Apart from an extraordinary defensive effort headed by Ahmad Brooks in Week 11, the San Francisco 49ers did not even look like they belonged in the same stadium as the New Orleans Saints. Hats off to that stingy unit for keeping the Niners in this one for as long as they did—this one could’ve been over a lot sooner.
As far as the team’s issues and what doomed San Francisco at the end of the day, it was more of the same.
Offensively, the unit remained stagnant, and on top of which, injuries continued to corrode the roster. This deathly combination of a depleted roster and an offensive staff that is set in its ways looks like it will be the end of the 49ers in 2013.
Elements are changing around them, yet they’ve refused to adapt.
This is a true test for Jim Harbaugh and his staff, but there has been a failure to either recognize the problem or a failure to address it. Either way, the 49ers are slow-playing their way out of even a potential Wild Card spot. This is not the kind of showing that folks were expecting of the reigning conference champs.
While we’ve continued to make excuses—“they’ll get healthier, they can win out with the rest of their schedule”—things aren’t getting better.
With only six games left in the regular season, it might finally be time to address how real their chances are this year because at this point, time is running out and they’ve got more and more things working against them.
The Injury Bug Is Buzzing
Heading into this season, there were several notable injuries the 49ers were going to have to overcome. This isn’t some big surprise that crept up and bit the team, although it did get progressively worse, proving that this was just San Francisco’s year to fall victim to the injury bug.
Obviously the crippling losses were wideout Michael Crabtree and cornerback Chris Culliver; not to mention the Niners also had to wait on a good percentage of their most recent draft haul. This has made it tough to compete on a week-to-week basis, turning every game into a struggle.
This year, they’re missing stars and they haven’t had depth from recent drafts to make up for it. Subsequently, it has hurt the finished product on game day.
Outside of Eric Reid and Corey Lemonier, the 49ers have gotten zero help from their last two draft classes, which includes a total of 18 players.
In Week 2, the Niners lost Ian Williams, who had won the starting job at nose tackle.
After sustaining a broken ankle, Williams was then replaced with free-agent signee Glenn Dorsey, who has been banged up this season, missing reps at times. Rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton also sustained a foot fracture, which was a significant hit to a battered position group.
Star weapon Vernon Davis has also missed games, having been inactive for the loss versus the Indianapolis Colts and being forced to leave the loss to the Carolina Panthers early on. Eric Reid has been in the same boat, sustaining two concussions already in his young NFL career.
All-Pro linebacker and team captain Patrick Willis has also been out with hand and groin injuries.
The frequency of these injuries has been unrelenting.
San Francisco also went into this last game with Ray McDonald inactive with an ankle injury, counting on Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs to fill in at the starting left defensive tackle position. While those two performed well in spot duty, McDonald is the sixth defensive player and fifth intended starter the 49ers have had to play without this year.
And it gets worse…
In this past one, the trend continued as starting cornerback Tarell Brown was hit awkwardly under the pile and had to leave the game with what was diagnosed as a rib contusion. 49ers Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati also suffered a knee injury and had to leave the game, which could be two new huge losses for the team.
According to Mindi Bach of CSN Bay Area, Iupati was on crutches after the game with a knee brace on his left leg.
In terms of their roster and the resources that most believe they have, the 49ers are not operating at full efficiency. They’re hurt at key positions on both sides of the ball, which has had a widespread ripple effect. And again, the injuries seem to be accumulating each week.
Even their healthier players are on the mend.
These injuries are also long-lasting and when certain players do return, who knows how much they’ll be able to contribute. Also, will it be too little too late? So, when it comes to realistic expectations for this club, it seems appropriate to outline its present status as a whole.
The San Francisco 49ers can win a Super Bowl, but their B-squad can’t.
Offensive Play-Calling Is Atrocious
When it comes to a team’s shortcomings, play-calling can be a tough thing to criticize, largely because most are quick to point out the talent and execution. But frankly, it’s been San Francisco’s Achilles' heel in 2013. There is a lot more the coaching staff can be doing to put this team in a position to succeed.
