The San Francisco 49ers 2014 season has begun in a eerily similar fashion to their 2013 campaign. After a sketchy 1-2 start that had many fingers placed firmly on the panic button, the 49ers have turned things around and are on a mini winning streak. Last season the 49ers travelled to St Louis for a primetime battle in week four. That victory was the first of a five game winning streak that propelled the team to a 12-4 record. This season, the 49ers make the trek to the midwest in week six, hoping to extend their current winning streak against a Rams team that currently sits at 1-3.
In another story line that has a remarkable parallel to last season, it’s again no coincidence that once the 49ers turned back to their workhorse, Frank Gore, their offensive fortunes took a turn for the better. After Gore only ran the ball six times for 10 yards versus Arizona, he has ripped off 226 yards in the past two games, averaging 5.4 yards a carry. After the first three weeks in 2014, we went through the annual write off of Frank Gore. He’s too old, he’s too slow, Carlos Hyde should get the majority of the carries, etc. Here we are two weeks later and Gore currently sits just outside the top 10 in rushing and is averaging 4.7 yards a carry on the season. While Gore is most certainly the bell cow, Carlos Hyde is a great number two running back to compliment the veteran Gore. The 49ers made a concerted effort to get Hyde involved last week and Hyde rewarded the team by averaging 4.3 yards a carry. The most impressive run being the nine yard gain on his first carry of the game in which he ran right over 6 foot 3 inch corner Sean Smith. A criticism of Hyde so far is his sometimes upright running style, but he got loooow and used his considerable 235 pounds of power to demolish Smith. Hyde seems like an ideal short yardage guy, something this team has lacked for years. Hyde can turn one yard losses into one yard gains and always pushes the pile, a huge asset on third or fourth down and short.
The conundrum of returning to the run game is that the passing game seems to suffer. Versus Arizona when the 49ers offense decided to spread things out and not challenge a tough Cardinals defense on the ground, QB Colin Kaepernick had one of the best games of his career. Kaepernick looked very confident, comfortable and decisive in registering career highs in completions (29) and completion percentage (78.4) while still picking up 54 yards rushing. A 12 play 80 yard drive and a 14 play 80 yard drive both ended in touchdowns and were largely fueled through the air. Another 12 play drive in the third quarter that was very similar to the first two TD drives reached the Cards four yard line where the 49ers had a first and goal. The refs threw a very questionable personal foul flag on Anquan Boldin and derailed the offense’s momentum. The 49ers showed they can move the ball through the air with Kaepernick spreading the ball around to a very talented and deep wide receiver group.
In the next two games versus the Eagles and Chiefs the 49ers showed they can still be a power running team, pushing the opposing defense around and dominating the time of possession battle. The issue here is that it seems that it’s either one or the other. Versus Arizona, Gore and Hyde only touched the ball 9 times and the passing game had it’s finest game of the season. Versus Philadelphia the 49ers ran the ball 40 times and the next week against KC they ran 42 times. In these two run heavy games the passing game was inconsistent. Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman need to find a way to marry the aerial and ground attacks into a truly multiple threat offense that keeps opposing defenses off balance.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio continues to make a case for being the best DC in the NFL. The defense is playing lights out despite missing several starters and a couple of all pro’s. The Chiefs had intital success playing to Alex Smith’s strength of throwing the ball underneath. KC also had success on the ground with Jamaal Charles running for 49 yards in the first half. Fangio and the defense eventually made adjustments in pass defense but the Chiefs seemed to get away from the run for no apparent reason. Charles opened up the second half with a 26 yard run, bringing his total to 75 yards on the day just barely into the 3rd quarter. After that Charles only the carried the ball three times for five yards. In several instances on third and short, KC chose to go with the pass instead of the run. It seemed as if during crunch time, Andy Reid preferred to have the ball in Smith’s hands and not in Charles’ hands. The 49ers defense dominated the Chiefs in the all important fourth quarter. The Chiefs only held the ball for a 1:44 and managed just 9 yards of offense in the quarter. The defense was only on the field for 50 plays all day and this proved to be huge in playing at a very high level late in the game. On the other hand, the Chiefs defense was on the field for a lot of the second half and completely wore down under the weight of the 49ers heavy running game and the 90 degree heat.
Several players are performing exceptionally on the defensive side, but a couple of stand outs are actually depth players who are getting a chance to shine. Aaron Lynch had another very good game, providing more pressure on the passer that the defense so desperately needs on the outside. According to Pro Football Focus Lynch’s overall game grade was a very impressive +2.2. He even posted a +1.3 versus the run, showing he can be a complete NFL defender down the line. Another “backup” on the defense who is playing way above expectations is Perrish Cox. Cox has been filling in for Tramaine Brock and I can’t imagine a scenario where Brock would be outperforming Cox. When opposing QB’s are targeting Cox, he is allowing a QB rating of just 25.7, second best amongst all cornerback’s in the NFL.
For the 49ers, four of the next five games are on the road. Since Jim Harbaugh took over the team in 2011 the 49ers have won 70 percent of their road games, the best record in the NFL. They face an under achieving Rams team before traveling to Denver to face the AFC champs. After that it’s week eight and a bye. In 2012 the Rams gave the 49ers fits. Depsite going to the Super Bowl, they never did beat the Rams that year. This is a perfect example that division games are always difficult, especially when played on the road. The five teams the 49ers have faced this year are a combined 19-9 and the schedule doesn’t get any easier. A division opponent followed by one of the best teams in the NFL, both on the road.