The San Francisco 49ers prevailed in what for all intents and purposes was a must win game in New Orleans last weekend. The importance of defeating the Saints was amplified by the 49ers loss the previous week to the almost always tough but almost always beatable St. Louis Rams. So if most experts felt the 49ers would split their first two games of the “second half”, then here we are. The concept of “each game is a season” that the 49ers have embraced is important over the next two weeks as the team faces two under achieving NFC East squads. First up is another trip across the country to New York.
Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh repeated a cycle fans have grown accustomed to when the team’s offense goes through periods of struggle. Whenever the 49ers roll out a game that becomes over reliant on the pass and they can’t move the ball, you can bet the next game will be about “getting back to basics” and Frank Gore will garner a ridiculous amount of carries. The Niners did just that versus the Saints as old faithful Gore carried the ball 23 times. The 49ers passed the ball 32 times and ran the ball 32 times, including a couple of Colin Kaepernick scrambles. An effective running game seemed to settle down the entire offensive side of the ball. The offensive line, particularly the left side of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati got back to what they do best, maul opposing front sevens in run blocking. Excelling at running the ball early in the game meant the Saints d-line had to think about more than rushing the passer. This made pass blocking easier for an o-line that had been embarrassed a week earlier. Giving Kaepernick more time to throw and a better pocket allowed him to get into a rhythm and hit on several excellent throws in the first half.
The running game is most obviously the key to success for the entire offense. This isn’t rocket surgery and should seem fairly obvious to even the most casual of fans. However, Harbaugh and Roman need to be reminded of this from time to time. Unfortunately it usually takes an embarrassing offensive display to refresh their memories. On Sunday with an establish the run mentality, the 49ers put 21 points in the board on the first half, more than the team had scored in their previous two games, not counting a touchdown that came in Gabbert-time vs Denver.
The Saints eventually adjusted to the 49ers run game, significantly slowing it down in the second half. Kaepernick was there to pick up the slack, but the wide receiver corps was most definitely not. Kaepernick only competed 14-32 passes, which looks pretty bad when briefly glanced at on an ESPN ticker. However, the wide outs combined to drop six passes, the most by any team this season. According to Pro Football Focus, 84 yards in offense was lost on these drops and that’s not even factoring in yards after the catch. If these numbers weren’t bad enough, four of the drops were on third down. These missed opportunities were absolute drive destroyers. Four of the drops were by Anquan Boldin, who as we’ve learned over the last two seasons, makes all of the tough catches. Again from PFF: Boldin’s four drops are twice as many as we have ever recorded from him before and only the fifth multiple-drop game from him since 2007. It’s virtually guaranteed we never see a repeat of Sunday’s mistakes from the veteran Boldin. The player who has accosted the real Michael Crabtree and is running around in his jersey is more of a concern. Crabtree used to be Kaepernick’s security blanket, to the point of ridiculousness. Now it seems like the QB and WR aren’t even close to being on the same page. Another former mainstay of the passing attack, Vernon Davis, has also gone MIA. While Vernon isn’t making the splash plays that we are accustomed to (i.e. 13 touchdown catches last season) he is at he very least proving to be an effective decoy, drawing attention from opposing d-backs and opening up passing lanes and one on one coverage for the wide receivers.
As for the other side of the ball, the defense performed remarkably well in one of the toughest places to play in the NFL against one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. Drew Brees and Sean Payton had led the Saints to 20 straight home victories coming into Sunday’s game. The Saints had averaged almost 34 points a game at home and the Niners defense held them to 24 in a game that went deep into overtime. The Saints had the lowest three and out percentage of any team in the NFL. On Sunday the 49ers forced four Saints three and outs in the first half alone. To do this with a unit missing multiple all pro’s is mind blowing. In overtime a pair of backups combined to ultimately win the game. Last year’s fifth round draft pick and third string defensive tackle Quinton Dial sacked Brees to force a 3rd and 15 situation deep in New Orleans territory. On the next play, Ahmad Brooks forced a fumble that was recovered by rookie 3rd round pick Chris Borland. These are lightly regarded players making huge impact plays to win a road game in overtime. This is another prime example of the superlative system that Vic Fangio is running in San Francisco.
On Sunday San Francisco’s second ranked defense will welcome back one of the league’s premier pass rushers, Aldon Smith. The secondary, which has been outstanding so far, will benefit from Smith’s return the most as his potential pressure on the opposing QB will make for a lot less time spent covering wide receivers. With cornerbacks Tramaine Brock in and out of the line up and Jimmie Ward now out for the season, the remaining DB’s need all the help they can get. A mixture of Smith, Brooks and Aaron Lynch should greatly improve a pass rush that has produced a decent amount of pressure but not a lot of sacks.
Sunday’s trip to New York to face the Giants has the makings of a relatively easy game for the 49ers. Unfortunately for them it seems as if there are very few easy games on this year’s schedule. Opening day vs the Cowboys was a fairly straight forward win. Other than that the 49ers have made their fans sweat out each and every week. Even week six’s two touchdown win in St Louis saw the 49ers struggle through a sluggish first half in which they immediately fell behind 14-0. A second cross country trip in as many weeks to face a team that features several solid skill position players on offense could be a tough matchup. The good news from the 49ers perspective is the 30th ranked Giants defense has allowed the most yards rushing in the NFL this season. New York is fresh off of a cross country trip themselves in which they travelled to Seattle and somehow managed to allow 350 yards on the ground. You would assume this would have been a large point of emphasis this week and the Giants will shore up their run defense at least a bit. Still, Gore and Carlos Hyde should have plenty of room to run, especially if they are the focal point of the offense as they were in New Orleans. This is the last game the 49ers will play outside of the pacific time zone for the rest of the regular season. A victory on Sunday followed by another potentially winnable home game vs Washington seemingly sets up the 49ers to make a strong run toward the post season. But as 49ers fans have learned during the 2014 season, nothing ever comes easy.