Wednesday, September 25, 2013

49ers' Mess--How They Can Clean It Up

Let's ask again. Are the 49ers in trouble?

Last week I said maybe. This week, the answer is yes. There is, Niner fans, cause for concern.

First of all, the offense is mired in mud. It showed flashes of greatness in the opening week Green Bay win, with QB Colin Kaepernick passing for over 400 yards. But it's been downhill ever since, with maulings by Seattle and Indianapolis by an embarrassing total of  56-10. The Niners have scored just one TD in two weeks. Kaepernick's passing totals during this skid--277 yards, one TD, three picks and a 23rd place team-passing ranking.

This is not the same team that rampaged through the last post season, nearly winning the Super Bowl--seemingly ready to dominate the NFC for the next few years. Those steam-rolling offensive and defensive lines were second to none. Nobody pushed them around. But this season, they're not playing with the same focus and fire. The D-line got manhandled Sunday by a patch-work, no-name Colts O-line. The Niners' run defense, shockingly, is one of the worst in the league--ranked 29th.

The main problem, though, is the offense, specifically the woeful wide-receiving corps. Against the Colts, this hapless trio had a grand total of two catches for 12 yards. When Kaepernick,  a battering-ram runner, is at his best, defenses have to worry about him connecting with wide receivers. Lately, though, the deep threat has been MIA, allowing defenses to play close to the line, clogging the lanes, hampering.both the run and the short passing game. Too often recently, Kaepernick has had time to throw but had no open receivers. With no deep threats to worry about, secondaries can target mid-range-receiving expert Anquan Boldin.

One real problem. In the last two weeks, the offense has badly lost the time-of-possession battle, with an endless parade of three-and-outs. Both games were lost by fourth-quarter offensive collapses, which made the defense look worse than it is. When the offense is dragging, this puts pressure on the defense, which has been breaking down late in games.

Last Sunday the Niners sorely missed pass-rusher Aldon Smith. He was there but he really wasn't. His head, clouded by that recent DUI scandal and its looming consequences, was clearly elsewhere..Normally, facing that inferior Colt bunch, he would have been in King-Kong mode and had QB Andrew Luck running for his life. But Luck, all cozy and comfy in the pocket, generally did as he pleased.

The Niners play a division rival, the St. Louis Rams, on Thursday. You can bet the Ram coaches are pouring over films of the last two games, getting tips on how to foil the Niners.

But all is not lost. SF coach Jim Harbaugh is no dummy. He can see what the Niners need. The obvious answer is to return to smash-mouth football, the non-nonsense style he imported from Stanford a few years ago  He installed the flashy, tricky zone-read offensive schemes, suited to Kaepernick's assorted skills, but defenses don't seem to be fooled by them any more.

But this is no time for such trickery. What makes sense is a return to fundamentals. Without deep threats, the Niners have to play for short gains, hope to pile up first downs, maintain ball-control and not put the defense in jeopardy. One bright spot: the running-game did show signs of life against the Colts. The Niners have to go back to being a low-scoring, run-first, murderous-defense unit.

On Thursday, the Niners have to play like their season is on the line--and it really is. The Rams aren't very good but they always play the 49ers tough. This game won't be easy for the Niners because they'll be without at least one key player--pass-rusher Smith--and likely three more--LB Patrick Willis, CB Nnamdi Asomugha  and TE/deep threat Vernon Davis.

A loss Thursday to a so-so team, a three-game losing streak and a 1-3 record trailing red-hot Seattle--this cluster of negatives adds up to a detour down that dreaded lane labeled OUT OF THE PLAYOFFS.