In the team’s fourth loss of the season, these issues were as prevalent as ever.
Versus the Saints, San Francisco attempted seven throws and two runs in three three-and-outs to start the ball game. The ratio was only a sign of things to come, indicating the Niners had a faulty game plan from the get-go. They passed at inopportune times and ran for show, rather than scheming around it.
Situational football for them wasn’t much better either.
On one of the third-and-long attempts, the Niners had tight end Vernon Davis as a main read—one of two players the quarterback is actually connecting with this year—and his route was designed short of the line of scrimmage. It was basically a give-up play, of which we’ve seen of a few of.
Another third-down attempt was a deep shot to a covered Jon Baldwin, who has only had 28 yards this season. Not quite a high-percentage play.
For a majority of Sunday’s game, the 49ers third-down efficiency was at a less than 50 percent conversion rate, standing at 3-of-9 at one point late in the third quarter and 6-of-11 in the fourth (they finished 6-of-15). It was consistently bad during this game and has been throughout the season.
Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the 49ers’ 22 combined first downs in the past two games are the fewest in back-to-back games since 2010, which speaks to how poorly they’ve performed in that area. Their 348 combined yards in that time are also the worst since 2007.
As play-callers, head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have been substandard.
They have not been overly resourceful or creative with route designs, as they continually get away from what works in terms of their personnel. Making Kaepernick throw 30-plus times a game when the team does not have any wide receivers is not exactly a winning formula.
And when these problems persist and nothing gets fixed, you have to wonder where it ends.
Conservative Methodology Affecting the Finished Product
It’s been called conservative, lazy, arrogant and much more—but any way you cut it, it's clear that the 49ers conduct business a certain way.
By this we mean not taking full advantage of all their resources, which includes active game day players, players on the roster, draft picks (i.e., trade deadline) and the entirety of their playbook. Philosophically, this is a team that would like to position themselves for the long term, play things close to the vest and win by showing as little as possible.
While it worked in 2011 when nobody expected anything from the 49ers, as well as in a transitional year in 2012, it has become an issue in 2013 because the team has refused to tap its resources.
For starters, players like Tank Carradine and LaMichael James are second-rounders that were projected to impact this roster and play a role. However, for whatever reason, that fails to happen each and every week the Niners take the field. There really isn’t a very concrete answer for this either.
While Carradine is reportedly healthy, practicing and on the active roster, he has not been one of the 46 players on game day. Expected to debut versus Carolina, Carradine has been one of the notables on the inactives, listed as a healthy scratch for the two games he could’ve potentially returned for (both losses).
And it is a player that could’ve made a dent, too. Heading into the draft, the Florida State defensive end was built up to be a premier pass-rusher.
Then there is James, who has also battled the active/inactive list on game day, venting his frustrations to the coaching staff and to the public. While he has been active for the last two games, there has been no attempt by the staff to write in a defined role for him that differs from what they normally do.
It has been a plug-in-and-play type scenario, which does not allow James to flourish.
When it comes to going above and beyond to improve this roster, it is also worth noting that they passed on the chance to procure wide receiver Josh Gordon from the Cleveland Browns before the trade deadline.
While the team was praised for holding tight and not making a desperation move midseason, it seems they could’ve benefited from it.
In hindsight, the acquisition might’ve been the move to make because the 49ers could have easily afforded it, and most importantly, we’re seeing that it may be too little to late as far as getting legitimate contributions from the players returning from the injury lists.
With wide receiver Mario Manningham not having that instant impact, there is reason to believe that Michael Crabtree might not provide a spark either. At least not right away.
The offense did not look any different with the addition of Manningham, which could mean that the timetable for Crabtree to re-acclimate to the game is very real. It will be awfully difficult for San Francisco to accomplish anything this season with a 32nd-ranked passing offense that is showing no signs of improvement through 10 games.