Saturday, January 21, 2012

Giants-49ers NFC Title Game Preview

Lets dispense with all the flowery intros and the honeyed words of praise and get right to the meat-and-potatoes.

The 49ers run offense against the Giants run defense: The Giants had a pedestrian run defense during the regular season, finishing 19th in both yards allowed and in’s DVOA metric. They allowed 4.5 yards-per-carry, which was 23rd, and only six clubs gave up more than the 15 rushing touchdowns they allowed. It’s been more of the same in the playoffs. They allowed only 64 rushing yards (and just 3.0 yards-per-carry) against Atlanta, but then 147 and 6.4 yards-per-carry to Green Bay. Obviously those numbers were skewed by Aaron Rodgers’ scrambles (seven carries for 64 yards), but Ryan Grant and James Starks, two ordinary backs, combined for 14 carries and 74 yards of their own.

There were extenuating circumstances for the Giants inconsistent performances. They had a lot of injuries at linebacker and along the defensive line during the regular season, and against Green Bay they were more preoccupied with stopping the pass, so they were willing to concede some yardage to the backs. The performance that stands out is their game against Atlanta, particularly how they stopped the Falcons in short-yardage situations. Also, they did a fine job against the 49ers in their regular season meeting, but Frank Gore was dinged up in that game and the Giants went to great lengths (to their great detriment as it turned out) to stop run, committing eight or nine defenders into the box.

I don’t expect the Giants to be as emphatic in stopping Gore and Kendall Hunter this time around, but with a healthier starting lineup, they won’t have to be. Both of the 49ers runners are built to slide through small cracks, and if the 49ers stay with the run they should have some success, particularly in wet, sloppy weather. The real secret weapon to watch though will be Alex Smith. He’s not quite as instinctive of a runner as Rodgers is, but he showed last week against the Saints that he can scoot pretty fast when he gets to top gear. The Giants only rush four and like to drop seven into coverage, so there will be lanes for Smith to take off up the gut as the pocket collapses around him. It really wouldn’t surprise me to see Smith run for 40-50 yards in the game and to pick up a couple of crucial first downs doing so.

The 49ers pass offense against the Giants pass defense:
Contrary to popular perception, the 49ers were a more efficient passing offense (12th) than rushing offense (24th), at least according to Football Outsiders. Obviously they weren’t as prolific as the Green Bays, New Orleanses and New Englands of the world, but they hardly ever turned it over and Smith’s yards-per-attempt number wasn’t too shabby. The best explanation for that is the effectiveness of the 49ers play-action game, where they get defenses to consistently bite on their run fakes because people respect them as a running team.

Corey Webster is one of the better corners in the league, but there’s a wide gap between him and the team’s other corners. Prince Amukamara has potential, but he’s a rookie. Aaron Ross thinks he’s far better than he actually is. Will Blackmon and Michael Coe are ordinary. As with most teams (and certainly the 49ers) the Giants secondary plays much better when they’re getting a steady pass rush. If people have time to pass, these guys have gotten carved up. The Giants have had a number of season-ending injuries in their secondary, particularly at safety and have had to make do with people like Deon Grant back there.

It’s very unlikely that Vernon Davis will be rampaging through the Giants defensive backfield with only a lone defender on him, as was the case against New Orleans. He’ll see plenty of coverage. Webster will do his best to eliminate Crabtree, who was quiet last week and also against the Giants in the first go around.

With Ted Ginn (knee) sidelined and Braylon Edwards no longer on the roster, the 49ers will need a couple of unsung heroes to move the ball consistently against New York. The best candidate is Kyle Williams, who’s a quick guy with good hands, and backup tight end Delanie Walker, who’s been out since fracturing his jaw on Dec. 24. Walker has practiced all week (albeit on a limited basis) and he presents the biggest mismatch against the Giants, who only have one linebacker – Michael Boley – who’s decent in coverage. Walker had a season-high six receptions against them in the first meeting, and he’s a versatile guy who can line up in a number of spots along the formation to confuse the defense. He’s improved his run blocking this season, so there won’t be any tendencies for the Giants to key on, and he can really take advantage in those aforementioned play-action passes.

