Sunday nights loss to the Bears was a painful as they come for the 49ers. Never mind it was the first ever regular season game at Levi’s Stadium. It was a terrible loss no matter where or when the game took place. The positive takeaway from the defeat was the problems that arose versus the Bears were mostly correctable and likely a one-off situation.
The one concrete concern that could be a long term problem was the defense’s total lack of a pass rush. Bears QB Jay Cutler had an extremely clean pocket to throw from in the second half. Justin Smith and to a lesser degree Aaron Lynch have been the only 49ers who have shown a somewhat consistent ability to pressure the QB. Corey Lemonier is (for now, at least) Aldon Smith’s stand in on passing downs. After showing a bit of promise in limited action last year, he has fallen off the face of the earth. He has yet to record a pressure in 50 snaps. Aldon’s return is far off on the horizon. Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio is going to have to find a creative way to throw the opposing quarterback off his mark. The 49ers blitzed exactly one time during Sunday’s game. This is most likely going to have to change. The secondary has been left to blow in the wind much like at the end of the 2012 season. That year, the pass rush disappeared after significant injuries to both Aldon and Justin Smith. Both players played through the injuries, but were clearly limited in their effectiveness. Suddenly opposing QB’s we’re putting up 300 yard passing games with ease. If the pass rush continues to be as impotent as it was in the second half vs the Bears, we could again see QB’s hanging huge passing days on an overmatched secondary.
The rest of the myriad of problems that allowed the Bears back into Sunday’s game are, by and large, very fixable. The 49ers committed 16 penalties, which is the most they’ve had in a game since Steve Young was playing QB. It’s not likely they will approach anywhere near 16 penalties in another game this year. Colin Kaepernick threw three interceptions. Coming into Sunday’s game he had thrown 11 interceptions in 24 career regular season starts. No matter how bad the interceptions were on Sunday night, they were totally out of character for Kaepernick. 16 penalties…4 turnovers by a QB who has by and large done a very good job of protecting the ball…It’s almost guaranteed we won’t see a repeat of those two ugly stat lines.
The defense, despite its questionable pass rush, still played a fairly good game. Turnovers forced them into a few short fields. Several third down penalties kept Chicago drives afloat. After the Cowboys DeMarco Murray had a big day in the season opener, the front seven and particularly the linebackers shut down the Bears run game. Matt Forte was third in the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2013 at 120 per game. On Sunday he touched the ball 17 times and only came up with 36 total yards. Jay Cutler threw the ball 34 times and managed 176 passing yards. If the 49ers can consistently hold a very talented QB and RB combo to 5.2 yards an attempt and 2 yards a touch respectively, they are going to be a top five defense.
The third game of the year is going to be another difficult test. The Arizona Cardinals have started 2-0 and are in first place ahead of the 49ers and Seattle, the two teams that can be considered the best in the league. If the pressure of coming off a four turnover game wasn’t intense enough, a lot of the burden to win Sunday’s game is going to fall on Kaepernick’s shoulders. The Cardinals feature the third best run defense in the NFL after having the league’s best in 2013. The passing attack is going to have to take advantage of what has been a mediocre pass rush (two sacks in two games) from the Cards so far this season, especially if the running game is unable to get going. Arizona starting QB Carson Palmer has been ruled out of the game, handing over the keys to back up Drew Stanton. The 49ers defense (and offense for that matter) absolutely have to take advantage of the fact that they are facing a QB who is in his seventh year in the NFL and making his sixth career start.
In 2014 the 49ers have had a bumpy beginning to their season. There have not only been off the field distractions, but plenty of important players missing on the field. For the Bears game, the team was missing one of the best pass rushers in the world, a 2013 defensive player of the year candidate, it’s top cornerback, it’s starting nose tackle and its starting right guard. By the end of the game Vernon Davis was also missing in action for the offense. There are going to be some large obstacles on the road to success. This is not going to be easy. Still, through all of this, last Sunday’s loss was totally preventable. If Colin Kaepernick plays his typical brand of quarterback and the team as a whole shows more of its usual discipline, the debut of Levi’s Stadium turns into a party instead of a disaster. Clean up a few of the details and hold the fort until reinforcements return later in the season.