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Rolling but still not knowing

Sep 7, 2007 at 5:29 AM

As the San Francisco 49ers brought the 2007 Pre-Season curtain down at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California in a 16-13 loss to the San Diego Chargers. The emotion and reaction of the 49er faithful remain resolute that the team is rolling with vivid clarity in improvement, but the ability to hang with championship teams such as the Bears and Chargers leave a hangover from a long night of heavy drinking.

Many fans take the pre-season for what it is. A time to identify individual battles and define who is going to be on first, second and third teams. There is also the notion of experimenting with different play action plays, new philosophies and schemes that will help mold the team in its quest for new direction. But then there is still the notion of just winning which the 49ers haven't done by going (1-3) on the pre-season.

I take the pre-season at the same mindset as some that call it a pre-emptive strike in a military sense before the war is actually declared so as to test the readiness of the team and prevent a major loss in casualties so as to be as prepared as possible with personnel that is thirsting for championship prestige.

From organized teams activities to training camp and finally to pre-season athletes battle for positions of employment with a team destined to be even more special than ever before. The San Francisco 49er community has demanded it and players are taking heed that change must be made both in a physical sense and a goal oriented sense. We need to fight to establish ourselves as legitimate contenders within the league on a daily basis.

Real questions remain about the offense not performing up to expected standards from Chicago to San Diego. Inside the windy city penalties flew like litter in a windy back alley against us and the Bears defensive line manhandled our revamped and newly improved offensive line. We couldn't sustain drives if we wanted to until the second half had come around.

Having only recorded one first down in the first half with 38 total yards of offense really leaves a bitter taste on one's mouth, but in San Diego we did hang with the Chargers in the first half by achieving eight first downs with 134 total yards of offense. However, we only had one field goal to show for it.

Alex Smith and the offensive line didn't look all that good in either game in the first half. Alex went four-for-eight for 47 total yards and was sacked once. He had a quarterback rating of 68.2 in week three and then he went three-for-eight for 23 total yards and was sacked once with a quarterback rating of 6.2! When comparing both games the line gave up six sacks for a loss of 39 total yards, which leaves the question open regarding what they can do against some of the premier teams in the NFL.

On the positive side though Alex Smith is a more polished pocket passer by far and can adapt to either running a bootleg or remaining strong in the pocket to find his target with a better pass protecting line via the demotion of right tackle Kwame Harris. Now that rookie Joe Staley has supplanted Harris at this position, pass protection has been enhanced almost dramatically. However, against elite teams penetration still seems to be a problem.

Harris by far is not all washed-up. He handled the demotion with class and he is a strong and capable back up that provides immediate depth when he is called upon especially when it plays to his strength at run blocking versus pass protection.

Alex Smith is more composed and confident in everything he does on the field. He simply has to be on the same page with some of his receivers, like Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie, who were not present for training camp with him because they were nursing injuries. I am assured inside that he will be able to synchronize the timing questions with their routes and establish some real consistency in the vertical passing game that Jim Hostler will apply from time to time.

In a pre-season without starter Frank Gore, we've seen a mixed bag of back-ups jockeying for positions that will help support the prized bull and his intentions of breaking Eric Dickerson's records this coming regular season. Nursing a broken hand we need someone that can come in and keep the ground attack a lethal threat should Frank go down for any length of time. Michael Robinson and Maurice Hicks have been trying to fill that open void.

Michael seems to be in a constant struggle still in making his conversion from quarterback to running back stick on the ground as he hasn't really established himself as the premier back-up in that over the last two games his production has gone from 3.1 yards per carry to lesser carries in San Diego with a 4.3 yards per carry. He'll need to make the necessary adjustments to his game through watching film and getting even more detailed coaching from Bishop Harris.

Thomas Clayton, despite his training camp woes, has made a name for himself in pre-season as he has been a workhorse in seeing a lot of action that helped him establish a 6.0 yards per carry against San Diego on 14 carries for 84 total yards. Overall the rushing attack seems like it will sustain itself should the offensive line continue to improve and stay the course on making the run their primary mission. As of now Clayton is now a member of the 49ers practice squad.

Of the receivers that deserve attention, I must say tight end Delanie Walker continues to show what his presence means to this offense. Walker has surpassed even Vernon Davis in overall production based upon the last two games where he was a threat either over the middle and or near the sidelines. His 13 yards per reception in week three and 11.3 yards in week four demonstrate his unique abilities to be a threat. However, he still needs to improve upon his tendency to drop balls when he hears foot steps around him.