Of course, the real key to the passing game will be in the trenches. The Giants were tied-for-third in the league with 48 sacks, while only six teams gave up more than the 44 the 49ers allowed. New York’s total is even more impressive considering that they’re not a big blitzing team and that ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, who are both healthy now, weren’t so for much of the year. Smith has taken plenty of sacks against opposing blitzes, but he’s been very effective throwing against them too, to the tune of a 96.8 passer rating, third in the NFL.

The 49ers have been generally good at home in pass blocking, allowing 13 sacks in eight games, and 10 of those came in two games. The Giants only got two on them in the previous game, and I think Jim Harbaugh and Co. would gladly settle for that number if it was offered to him before the game (as long as he was promised there’d be no injuries or fumbles). Again, the Giants generally rush four, but that forces opposing quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer in search of open receivers. They also rotate their linemen throughout the game, attacking the offensive line with wave after wave of talented pass rushers. Anthony Davis on the right side in particular will have his hands full with Jason Pierre-Paul, an Aldon Smith clone who had 16.5 sacks during the year, and Umenyiora, who had two sacks and a forced fumble of Rodgers last week.

The 49ers run defense against the Giants run offense:
I won’t waste your time too much with this one. No one outside of the Seattle Seahawks late in the season has been able to run the ball all that well against the 49ers, and Patrick Willis missed that game with a strained hamstring. He’s back healthy now, and with tag-team partner NaVorro Bowman alongside of him, hard-hitting safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, and interior linemen Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga all helping out, it’s unlikely to see the Giants being too productive on the ground against the 49ers, even with Ahmad Bradshaw back in the lineup. Sure, Bradshaw is more explosive and laterally-quick than bruising back Brandon Jacobs, but the 49ers have shut down better backs than him this year. The Giants are running better now after finishing dead last in that department during the regular season, and they may well benefit from the mud and the slop at Candlestick Park, but overall it’s hard not to give the 49ers a decided edge when it comes to the running game.

The 49ers pass defense against the Giants pass offense:
This is the area that I believe will decide the game. The Niners simply can’t depend on getting turnovers to bail themselves out of bad situations. They can’t allow 435 passing yards again, like they did to the Saints last week. Really, they can’t even give up 302 yards, which is what Eli Manning and Co. got in the first game against them. It’s just going to be too unrealistic to ask the 49ers offense to prevail in a shootout in back-to-back games.

On one hand, covering the Giants receivers should easier than last week’s opponent, where checking Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles was mission impossible. Instead, the Giants will have Jake Ballard at tight end, who’s a big guy with good hands but not someone who’s going to outrun Willis, and Bradshaw and Danny Ware as their best pass-catching weapons out of the backfield. They’re pretty slick, but they’re not Sproles. Backup tight end Travis Beckum is an athletic guy and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s used in the game plan.

On the other hand, while the Saints only had one top wideout in Marques Colston, the Giants present three, with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Nicks has had a monster playoffs so far, with 13 receptions for 280 yards and four touchdowns the past two weeks. He’s a big guy who runs better than you’d think and is tremendous at shedding tackles. Manningham is more of a possession receiver who has been slowed by injury, but he too has deceptive speed. Cruz is most comfortable in the slot, but he’s their top playmaker, setting a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards this year, which was third-best in the league.

In nickel situations the guess would be that Carlos Rogers will be responsible for Cruz one-on-one, while Goldson and Whitner will each help double-team Nicks and Manningham on the outside. Perhaps one of the safeties will sometimes double Cruz and single Manningham and vice-versa. Nicks is the guy who always needs to have two defensive backs on him though, and Willis and Bowman must be trusted to win their individual match-ups against the tight ends and the running backs.
Manning burned the 49ers on the few occasions they dared to blitz, so expect a lot of the standard four-man rush from San Francisco. Giants left tackle David Diehl hasn’t had his best season, so rookie Aldon Smith may well have an advantage there, though he’ll likely be chipped by a tight end or a back. Against the quick-passing Manning, as was the case with Brees, the crucial thing will be to disrupt his timing and get him off his spot, which means getting a strong rush up the gut. Justin Smith will face-off against Giants left guard Kevin Boothe, who allowed only one sack all season.

