49ers vs. Saints: Takeaways from San Francisco's 23-20 Loss to New Orleans
After dropping their fourth game of the season, and second in a row, it looks like the wave the San Francisco 49ers have been riding is about to crash into the beach.
Sure, this is a very good football team with no shortage of talent, but their issues are deep-seated. In fact, it is even more frightening that they possess the talent and have struggled in such fashion.
One could argue, that is a harder problem to fix.
Variables like Colin Kaepernick's game, the offensive play calling, ability to close games and the weekly injury report have all made this more of an internal problem that can't quite be solved overnight. You can't expect it to, either, seeing as how the elements that are correctable have not been addressed. It just isn't trending that way.
If you've been watching the games, it is clear that there has been no forward progress, but rather constant reminders of how handicapped this team truly is this year. After another gut-wrenching loss, here is what we can take away from the where this Niners team is at 11 weeks in.
Colin Kaepernick Doesn’t Look Good
Please, take this with a grain of salt.
Like we’ve discussed, there are plenty of things affecting the 49ers offense, from injuries to scheme-related issues to play calling.
However, talking about this season, there has been nothing about the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick that would inspire confidence.
Everything about this offense leaves spectators with their hearts in their throat.
When he drops back, it is not about how he is going to hurt the defense; it has come down to the simple hope of completing a pass or not turning it over. He has not responded on the field in an aggressive manner, capitalizing on his dual-threat ability. Kap looks downright hesitant.
Now, all of a sudden, the offense has regressed to franchise lows, sinking down to the level of the mid 2000-decade 49ers team. The killer instinct he brought last year that sparked this unit has simply fizzled out in 2013.
Kaepernick was the attacker, but now he looks like the most vulnerable player in the NFL.
It appears to me that Colin Kaepernick doesn't have a lot of dynamic playmakers and is too reluctant to use his own unique running ability— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) November 17, 2013
And behind his non-threatening aura, the productivity level dropped off the proverbial cliff. In the last two games, he has had a 42.0 and 72.9 QB rating, tossing two interceptions in back-to-back losses. He has also only thrown nine touchdowns in 10 games played in 2013.
His 1,675 passing yards are also the worst in the NFL for quarterbacks that have started every game this season.
ESPN: Kaepernick has 96.9 QBR vs. teams with losing record and a 38.8 QBR vs. teams .500 or better.— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 18, 2013
Checking Up on Eric Mangini
This is not to direct blame toward Eric Mangini, the former head coach that is now an offensive consultant for the 49ers. It is more about providing further awareness of the variables that changed offensively from 2012 to 2013. Hiring the Belichick disciple certainly counts.
While he does not supersede Jim Harbaugh or Greg Roman in any one area, Mangini was brought in to improve the efficiency of San Francisco’s offense and it is having its worst season under the new regime. Situationally, the team is as bad as ever and there has been a failure to integrate role players.
Also responsible for scouting opponent tendencies, it does not appear that Mangini has helped to provide the offense with new opportunities to attack defenses. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the offensive consultant has provided input on game day, which has led to less-than-stellar results:
Jim Harbaugh said he talked to Eric Mangini on the headsets before the two first-half challenges.— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) November 18, 2013
Bottom line, if Eric Mangini has any sort of positive influence on this club, it is hard to tell what that is.
An Offense in Shambles
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is public enemy No. 1 in San Francisco.
While he had detractors in his first two years, they’re not hiding anymore. People want answers, they want change and that isn’t happening. Zero attempts have been made to modify the approach in a trying time where the 49ers are weapon-deficient on that side of the ball.
They haven’t played to their strengths or revisited their offensive concepts.
They’ve got three talented running backs, the most bruising offensive line in football and no wide receivers, yet the 49ers are trying to challenge teams vertically instead of breaking up 35-40 carries between Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. It is a bona fide identity crisis.
The variable change—from injuries to a full season with Kaepernick—have only underlined Roman’s inadequacies as an offensive coordinator. This season more than ever, the 49ers play caller seems inept in one of his main functions as the team’s OC, which involves game planning and orchestrating drives.
Truth be told, for all his talents as a run designer, Roman is not a terrific play caller and appears to have a serious lack of knowhow when it comes to striking up a rhythmic passing attack. National columnist Matt Miller perfectly identified the 49ers’ problems in just a few short sentences:
There is no shortage of talent, but rather a shortage in terms of marrying the play-calling with the personnel. Until the 49ers become a run-first team again, they won't be a serious threat.
Frank Gore, Forgotten Again
In the team's four losses on the season, Frank Gore finished with carry totals of 9, 11, 16 and 13 (his four lowest of the year).
In their six wins? Well, the 49ers star running back averaged 21.0 attempts, while rushing for 521 yards and seven touchdowns in those games.
Getting one of the league's top rushers carries seems like a simple enough concept, especially when there is such an obvious correlation to wins and losses, yet it is forgotten time and time again.
Even though it costs the 49ers games and the team doesn't have an adequate weapons to survive by passing the ball, they still don't keep Gore on some sort of pitch count. Statistically, he is having his best season since 2006, when he was an eager 23-year-old that rumbled for 2,180 yards from scrimmage.
Now, coach Harbaugh and Co. philosophize their offense on merit and "the hot hand," yet, not giving Frank Gore 20-plus touches each game this season directly opposes that thought process.
