By Devin "Reno" Wright (@TheRealReno)
While watching the Niners roll over the hapless Jacksonville Sassy Cats on Sunday morning, I suddenly became very aware of a scary fact. And this fact also made me kind of depressed. We are officially through the first half of the NFL season. Where did those first 8 weeks go!?!? You mean to tell me we only have 8 more weeks left!?!?! I'm already panicking as I write this. In this vain, I'm gonna take a moment to collect my composure really quick....(attempts to use mediation breathing technique I learned in college in a class I actually got credits for)
Ok, I think I'm better now. Where were we? Oh yes, the half way mark of the season. After 8 short weeks, the Niners are currently 6-2 heading into their perfectly timed bye week. To be frank, it feels like I've lived three completely different lives as a fan of this team so far. A breakout start, followed by an ugly two game losing streak, followed by beautiful, dominant Niner football. Let's take this opportunity to talk about those first 8 weeks and where we should expect the second half of the season to take us. Shall we?
Life 1: SF vs Green Bay
It seems like the Forty Niners have played three different seasons already. The boys and red and gold started the season with a statement win over the Packers in which Colin Kaepernick and the offense looked virtually unstoppable. Kap had 412 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, Anquan Boldin went for 208 and a score, Vernon Davis had 98 yards a 2 scores, and the D played pretty well against a great offense. Things were looking good for the 49ers after week 1 to say the least.
Life 2: Sf @ Seattle and SF vs Indy
Rough back to back losses to rival Seattle, and Harbaugh protégé Andrew Luck showed some glaring weaknesses for SF.
In Seattle, in front of a national audience, the Niners were beaten soundly once again by the 'Hawks. The Niners could not run the ball (something over looked in the Green Bay win), and it seems like the offense was relying too much on complicated schemes that required more skill from the players, especially WR, than what the Niners were capable of. Boldin and Davis were blanketed by the Seattle secondary, while Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore were basically invisible. The D actually played pretty well, but they were constantly put into bad situations due to the lack of offensive production.
This is also where the injury bug stated to hit. Starting nose guard Ian Williams was "legally" chopped at the knee and suffered a season ending broken ankle, and Vernon Davis strained his hamstring on a deep ball late in the game.
The next week, this time at home against Indy, the offense continued to be anemic. The offense ran well on their first scoring drive of the game, but then seemed to get away from the run too quickly in search of flashy passing plays. With Davis not starting at TE, and the Indy D taking Boldin away, the passing game was left with unreliable Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore again. Needless to say, it was Colin Kaepernick's worst performance of his career.
The defense did not fare much better, as Indy was able to run all over the field for 3 scores. Late in the game, Patrick Willis suffered a groin strain, and guard Mike Iupati injured his right shoulder. On KNBR, you could hear the panic button being pressed by the final whistle.
After suffering their first losing streak, the Niners and their fans were left to reevaluate where this season was headed. A short weak heading to St. Louis, where the 49ers had lost in an ugly game last year was looming.
Quick break for my own analysis on the 1-2 start:
San Francisco ended last season with an explosive offense that put all if their playmakers on display. If it wasn't Gore, James, or Kap chunking yards on the ground, it was Crabs, and Davis getting yards through the air. With Crabs out, and Davis hurt, the Forty Niners didn't really have the personnel to be able to make those chunk yards in the air. Teams could load the box and stop the run as well because Kap and Gore were mostly operating out of the shotgun with more receivers than lineman. This lead to an inability to run the ball effectively, which has always been a staple of Harbaugh lead teams, even dating back to his Stanford days.
Life 3: Sf @ STL, SF vs Houston, SF vs AZ, SF @ Tennessee, SF "@" Jax
It seemed to happen in an instant. The flash offense of the 2013 Niners went back to the old days (2011 being the old days). Harbaugh and Roman seemed to realize that the offense needed to go back to grinding the ball on the ground with big sets and Kap under center. The needed to get back to where their bread was buttered and hand the rock to their bell cow, Frank Gore.
Right on cue,Frankie ran all over a hyped up St. Louis D for 153 yards and a back breaking 4th down score to put the game away. After that Thursday night game, the offense started to grind teams down with the running game and haven't looked back up to this point.
Before the season, everyone wondered how productive Gore could be this year due to his aging legs. Well fun fact, Frankie is quietly having one of his best seasons ever. He is on pace for around 1,300 yards rushing (second highest for his career) and a casual 14 TD's, at the age of 30. If you need some perspective on this feat, let's just say I'm 31 and have a tough time getting out of bed after going to the gym for 30 minutes.
Easy wins over Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and a bit of a struggle against Arizona have featured an offensive scheme that seems to be better suited to the players that the Niners have at the moment.
On the defensive side of the ball, Vac Fangio as made a few subtle changes that have helped the D return to its dominant form. While the run defense is currently ranked 14th, those numbers should be better in the second half of the season with added depth on the line, and a healthier Patrick Willis. The pass defense has been a revelation this season ranking 8th in the NFL. Tarell Brown, Carlos Rodgers, and Eric Reid are all having great seasons, while the D line as been able to apply a little more pressure as the season has progressed thanks to rookie Cory Lemonier, who has filled in admirably after Aldon Smith was sent who knows where in order to get his act together.
With Ian Williams out, former first round pick Glenn Dorsey has become a revelation this first half of the season. Dorsey has proven stout against the run, and with 2 sacks already, he is tied for his career high. Also replacing a projected starter has been new fan favorite Tremaine Brock from tiny Belhaven College in Mississippi. "T-Brock" replaced Nnamdi Asomugha as the nickle back after the ugly loss to Indy. In only 5 games of work, Brock has arguably been SF's most productive defender, totaling 13 tackles, while also picking off 3 passes including one for a score on the third play against Houston.
So what does the rest of the season have in store you ask?
Well the biggest issues facing the Forty Niners this week have to do with roster changes. The trade deadline has come and gone, much to the relief of Boobie Dixon fans the world over, after he was allegedly placed on the trade block. The Niners must now make room for players coming back from injury, or have not been activated for the first part of the season. Running Back LeMichael James is rumored to start suiting up again. WR's Mario Manningham will hopefully provide an upgrade for Kap in the passing game, which is ranked a dismal 31st in the NFL, while Crabs is due to return around the end of November (just in time for Dec. 8th against Seattle). The defense will also receive some help with rookies Tank Carradine having been activated already as well as Quntin Dial on the D-line, and Eric Wright possibly taking Asomuhga's spot on the roster. Also, Aldon Smith is still a possibility to return this season, so another roster adjustment may be due later. It's a great problem to have that the 49ers need to adjust a talented roster to make room for more talent. That certainly bodes well for a strong second half of the season.
As far as the schedule goes, the next 8 weeks seem quite favorable to SF at this point. More so than it did at the beginning of the year. Home games against the Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton (and QB coach Kenny Dorsey), struggling Atlanta and Matty Ice, and bottom feeder St. Louis seem like a possibility for an easy 3 wins. Meanwhile remaining road games against Washington, Arizona, and Tampa should also all be wins, at least on paper.
The real tests from here on out will be against a very good New Orleans team in the Superdome, and home against NFC West rival Seattle. At worst, the Niners should be 6-2 on the back end, or even 7-1. With a final record of wither 12-4 or 13-3, SF should be looking at a 1 or 2 seed in the playoffs depending on Seattle and New Orleans. After that, anything is possible in the playoffs with this squad. I'm just not sure how many more lives I can live this season, god knows we'll all live a few more...