Ashley Lelie has come out of nowhere to stake a claim as a roster consideration based upon his sole productivity in the pre-season as well. He has been at the right place at the right time on several occasions where the 49er contingent of quarterbacks has been able to find him. If anything he rivals Bryan Gilmore for consideration for that third receiving position along with Jason Hill and Taylor Jacobs. But now Gilmore is no more. He was a surprise cut by Nolan who admitted he was the most difficult cut he had to make this year.

On the optimistic side of things though the offense is moving the ball and it is finding its own rhythm with identifying which players will best well be served in the starting and back-up roles in the rotation. Mike Nolan and Jim Hostler continue to try and find the right mix of the McCarthy and Turner offenses that best fits Alex Smith and the array of weapons at his disposal.

Defensively the San Francisco 49ers suffered immensely in Chicago against one of the best offensive units in the NFL. Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was 13-of-20 for 211 total yards with two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 112.7. No pass rush was apparent in either pre-season game including San Diego with quarterback Billy Volek at the controls as the missing link continues to be the pass rush that just seems to be nonexistent in every way shape and manner.

Bryant Young and Marques Douglass will be looked upon to find a remedy for that and the entire defensive coaching staff under Greg Manusky will continue to tweak whatever they can to reinvigorate pass oriented pressure.

With a full-time 3-4 defensive alignment the thought process was to be able to generate a more effective pass rush with the quickness and speed only the best linebackers can manufacture. That really hasn't been the case for the 49ers, as they aren't generating any considerable pressure that calculates into sacks or even disrupts the opposing passing attack. It continues to be a priority as Mike Nolan has indicated publicly and he understands that the secondary has often been made to be individuals left out on an island and to defend against an uninhibited passing attack.

Some of the bright spots on the pass rush have been the positive plays rookie Ray McDonald has exhibited along with linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and newly promoted rookie linebacker Patrick Willis. The San Francisco 49ers are starting to see the circle of life on this particular aspect of the game, as all three have been a significant upgrade in the overall pass rush dynamics.

Mike Nolan is leaning on both McDonald and Willis as they instilled a sense of football savvy and intelligence in they way they both performed at the Senior Bowl back in January that Nolan and his coaches presided over. Willis has been so impressive that he has actually cracked the starting lineup with his unique abilities and talents to become the starter over veteran linebacker Brandon Moore that struggled early on making significant tackles.

The 49er defense seemed to have a soft underbelly when it came to stopping the run in both games in one way or the other with the Chicago Bears churning up 146 yards rushing and the San Diego Chargers 108 total yards. In the passing attack the 49ers allowed the Bears 205 yards and the Chargers 216 total yards. Again you have to look at the pre-season for what it is with first, second and third string defenses all playing in some time frame or another against various ranking offenses with compatibility.

Is it right to pass judgment on the San Francisco 49ers as a team with such a dismal record in the pre-season at (1-3)? Or is it something that we take with the grain of salt it really is in rounding out a definitive roster of 53 players and head off into the sunset for the regular season to begin?

I have to throw my opinion in that the pre-season is just what it really is the pre-season. Nothing really counts and is for certain in any aspect of the team or on both sides of the spectrum. Mike Nolan and his coaching staff have gone to great lengths to incorporate all the many timeless hours of film study, scrutiny and the play book terminology in order to reap the rewards of a product that is out on the field in a semi-finished state.

Putting the final finishing touches on this team and all the individual players is something Nolan will do with his staff in the dead period that is just prior to the first regular season game against the Arizona Cardinals. As an optimist I see amazing things happening with our franchise as many of you do.

Do I have worries and concerns? Heck we all have those and the answers to those questions will have to wait on answers as the regular season unfurls itself in the first quarter of play. Everything is about adjustment in football and tweaking this play or that play or the way you plant your feet or the direction you run a route. It is the crisp sound you hear in the autumn air as the summer sun fades and the loud smack of shielded human anatomy is tossed around and about the field in a fashion that excites ones inner senses that it is yet another 49er football season.

We have waited long enough for our moment to happen folks. The San Francisco 49ers are still an underdog in many a fantasy pool, but I will tell you this we will make many a wallet pay up and to the non-believers we will be happy to remind them that we told you so and we will hold and wave that banner high and proud for a team that is destined for glory once again be it by the sincere will of every 49er die-hard out there, we will be triumphant.

We will be rolling with Nolan and at the same time not knowing what is the real expectation until we see what that product will do and how it will execute in the course of real battle and the stakes are for real this time. Pre-season was but a testing ground for many to be emboldened by and to solidify their individual standings on this roster. Now the team must respond to what its destiny truly is and that is to excel far above our wildest imaginations.


Sources of Information: Mercury, SF, Inside Bay, and my own personal analysis and opinion.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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