49ers in Familiar Territory as they Prepare for Eagles

After three games in 2013 the San Francisco 49ers were 1-2.  After three games in 2014 the 49ers are once again 1-2.  Jim Harbaugh is now 2-6 in his NFL career in weeks two and three. In the rest of the regular season, Harbaugh is 35-7. There are doubts about whether this team can turn it’s season around like it did a year ago. How similar are the situations between last year and this year? Do the 49ers once again have a run of victories in them to counteract another slow start?

The two losses that dropped the 49ers to 1-2 in the last two seasons are very different. This year the 49ers dropped a hard fought game on the road to an undefeated Cardinals team after having a 14-6 halftime lead. The Niners blew the lead and eventually the game, with their arch nemesis, the penalty, playing a huge role in the defeat. Last year the 49ers were smothered by an 0-2 Indianapolis Colts team at Candlestick Park, 27-7. Aldon Smith would miss the next five games thanks to a team imposed trip to rehab. This year he’s due to miss the next six games due to a Roger Godell imposed over reaction.

The state of the passing offense is totally different from last year to this. In 2013 Colin Kaepernick had very few reliable targets to throw to.  Besides Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who missed most of the third game in 2013 and all of the third game this year (Harbaugh is 0-4 when Vernon is out of the lineup), Kaepernick had to rely on Kyle Williams, Jonathan Baldwin and Marlon Moore as his other options.  This year the 49ers are the only team in the NFL with three different receivers who have 13 or more catches. Michael Crabtree has 19, Boldin 16 and Stevie Johnson 13. In the two losses to begin 2013 Kaepernick threw for 277 yards and completed 47% of his passes. In the two losses this year, he’s thrown for 493 yards and completed 70% of his passes. The aerial attack is light years ahead of where it was at this point a season ago.

The ground game is actually remarkably similar to last year’s. Primary back Frank Gore is off to another very slow start. For the umpteenth time in his career, there are whispers that Gore is done. Last year he had 142 yards rushing at this point. He has 139 this year. He ended up clocking 1,128 yards by the end of 2013. Rookie Carlos Hyde has brought high expectations into this season and so far has shown glimpses of what made him arguably the best college running back in the country last year. Combine that with the hopeful NFL debut of Marcus Lattimore and the run game looks to be an improvement on it’s 2013 counterpart.

The defense is also in a similar situation as it was at this time a year ago, except for one major stat. After three games a year ago the defense had allowed 84 points and 1,011 total yards. This year they have allowed 68 points and 936 yards. By those two measures they are having a better season, especially considering they are allowing about a touchdown less per game. The one major difference is the pass rush. Last year the defense had seven sacks after three games. This year they have four. The main reason for this is, of course, the suspension of Aldon Smith. He had already accounted for 4.5 sacks by this time last year, which would be more than the entire team has in 2014. If not for the super hero work of Justin Smith, who has three sacks, the front seven would be completely lost when it comes to rushing the quarterback. This lack of a pass rush had kept the defense from getting off the field in third down situations. They are actually the worst defense in the NFL on third down, giving up a first down on 52 percent of their tries. Also, the defense has committed eight penalties on what would have been third down stops, allowing opponents drives to continue. If any sort of turn around is going to occur, the defense can start with getting off the field when the opportunity presents itself.

To be fair, the secondary is going to need some time to gel. On top of trying to mesh several new pieces, they are missing their best and most established starter, Tramaine Brock. Chris Culliver hasn’t played regularly since the Super Bowl and could be showing some rust. Antoine Bethea, while an established vet, is new to the team and to his defensive backfield teammates. Nickelback Jimmie Ward is a rookie and being called upon to match up with established NFL stars like Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald. The results have been predictably rough. Even though Brock has only started eight games in his entire NFL career, he is the number one cornerback in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme. This alone should tell you that the back end of the 49ers defense will need some time to come together. By mid-season this group will be expected to elevate it’s play.

A bright spot in the defensive backfield has been Perrish Cox, who has been excellent while filling in for Brock. Cox took over the nickelback position from Eric Wright during last years playoffs and he has continued to play at a very high level this season. Pro Football Focus has Cox rated as it’s fifth best cornerback in the league. This coming from a player who figured to be battling Chris Cook for the fourth corner spot entering training camp. Much like Justin Smith on the D-line, the pass defense would be a whole lot worse off without Cox’s steadying presence. Finding room for Cox in the secondary rotation will be a challenge when Brock returns, but this is a good problem to have and Cox has most definitely earned it.

After beginning the 2013 campaign with a win and two losses, the 49ers had to travel to St. Louis to play the Rams on a Thursday night. The Rams had given the 49ers plenty of trouble in 2012, winning the game in St. Louis after the two teams tied at Candlestick. The 49ers had to face a tough division rival on the road on a short week. Usually this would be a recipe for disaster, but the 49ers handled business, easily dispatching the Rams 35-11. The fourth game of the current season presents a entirely different set of problems and a very difficult opponent. The unbeaten Philadelphia Eagles bring a prolific passing attack with them to Levi’s Stadium. QB NIck Foles has thrown for the most yards in the NFL. Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, it’s a good bet that Foles will throw for 300 yards. The one area the 49ers defense has a potential advantage over Philadelphia is defending against the run. LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing last year and it wasn’t particularly close, besting Matt Forte (2014 week two opponent) by 268 yards and Jamaal Charles (Week 5 opponent) by 320 yards. McCoy has yet to get going this season, currently sitting on 175 yards through three games, good enough for slightly less than three yards a carry. Last week he carried the ball 19 times and managed just 22 yards. In week one the 49ers allowed this year’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray, to pile up 118 yards rushing. In the following two weeks the run defense only allowed 85 yards combined to opponents running backs. The front seven has been making strides to regain the form that made them the most formidable run stoppers in the game over the last three seasons.

The Eagles defense is fresh off a game where they allowed Washington QB Kirk Cousins to throw for 427 yards on their home field. Colin Kaepernick currently possesses the most weapons he’s had at his disposal in the almost two years he’s been the 49ers starting QB. The standout player in the Philadelphia secondary is Brandon Boykin, who has graded out as a +2.7 per PFF. After Boykin, there is a significant drop off in the other corners. Cary WIlliams (-3.7) and Bradley Fletcher (-3.9) rank 86th and 87th among CB’s according to PFF’s rankings. Combine that with the fact that the Eagles D hasn’t registered a sack in two weeks and you get Washington’s backup QB putting up Joe Montana numbers. Logic would point to Kaepernick having another strong outing Sunday.

Much like last year’s fourth game was basically a must win, this Sunday’s game versus the Eagles falls into the same category. The first thing that needs to happen if the 49ers are going to right the ship is the penalties need to significantly decrease. There have already been 36 accepted penalties against the team. This is the highest total in the Harbaugh tenure. The second highest total being the 29 penalties in weeks 1-3 last year. Once again, this is familiar territory. The team is transitioning in a few areas and experiencing some growing pains. A revamped secondary mixed with some vital cogs missing on the rest of the defense has led to some spotty play. Moving away from a ground and pound ball control offense to a more spread out wide receiver oriented attack has also lent itself to ups and downs. The 49ers are evolving as a team and as an organization (see: $1.2 billion stadium). Change doesn’t always come easy, but the team and (especially) Coach Harbaugh at the very least have last year’s slow start as a road map to try and navigate this year’s similarly bumpy road.

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