Ultimately, I like the 49ers to pull this one out 23-17 even if many of the match-ups aren’t in their favor. I think the Giants played an absolute “A+” game for them last week at Green Bay, and it’s just too difficult, in any sport, for a team to duplicate that kind of performance in consecutive road playoff games. I think the 49ers are built to be a “mudder” team, that the weather will suit them, and that they play with far more confidence on both sides of the ball at home than they do on the road. All the usual things will come into play: Turnovers, third downs and the red zone, but the 49ers have been less mistake prone than their foes at home all season. They’re going to play their game, not make mistakes, and make people beat them the hard way, with long drives.

I’m looking for the defense to rebound after an average-at-best game last week. Having faced Brees was good practice for the secondary and the pass rush, and it will be less jarring to face another elite quarterback the next week. Offensively they’ll put a couple of drives together, take advantage of good field position when they get it, and look absolutely horrid at times before punting it away. In the end Smith will connect with Davis, Walker, and maybe even Hunter, on some big plays and create a couple more with his legs. Akers is good for at least three field goals.

In a fitting ending, the Giants will have the ball down six and at midfield for one last Manning Hail Mary attempt. “Where have I seen this before?” Harbaugh will ask himself, but Rogers will knock the ball out of bounds and the 49ers will be Super Bowl bound.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Silence of the Rams, Week 17 Picks and Power Poll

Sunday's game at St. Louis should be fascinating in that absolutely nobody in the building -- except the 100 or so gentlemen on the Rams' sideline -- would be happy if home team pulled the upset. Those Rams fans can taste the No. 1 pick. It's close, so tantalizingly close. All they need is for the upstart Colts to hand it to shellshocked rookie Blaine Gabbert and the lifeless Jaguars, while their guys keep doing what they've been doing, which is a whole lot of nothing. With the No. 1 pick the Rams can start over with Andrew Luck and try to trade Sam Bradford, or, more likely, they can make a go of it with Bradford a little longer and ransom the pick to get him some help along the offensive line and at receiver.

All we know for sure is that Bradford will have little control of his own fate, since once again he will be a spectator against the 49ers, just like he was in these teams' first meeting on Dec. 4 at Candlestick Park, when the Niners eked out a 26-0 win over A.J. Feeley. The fellas messed up Feeley's hand but good late in that ball game, so now they get Kellen Clemens. Yes, that one. I know, I'm surprised he's still alive too.

The rest of the Rams offense is pretty blah. Their offensive line is a battered patchwork mess, the kind of line that makes their counterparts in San Francisco look like the 90's Cowboys. Tony Wragge is starting at center for them these days, and while Wragge was a nice guy in my dealings with him, he's not an NFL starter. Steven Jackson you know about. He talks a good game, he seems earnest, but for power backs in the league he's a cut below the Adrian Peterson/Marshawn Lynch class and more at the Brandon Jacobs/LaGerrette Blount level. Their lone offensive threat is Brandon Lloyd, who would look mighty good on the Niners these days.

On the other side of the ball, the Rams front four is feisty enough, particularly Chris Long, who has 13 sacks and made Anthony Davis look awful the last time out. However, the Rams like to sell out with that pass rush and make themselves quite vulnerable to the run. Also, their corners are s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w, to the point where even 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who makes every upcoming opponent sound like the '85 Bears in his weekly soliloquies, admitted that they "have some depth issues at corner." The Titanic had depth issues. The Rams secondary blows.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, they will likely be testing that secondary with the likes of Brett Swain and Joe Hastings since Kyle Williams (concussion) and Ted Ginn (ankle) will likely be out. The 49ers passing game will look like something out of the MAC. Well, even more so.

Despite those limitations, I expect Jim Harbaugh to man the torpedoes early in an effort to get a quick jump on these guys. The sooner they can get the Rams to wave the white flag -- which they'll be all-too-willing to do despite their declarations to win one for the gipper -- the sooner Harbaugh can put his backups in and look forward to the Saints in two weeks. Larry Grant likely won't start because Patrick Willis will return to the lineup, but I predict he'll see plenty of playing time against his old mates in the second half.

If Colin Kaepernick doesn't see the field, something will have gone disastrously wrong.

