A funny thing happened to me on the way to the postgame tailgate after the 49ers bludgeoned the Seattle Shehawks into submission last Sunday afternoon. A dear friend confided in me that he was...nervous. Haunted. Spooked. Positively depressed.
Why? Because the 49ers have been playing terrible football.
I had to let that last bit sink in for a moment. Terrible? Really? In the first two weeks of the season, the Niners have beaten the defending NFC champions on their own field, and have convincingly shut down the Seattle Seahawks, a team that media pundits across the country had pegged as a favorite to win the NFC West. How does this constitute terrible play?
Perhaps what my pal was lamenting is that the 49ers haven't been playing "pretty" football. Anyone familiar with the 49ers long and illustrious history knows what pretty football looks like. Pretty football is comprised of 400 yard passing days, 50 yard touchdown receptions, one play drives, and three score margins of victory. Pretty football is mother's milk to the faithful. When one thinks about it, who could blame them? The 49er faithful have been weaned on the greatness of an offensive juggernaut...a team that could (and very often did) score at will. Players like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Roger Craig did what no one in the NFL could do...they dominated games almost effortlessly. Every play could end with a score. No one could stop them. And they made it look easy. Even fans who didn't witness it with their own eyes have heard stories...seen YouTube highlight reels...or watched DVD replays of championships past. Pretty football is the stuff of 49er legends.
What I think my buddy is missing is that the 49ers of 2009 are not and were never intended to be anything like the 49ers of 1981-1998. The 49ers of 2009 are the polar opposite of the great teams built by the late, great Bill Walsh. The "new" 49ers do not win at will...but rather by brute force. There is no finesse in the Mike Singletary formula for winning. The new 49ers don't win at will...they impose their will on their opponents. The 2009 49ers are a team built to go toe-to-toe, trading blows until their opponent caves.
The aforementioned stated, let's look back at the first two weeks of the season and take a look at what we can expect going into the 49ers' Week 3 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings:
While many will point to the 49ers offensive ranking of 26th overall as the barometer of where this team stacks up, I prefer to look at the numbers (and the games, for that matter) a bit closer. The Niners have the 9th ranked rushing attack in the league. Their passing attack is ranked 30th. To a stat junkie, these numbers look bad...but to anyone that watched the games, these numbers are just...numbers.
While the run sputtered in the 49ers Week 1 matchup with Arizona, it did contribute one of the team's two touchdowns on the day, and kept the defending NFC Champions locked in 8 and 9 man fronts for the game, which contributed to the success of the 49ers' game winning 4th quarter drive.
In the 49ers' Week 2 matchup with Seattle, the passing game was far more efficient that it was in Week 1, though not as prolific as the average fan would like. The truth is that it didn't need to be...the 49er running attack did enough damage to win the game. Frank Gore's record setting day, coupled with superb blocking up front (I could go into exactly how good the blocking was on the day...but in the interest of brevity, it should suffice to say that the O-Line did one hell of a job) beat a defense that shut down the Rams' Steven Jackson in Week 1.
How bad is the offense, then? How bad is an offense that shows up when it has to? The answer is not bad at all. There are things that could go more smoothly for the 49ers' offense to be sure...but if the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 is any indication, offensive performance should ramp up week over week as the season progresses.
A great many doomsayers and stat junkies will point to the 49ers defensive rankings (20th vs. the pass, 3rd vs. the run) and find fault. Thus far, I've heard everything from "we can't stop the pass in the clutch" to "the pass rush still sucks". Whatever you may have heard, the fact is folks, this defense isn't just good...it is downright nasty.
Those of you who think the pass rush is still lacking should take a closer look at the first two games of the season. The star of the pass rush in Week 1 was quite obviously Justin Smith. In Week 2 Ray McDonald logged the 49ers' only sack...but the rest of the D-Line kept Matt Hasselbeck from setting his feet, and rendered the Seahawks relatively impotent through the air. Over the first two weeks of the season, the D-Line has logged 4 sacks, 31 hits, and 53 pressures on opposing passers. Make no mistake...the 49ers have a pass rush, it is very effective, and before the season is over, it will net more than its fair share of sacks and contribute to more than its fair share of wins.
I could mention that the 49ers are ranked 20th against the pass and just leave it at that...but doing so would be horrible injustice to a unit that has really stepped up its play this season. In Week 1, the 49ers effectively contained Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, forcing Kurt Warner to look for his check down receiver for most of the game. In Week 2, the secondary did much better than contain the Seahawks passing game...they annihilated it. Starting corners Nate Clements and Shawntae Spencer mangled the Seahawks receiving tandem of TJ Houshmanzadeh and Nate Burleson, with the highlight of the game coming on Clements' deflection of a Seneca Wallace pass intended for Houshmanzadeh on the Seahawks' final meaningful drive.
Defensively speaking, the 49ers are just fine, and if things go the way I believe they will, this unit should see its ranking of 9th overall increase as the season progresses.
As week 3 approaches, the 49ers face what many are calling a "barometer" type game, which should give us an idea of where the team is, and what we can expect from them for the remainder of the season. The many are quite right. The 49ers performance in this game will say a lot about how far they've come under the leadership of Mike Singletary. While their Week 1 road victory over Arizona was impressive, a road win against a highly regarded defense and one of the best running backs in the league will prove that the 49ers are not just in the running to win the NFC West, but that they have arrived as legitimate contenders in the NFC overall. Is such a feat impossible? Not as impossible as some might think.
Over the first two weeks of the season, the Vikings have allowed an average of 109 rushing yards per game, with an average of 4 yards per carry. Their offensive line has allowed 7 sacks. They rank last in the league in passing offense. Their do-everything runner, Adrian Peterson, leads the league in rushing. More important than any of the aforementioned facts, however, is that the Vikings first two victories have come against Cleveland and Detroit, perennial NFL punching bags.
Does that mean that the 49ers will leave Minneapolis with an easy win? Hardly. There are three things the Niners must to if they want to run their record to 3-0:
1) Contain Brett Favre: While he doesn't have the receivers he did in Green Bay or New York, he's still Brett Favre. Janky arm or not, if Favre finds himself trailing, he can still sling with the best of them. Overlooking Favre and the threat he poses would be a costly mistake.
2) Lockdown the Vikings rushing attack: This game will be won by the team that best controls the other's ability to run the football. If the Niners focus on Adrian Peterson, and lose sight of Chester Taylor, as they did in their 2007 meeting, it could cost them the game. The majority of the Vikings biggest plays this season have come on missed tackles and blown assignments. For the 49ers to enjoy the same kind of success that they have over the first two weeks of the season, they must tackle well, stick with their assignments, and play disciplined defense.
3) Provide running room for Frank Gore: Though the 49ers will need to move the ball through the air to have success against the Vikings, it is imperative that the offensive line make room for Frank Gore on Sunday. Pay particular attention to Adam Snyder and David Baas. Though both played well last week against Seattle, their performances in Arizona played a huge part in the listlessness of the running game. Look for the Niners to employ misdirection and trap plays to create cutback lanes for Gore against the formidable "Williams Wall". While space between the tackles might be limited, gaining ground against Jared Allen might not be so difficult. Allen is a gifted pass rusher, but is undersized and somewhat of a liability against the run. Look for Jimmy Raye to send an inordinate amount of ground traffic his way, with Joe Staley and Vernon Davis leading the way.
Will the Niners win this Sunday? They have a fair chance. As I see it, this game will be a grinder, with the game winning score coming in the mid to late 4th Quarter. Will it be pretty? Probably not. Will it be fun to watch? Almost certainly.