Thursday, September 19, 2013

49ers in Trouble? Maybe

What the hell happened?

That's what San Francisco 49er fans are still muttering in the wake of Sunday night's battering, on national TV, by the Seattle Seahawks, 29-3. After all, the Niners are the favorites to be the NFC's representative in the Super Bowl. They looked like a shoo-in after whipping another NFC power, the Green Bay Packers, the previous week. But after Sunday night? Losing a close game when you play well is one thing, but.losing by nearly four touchdowns, while scorning none yourself, is something else entirely.

Should Niner fans be in panic mode? Maybe, but wait a week or two before pushing that button.

Consider this. The odds were against the Niners winning that game anyway. They were 3-4-point underdogs for good reason. First of all, opponents just don't win in Seattle, which has the loudest fan base in the league, aided by a stadium structured to amplify sound. It's the grandaddy of all hostile environments. No matter how teams prepare for it, they get rattled by the noise, which really has an effect, after the constant assault, later in games. That's partly why the Seahawks didn't lose a home game last year and why the Niners were in a hole before they even started. If the Seahawks ever got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, they'd stroll to the Super Bowl.

Despite the score, Sunday night's game was close for nearly three quarters. Then the Seahawks pulled away, thanks to the Niners turning into knuckleheads and gift-wrapping TDs. Stupid, untimely penalties and silly turnovers undid the 49ers. Make no mistake, Seattle is a very good team, but that score is misleading. The Seahawks piled up points on short-field TDs following turnovers. Whenever the 49er offense looked like it was set to shift into third gear, it would grind to a halt due to a dumb penalty.

The stats tell the story. Seattle gained only 290 yards of total offense. That hardly spells rout. QB Russell Wilson was an unimpressive 8 for19 for 118 yards. Seattle smartly fed off Niner errors and cruised to victory.

The Niners, however, do have a potential problem--the running game. It's slowed to a crawl, at just 95 yards a game, this season.The foremost ball-carrier, Frank Gore, has gained a measly 60 yards in 30 attempts in two games--a pitiful two yards per carry. In Seattle he was buried, netting just 16 yards in 9 tries. Embarrassing results for a team boasting an offensive line that's among the top five in the NFL.

What gives?

Normally the Niners, No.4 last season, are among the league's best rushing teams. The ground game is really the heart of the offense. Opponents' fear of the run propels the Niner passing game. Green Bay focused on stopping the 49er' running and did slow it down. But Niner QB Colin Kaepernick had a career day, helped by 13 catches by Anquan Boldin.

But it was different in Seattle. The Seahawks but a safety on the line to help bottle up the running game. But they have such excellent cornerbacks, they're OK with a short-handed secondary. Boldin, with one catch for seven yards, was a non-factor. So was Kaepernick, with a 20.1 passer rating for the game, the worst of his career.

If the 49er run game returns to normal, the Seattle loss is no cause for alarm. But it's up to the O-line and, most of all, Gore. Is he just off to a slow start because he didn't get much work in the pre-season or is he on a sudden downhill slide due to wear-and-tear?

Sunday's home game against the Indianapolis Colts is important. A playoff team, featuring QB Andrew Luck and brand-new addition, tough RB Trent Richardson, the Colts are no pushovers. But they do have one of the worst run defenses in the league. If the Niners, 101/2-point favorites, win, most likely the run game finally awakened, and 49er fans can relax.

But if they lose, against a bad rushing defense, and the run game is still stuck in the mud?

Then, Niner fans, feel free to panic.