Detroit at Green Bay (+3):
The 14-1 Packers are three point underdogs at home. You think the Vegas sharps have an idea about how much their starters are gonna play on Sunday? Like a lemming, I'm gonna follow (and be grateful my opponent in the fantasy league Super Bowl can't start Aaron Rodgers). Lions 26, Packers 20

San Francisco at St. Louis (+11):
I don't respect the Rams much and Kellen Clemens even less, but 11 points on the road is a lot, especially for a 49ers club that struggles in the red zone, struggles on third downs, and will be missing receivers Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn. 49ers 16, Rams 7

NY Jets at Miami (-3):
Reggie Bush isn't starting for the Dolphins, and the pathetic Jets still have faint playoff hopes. Watch them make it due to a ridiculous set of circumstances and then pull off two road upsets. Jets 20, Dolphins 13

Chicago at Minnesota (-1):
Now here's a compelling ball game... Vikings 23, Bears 13

Buffalo at New England (-11):
The Patriots need a win to wrap up home field and Tom Brady will be looking to avenge that four pick game against these guys the last time out. Good enough for me. Patriots 34, Bills 17

Carolina at New Orleans (-8):
Saints coach Sean Payton will have his spies watching the 49ers-Rams game, looking for the first sign of the Rams waving the white flag. He will then promptly pull Drew Brees and Co., allowing Cam Newton to pull out a phony comeback. Panthers 30, Saints 24

Washington at Philadelphia (-9):
You don't know how sick I am about correctly predicting that the Eagles would finish 8-8 after starting 4-8. Thanks a pantsful, Andy, who needs better draft picks? Aaaargh. Eagles 27, Redskins 17

Indianapolis at Jacksonville (-4):
I can't believe the Jags are favored in this game. It really blows my mind. Has anyone been watching these two teams lately? Colts 17, Jaguars 13

Tennessee at Houston (-3):
The Titans still have faint playoff hopes, while the Texans have the sobering realization that they're playing with a third-string quarterback and that they're gonna be drubbed by Pittsburgh next week. Titans 20, Texans 13

Tampa Bay at Atlanta (-12):
I think I would've taken the Falcons at -20. So bet the house on the Bucs. Falcons 31, Buccaneers 10.

Baltimore at Cincinnati (+3):
The Ravens have been pretty crummy on the road, but they need this game to hold on to the second seed. The Bengals, who struggled mightily to sell out this bad boy, would get into the playoff with a win. My (fictional) money's on Ray Rice, the best player on the field. Ravens 24, Bengals 17

Pittsburgh at Cleveland (+8):
I think Ben Roethlisberger starts, but this is another one of those deals, like the Saints game, where the second Mike Tomlin gets an inkling that the Ravens will win, he'll pull his guy. Seneca Wallace has been spunky for the Browns. Steelers 17, Browns 16

Kansas City at Denver (-4):
Kyle Orton playing spoiler vs. his former team. O the intrigue. I think the Broncos defense steps up at home and Tim Tebow makes just enough plays to pull it out, but no I am not expecting a beauty here. Broncos 16, Chiefs 13

San Diego at Oakland (-3):
I'm probably way off, but I'm expecting a spirited effort from the Raiders in this one, fully determined to not let the Broncos backdoor their way into a division title. They'll have a big day running the ball with... whoever is healthy enough to be their back these days. Raiders 27, Chargers 17

Seattle at Arizona (-3):
The Seahawks are playing well, but it's tough to pick against the Cards at home these days. Cardinals 23, Seahawks 16

Dallas at NY Giants (-3):
The Giants are usually at their best when backed into a corner, while the Cowboys are at their worst. Dallas had one of these faux-Week 17 playoff games at Philly in 2008 and got throttled. Have I mentioned I don't like Dallas? Giants 30, Cowboys 24

Power Poll:

1. Green Bay (14-1)
2. New Orleans (12-3)
3. San Francisco (12-3)
4. New England (12-3)
5. Baltimore (11-4)
6. Pittsburgh (11-4)
7. Philadelphia (7-8)
8. Detroit (10-5)
9. Cincinnati (9-6)
10. New York Giants (8-7)
11. Atlanta (9-6)
12. Dallas (8-7)
13. Houston (10-5)
14. Denver (8-7)
15. Oakland (8-7)
16. New York Jets (8-7)
17. Tennessee (8-7)
18. San Diego (7-8)
19. Seattle (7-8)
20. Arizona (7-8)
21. Carolina (6-9)
22. Buffalo (6-9)
23. Miami (5-10)
24. Kansas City (6-9)
25. Chicago (7-8)
26. Washington (5-10)
27. Cleveland (4-11)
28. Indianapolis (2-13)
29. Jacksonville (4-11)
30. Minnesota (3-12)
31. St. Louis (2-13)
32. Tampa Bay (4-11)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Actions Speak Louder Than Words With Harbaugh

