a playmaker & is physical but he's been burned numerous times for big plays. I hope that's just from lack of experience. He does have good instincts & this might compensate for his lack of speed. Like Nolan as HC, ANYBODY is an upgrade to Roman. If Goldson can surprise us & be the permanent starter that would be great. My picks for our #1 is Oher & ASmith (maybe Monroe..Walters said he's struggled lately & it's brought his stock down. Have to re-research this before making him my #3 OT) then I'd be happy with TMays, TCody, or one of the top pass rushers. I would love to get Maualuga (6-1, 260 lbs) TED next to PW but I know it's not a high need as we have Spikes as a stop gap for 2 years max & is a good mentor. Mays & Maualuga to me have Willis-like STAR potential. My remaining OT's are from #4 on down..CBlack, JSmith, Eben Britton, then Loadholt. Only Loadholt lacks athleticism & needs work. Happy Holidays!
By: Barry WilliamsDate: December 18, 2008 at 1:31 PMComment: I think Thomas Clayton should supplant Foster. Foster gives us nothing and Clayton is a burner. Plus another preseason performance and he will be on another roster. We need a RT and FS. Badly. outside of those 2 positions, I am happy with the roster we have now and believe that another year with the same oc will put us in the playoffs regardless of whether shaun or alex is at qb. great article. you speak the truth