Not only is he the most deserving player when it comes to getting touches, but he is clearly in a groove this year. San Francisco is not doing itself any favors by not planning around Gore. Every time the he is secondary in the team's game plan, they lose.
49ers Defense Is All Alone, but Stepping Up
Hey, it’s not like the 49ers defense has been without its obstacles either, but they’ve hurdled them nicely.
Despite losing cornerback Chris Culliver prior to the season and then starting nose tackle Ian Williams not long after, and not having linebacker Aldon Smith for five games, San Francisco’s unit has continued to play exceptional ball. Most teams could not endure the loss of three flagship players.
These three were talented and critical to the team’s defensive scheme.
But as a whole, they’ve persevered, even with losing Patrick Willis (groin), Glenn Dorsey (hamstring), Ray McDonald (anke) and Tarell Brown (ribs) for periods of time, too.
They just keep chugging along, knocking quarterbacks in the jaw and keeping their team in games for as long as possible. New faces are answering the call to duty and the seasoned vets around them have stepped it, going outside the bounds of their own game.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks are two players that deserve much of the credit, in particular.
San Francisco’s hard-charging front seven has been a hellacious ball of fire in 2013, and it’s been these two on opposite sides providing the fuel week in and week out. Two healthy vets, Smith and Brooks have easily been the most disruptive players in up in the box, affecting both the run and the pass.
Not only do they impact all plays and make the tackles, but they also free up opportunities for a lot of other guys.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock and free safety Eric Reid are two more up-and-comers that have put their fingerprint on this year’s defense. With a secondary in flux, having experienced significant changeover from last season, the performance from these two has been very encouraging.
Even though they are the newer players to be featured, you could argue that they’ve been the most valuable members of the secondary.
NASCAR Package Debuts
With the way the 49ers approached the draft, particularly this last one, the brain trust seemed intent on boosting the pass rush.
General manager Trent Baalke acquired several sack specialists at two positions they tend to hit on, which is outside linebacker and defensive line. This really deepened those two groups, allowing the 49ers to trade away Parys Haralson and Cam Johnson before the start of the regular season.
Drafting players that excel at getting after the passer in early rounds—adding to what they already had in place—would seem to signify that the coaches had planned to toy with the scheme a bit. They simply have too many defensive weapons.
One way we talked about at Bleacher Report was the potential integration of the renowned NASCAR package, which is a personnel grouping that the New York Giants have used over the years. Ultimately, it helped slingshot them to two Super Bowl wins.
Essentially they put multiple pass rushers on the field at a time on obvious passing downs to harass the quarterback.
The Niners can now do this with Corey Lemonier, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and eventually Tank Carradine, once he’s regularly active. Better yet, the 49ers have Justin Smith to absorb the protection and allow these guys to run free. It is about creating favorable matchups, defensively.
On Sunday, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio finally got his feet wet:
#49ers had a three-OLB formation on that play: Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Corey Lemonier— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) November 17, 2013
This could be a sign of things to come.
Clearly the 49ers realize what they have in those three players, and by utilizing them together, they could get a heck of a lot better defending the pass, particularly on third down.
Injuries Persist for the 49ers
Akin to the black cats on Friday the 13th, or even the Madden curse, the injury bug is just flat-out eerie.
Nevertheless, it seems to be real, showing up to derail San Francisco’s prospects of making a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
Now, they’ve lost plenty of marquee players already, but the week-to-week injuries has arguably been more difficult to overcome, largely because the 49ers are already shorthanded and have to adjust midweek.
After entering the game with Ray McDonald on the inactive list with an ankle injury, the Niners proceeded to lose two more starters in cornerback Tarell Brown and left guard Mike Iupati before this one was wrapped up.
Each were hit awkwardly under piles, resulting in a rib contusion for Brown and a knee injury for Iupati.
The severities of both are uncertain at this point, but it essentially caused them to miss a game already. We also know that Iupati, the team’s Pro Bowl guard, was on crutches following the game with his knee wrapped and in a brace, via Mindi Bach of CSN Bay Area.
Tarell Brown and Mike Iupati are integral pieces on both sides of the ball, which would make for two more serious losses if they miss any time at all. San Francisco just can’t seem to get out of games unscathed.
Playoffs in Danger
As far-fetched as it may have seemed prior to the season, the reigning division champion 49ers are much closer to third place in the NFC West than they are first. Looking at it, it has been quite the fall from grace this season, as San Francisco is just two games away from being a .500 team.
It is even more surprising given the prestige of this new-look team under the Harbaugh regime.
The Niners had not lost back-to-back games in 2011 and 2012, yet it has happened twice this season. Overall, it has just been an uncharacteristic, unreliable team that has greatly failed to live up to expectations.
After this past weekend, the Arizona Cardinals finally closed the gap, tying them for second in the West at 6-4. I’ll give you a moment to read that sentence over again.
With this being the case, the 49ers are a Wild Card team at best, and actually in danger of missing the postseason. At this point, anything can happen. Why can’t the Cardinals leapfrog them at some point? The Niners offense is not improving and they still have to host Seattle and travel to Arizona.
Kaepernick: "We have six more to go. We can still finish 12-4."— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) November 18, 2013