The New Orleans Saints have been playing like the best team in the NFL for nearly two months, particularly on offense. They're virtually unbeatable at home and have been breathing down the 49ers' necks for that two seed and the first round playoff bye. The Niners, after their disappointing loss at Arizona two weeks ago, had no margin of error if they intended to hold their ground and avoid the ominous fate of having to travel to face a rested Saints team in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Well, all credit to them they've (very nearly) done it, winning twice in a six day span, first at home on "Monday Night Football" and then, more impressively, on Saturday afternoon against a red-hot Seattle team that threw the kitchen sink at them, "ambush-style" to quote 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Seahawks scored an opening drive touchdown, a feat no one else has managed on the 49ers all season, and did so by surprising the 49ers by having quarterback Tarvaris Jackson throwing a bunch of quick, short passes rather than trying to pound Marshawn Lynch early, as expected. At first it seemed like the Seahawks, like many 49ers opponents this season, were intimidated by that San Francisco front seven, but that notion was quickly erased as they pounded Lynch plenty -- and effectively so -- for the rest of the first half, to the tune of 83 yards, 12 over what the Niners allowed per game up to that point, by intermission.

The 49ers offense, meanwhile, were running well in their own right, with Gore bulling his way in between the tackles and rookie Kendall Hunter getting more playing time than in past weeks and slashing very well. It was certainly a surpise to see either of these stout run defenses getting gashed the way they were, but the score was only 10-3 at half as both quarterbacks were struggling to convert third downs. Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, in particular, were doing Alex Smith no favors.

Lo and behold, Smith came out firing in the second half and completed 4-of-4 passes for 64 yards, including a critical 4-and-2 conversion to Davis on a toe-tapping sideline grab. Gore tied the game on a powerful 5-yard run and the Niners seized momentum. However, after the defense forced a three-and-out, Harbaugh called only two pass plays out of eight on the subsequent drive, with Smith scrambling for a first down on one of those two. On 3rd-and-Goal from the 13, they called a draw to Hunter and the team settled for a field goal.

Another three-and-out by the defense, another eight play drive by the offense, and again, only two of those were pass attempts by Smith, with one of those being a 3rd-and-9 from the 26. Incomplete, and again the Niners kicked the field goal. 16-10.

Smith did pass three times on the next drive, but two of those were on 2nd-and-12 and 3rd-and-9. Andy Lee got his punt blocked and the 49ers trailed 17-16. Now it gets interesting.

On 2nd-and-18 from his own 31, Smith completed a 41-yard pass down the sideline to Crabtree to get the Niners to the Seahawks' 28. There was 5:51 left in the game at the start of the play. It would be Smith's last pass attempt of the game. Three runs went nowhere and Akers booted a field goal to make it 19-17 with 2:57. After the game Harbaugh said the team always goes for touchdowns, not field goals. A couple of days after that he said any suggestions that Crabtree pushed off prior to making the catch were "a bunch of baloney."

Well, I say his answer about going for touchdowns is a bunch of baloney.

We've seen this kind of conservative thinking a number of times from Harbaugh. Against Dallas he opted to keep the points on the scoreboard after a Cowboys penalty on an Akers field goal. Instead of having first-and-10 from the Dallas 22 and a seven point lead, he chose to give the ball to Dallas, up 10, with a bit over seven minutes to go. You know how that worked out.

Against the Bengals the following week, up 10-6 with less than four minutes to go and with 1st-and-10 at Cincinnati's 32, the 49ers ran three times for -3 yards and had Akers kick a 52-yarder to get to 13 points, keeping the margin at seven instead of icing the game.

At Detroit, the Niners got the ball up 22-19 and ran three times with just over a minute to go and then kicked a field goal instead of going for the jugular. They gave it back to the Lions, down six. It would've been a hell of a comeback for Detroit, but it was doable.

Finally, there was that Pittsburgh game. Smith had a sensational drive in the third quarter, going 5-of-5 for 73 yards and a touchdown to make it 13-3. On the next drive the 49ers ran three times and punted.

