Fresh off of last week’s way too close for comfort victory over the Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers have a chance to start a winning streak on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium versus the Kansas City Chiefs. Being at .500 at the quarter pole of the season if all well and good, especially after dropping two in a row, but is the Super Bowl is the goal, then winning home games is a must. After facing an undefeated Eagles squad last week, the schedule does not get any easier, with the Chiefs rolling into Santa Clara fresh off of an annihilation of the unusually vulnerable Patriots. It’s time for the 49ers to build some momentum before heading out on the road for four of their next five games.
The 49ers defense we all know and love was back in full effect last Sunday when they matched up against Chip Kelly’s fast break Eagles offense. The 49ers dominated the high flying Eagles, particularly over the first 53 minutes. Philly’s offense could only come up with five first downs while failing to cross the 50 yard line before finally moving the ball late in the fourth quarter. Through his first three games Nick Foles had thrown for the most yards in the NFL. On Sunday Foles didn’t even break the 200 yard mark and only completed 21 of his 43 pass attempts. On throws of over 20 yards Foles was 1-of-13. The Eagles top receiver Jeremy Maclin was held to 4 catches on 15 targets. When matched up with Perrish Cox Maclin caught just 2 of the 10 balls Foles threw in his direction. The secondary as a whole played lights out all afternoon. Cox has emerged as the 49ers premier cornerback. New 49er Antoine Bethea had a huge impact on the game. Bethea had an interception and also forced a fumble deep in Eagles territory that led to a San Francisco touchdown. He saved his best work for last, making a game saving tackle on the 1 yard line to prevent LeSean McCoy from scoring the go ahead touchdown with a minute left in the game. The very next play Bethea blitzed Foles and forced the QB to sail a pass over his receiver and out of bounds. The defense as a whole played a fantastic game, not allowing a single point to an offense that had been averaging 33 points a game.
The success the 49ers defense had against the Eagles can in many ways translate to this Sunday’s match up with the Chiefs. KC wants the ball in the capable hands of Jamaal Charles as much as the Eagles do with McCoy. Both teams are heavy into screens as well, which the 49ers were prepared for all day. The goal this Sunday is to force Alex Smith to throw the ball down the field. Two weeks ago in Miami, Smith didn’t complete a pass over eight yards. Forcing Smith to throw the ball down field has been the strategy of opposing defenses since Smith was drafted by the 49ers, particularly when coupled with an outstanding running back like Charles or Frank Gore. The 49ers have done an outstanding job shutting down some of the premier backs in the league and are currently ranked 2nd in the NFL against the run.
On the offensive side of things, the 49ers are going to have to do a much better job in pass protection. Justin Houston (5 sacks) and Tamba Hali (3 sacks) make for a formidable duo when it comes to rushing the passer. Tackles Joe Staley and Jonathan Martin (Anthony Davis is not expected to play) will have their work cut out for them. Staley has had a sub par season thus far by his lofty standards and will need to get back to being the Joe Staley of old when he is matched up against Hali. If Staley can hold it down as per usual on the left side, the 49ers can slide protection help to Martin’s right side to assist with Houston. Martin has been terrible in pass pro so far and will need all the help he can get versus the NFL’s co-leader in sacks.
The big story on Sunday is, of course, Alex Smith returning home to the team that drafted him. Smith had some really rough times in San Francisco, but it seems as if the fans, when given the power of hindsight, have come to begrudgingly appreciate him. He should receive a mostly warm welcome from the faithful. The 49ers semi recent history against the Chiefs has been very one sided in favor of KC. The most infamous (around these parts at least) game played between the two teams was the 1994 match up featuring San Francisco deity Joe Montana defeating his old team and his long time under study Steve Young. Alex Smith going up against Colin Kaepernick isn’t exactly as epic as Young vs Montana, but should make for good theatre.
The 49ers opponents so far own a combined 9-2 record in games not involving the 49ers. The schedule has been very difficult to start the season. The defense is ranked third in the NFL while missing five starters, including Aldon Smith and Navorro Bowman, who could be considered the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. The special teams definitely need to improve after allowing two touchdowns last week and a blocked field goal the week before. The unit has several new faces on it as the team cut long time special teams aces like C.J. Spillman and Bubba Ventrone. Over the course of the year they should improve as continuity grows. Several new and unexpected players are making key contributions and adding to the already deep veteran talent pool. Cox and Bethea have anchored the defensive backfield. Aaron Lynch has emerged as a threat in the pass rush, usurping the ineffective Corey Lemonier’s snaps to the point that Lynch played 25 defensive snaps to Lemonier’s zero last week. Stevie Johnson has emerged as the definite number three threat through the air. Johnson and Brandon Lloyd have played an almost identical amount of snaps yet Johnson has 14 catches for 174 yards versus Lloyd’s 3 catches for 33 yards. If these new faces continue to emerge it will help the team bridge the gap until reinforcements arrive during mid season. Over the course of the next 5 weeks of the season the 49ers will get back Bowman, Smith and number one corner Tramaine Brock. Marcus Lattimore could add depth to a thin running back corps. The 49ers can help themselves tremendously by winning the home games (this week) and beating the bad teams (next week versus St Louis) until help arrives and the team can prepare itself for a second half run.