Look, you know how the Seattle game ended. Up 19-17 with 2:57 left, Harbaugh put the No. 2 seed in the hands of his defense. He bet -- correctly, as it turned out -- that Tarvaris Jackson wasn't going to beat him. Larry Grant made a great hustle play and forced a fumble, saving his coach's bacon. Still, Harbaugh's conservatism nearly cost the team the game and make no mistake, against somebody good, like a Drew Brees for example, it's going to get him beat in January.

I can't wait to hear Harbaugh talking about who on his team were Pro Bowl snubs tomorrow. I bet he'll mention Alex Smith and blame the media for being stat-obsessed and going for the "low-hanging fruit."

The truth is it's Harbaugh who doesn't think Smith is a Pro Bowler, not us. He certainly doesn't trust him like a Pro Bowler. He thinks he's got a bunch of them on defense though, and he's right about that.
Speaking of Pro Bowlers, the 49ers had eight of them named to the team, tying them with the Patriots for most in the league. While I think the number is right, I disagree with some of the choices. Let's look at them one by one.

P Andy Lee: The best punter in the league this year, by none. No argument here.

K David Akers: I think Robbie Gould of the Bears has an argument, as do several others who were more accurate. Akers was more prolific, of course, which helped. I think it's the right choice.

RB Frank Gore: Personally, I think Marshawn Lynch has had the better season. He's been more consistent. Gore was very good from games 4-8, but so-so before and after. Also, he's fallen off as a receiver and in pass protection. However both Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson will finish the year having played only 12 games, so I think the ideal trio would be LeSean McCoy, Lynch and Gore.

LT Joe Staley: The biggest stretch, in my opinion. He had an excellent season as a run blocker, but allowed six sacks. I find it hard to believe there aren't three better tackles in the NFC. Carolina's Jordan Gross has allowed only 3.5 sacks protecting Cam Newton's backside and that's a high-scoring offense with a great running game as well. Green Bay's Bryan Bulaga has allowed just one sack in 12 games, protecting Aaron Rodgers. Atlanta's Tyson Clabo has had a good year, too.

CB Carlos Rogers: I think the right three guys got picked here, though Philadelphia's Nnamdi Asomugha was coming on, believe it or not. Rogers' hands have been much better than advertised, but an even bigger surpirse is how physically he's played in run support when that wasn't his reputation at all. He's not some fancy guy who makes his living outside of the hashes either. He's done a lot of his damage from the slot, and that's no place for the meek.

S Dashon Goldson: Surprised that Green Bay's Charlie Peprah or Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud didn't get more attention here. Goldson has really been a ball-hawk the past couple of months, but the stats-heads out there will tell you that's more luck than skill. He does miss quite a few tackles and isn't the best in coverage, but for a guy who plays deep centerfield, he does a good job of tracking overthrown balls down and he has good ball skills. Will occasionally lay a lick too. If he didn't make the team it wouldn't have been some great injustice, and I'm thinking the 49ers front office kindof wishes he hadn't as the free agent-to-be's price tage will surely go up now, possibly out of the 49ers' range.

DT Justin Smith: No-brainer.

LB Patrick Willis: Ditto, even in 12 games.


LS Brian Jennings:
I'm not sure he's technically a snub, as no long snappers have been named to the team yet from what I can see. We'll find out.

ST Blake Costanzo: Really, I think C.J. Spillman is just as good, if not better. But one's a gunner, while the other guy is more of an up-the-middle wrecking ball, and that's the more hazardous line of work and deserves some recognition. I haven't seen enough of Chicago's Corey Graham to have an opinion one way or the other, but at 6-0, 196, I doubt he's a wedge-buster. Then again, not having Costanzo in the game might be doing those AFC special teamers a big favor. I doubt Costanzo would figure out that he's not supposed to try hard in the game, and he's liable to kill somebody.

LG Mike Iupati: No, not yet. Not until he figures out those zone blitzes and gets better in pass protection.

C: Jonathan Goodwin: Good in the running game, good leader, but gave up too many sacks.

TE: Vernon Davis: No.

FB: Bruce Miller: Stop it.

LB: Aldon Smith: Listed as a DE for voting purposes, and that's the right call, honestly. I don't think he deserves it over Jared Allen or Jason Pierre-Paul, but he has a case against Philly's Jason Babin, who's a specialist who happens to play every down. That guy doesn't even pretend to care about the run.

LB: NaVorro Bowman: He's fifth in the NFL in tackles, but only has one sack and no interceptions to his name. Only two inside linebackers make the team, and good luck getting Willis or Brian Urlacher off the list anytime soon. This was Bowman's breakout season. If he does it again next year, we'll talk.
Bye-bye Braylon

Braylon Edwards' release was a bit of a surprise, but only because fellow wide outs Kyle Williams (concussion) and Ted Ginn (ankle sprain) aren't very healthy themselves. If the Niners had a full compliment of receivers, including Joshua Morgan, Edwards would've hit the bricks a while back I'm sure. The enigmatic Edwards tore his right meniscus in the second game of the season against Dallas and could never get the knee right, even after surgery and rehab. The sense I got from my dealings with him in the locker room was that he wasn't exactly obsessed with trying to get it right or to play through it. Edwards signed a modest deal for a million bucks that would've paid him over three times that if he met all his incentives. Once he figured that wasn't going to happen with the injury, I think he kind of shut it down.

Is that unfair? Maybe. But I think the writing was on the wall when Edwards didn't fight through Baltimore corner Lardarius Webb to at least break up an interception on Smith's bomb to him on Thanksgiving. The Monday after the game Edwards publicly discussed his injury (a big-time no-no with Harbs) and all but begged out of the St. Louis game, saying that his sole goal was to get totally healthy by the playoffs. My guess is the coach wasn't too keen on one of his players kissing off regular season so brazenly, because in Harbaugh's view the next game is ALWAYS the most important one of the season.

Edwards played only 11 snaps the following game at Arizona and groused about it to the press afterward, which you know bothered Harbaugh some more. Even though it's highly unlikely that the receiver's health deteriorated much over the following seven days (Edwards practiced, albeit on a limit basis, during the week), he was scratched against Pittsburgh, with Harbaugh saying afterward that Ginn, Williams and even Brett Swain gave the team a better chance to win. Ouch. If Ginn hadn't sprained his ankle against the Steelers, I'm thinking this move would've been made a week before.

Edwards' release isn't all about him though. The Niners quite likely need the roster spot because of tight end Delanie Walker's serious jaw injury. My guess is they'll sign a tight end (probably promote practice squad rookie Konrad Reuland) instead of a receiver. If they put Walker on IR, then they'll sign a receiver (probably practice squad rookie Joe Hastings).

The Edwards experiment was a failure, but not a terribly expensive one. It's a violent game and injuries happen. I doubt he would've been a happy camper anyway, given the confines of the offense. All we can deduce from this is that the curse of No. 81 is alive and well. The Niners should look to draft somebody tall and fast next April, and for the love of God, give him No. 89 or something.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Surging San Francisco Seek Second Seed at Seattle

The 49ers 20-3 Monday night victory over the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers was an important stepping stone, despite Ben Roethlisberger having to hobble through the game with a ravaged ankle. In the game the Niners defense made a statement in not allowing a single touchdown to the Steelers and the secondary showed, if nothing else, their ball skills, as Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown all snared picks on the only chances they had. The run defense extended their streaks of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 36 straight games and not allowing a rushing touchdown to 15 straight, and did so even without Patrick Willis, who well might be the only starter on that defense the national audiance was even aware of prior to the game. Guys like Goldson, Rogers, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman are lesser lights who will need to come up big in a playoff game to gain national attention.

There were a couple of chances the Steelers blew early in the game, one on a dropped slant from Antonio Brown and another on a deep ball from Roethlisberger down the sideline where Mike Wallace had two steps on Tarell Brown, but outside of that the secondary had a superb day in keeping the Steelers speedsters in front of them, despite Roethlisberger's 330 (mostly empty) yards. To me, the significant thing I took away from the game defensively was that every time the Steelers had a 3rd-and-short, they lined up in shotgun, not even bothering to pretend they were going to run. And, more importantly, they converted all of them. One of the hidden advantages the 49ers defense had in getting off the field on third downs in past games was when opposing offenses foolishly tried to run on them on 3rd-and-short. My guess is future opponents will adopt the Steelers strategy instead. As I've stated repeatedly, anytime people call a run against the 49ers, they're doing them a favor. If I was an offensive coordinator I'd NEVER call a run play against these guys. They're a historic run defense.

Speaking of history, Andy Lee is having a season for the ages for the 49ers. To me, he was unquestionably the most valuable player of that Steelers game the way he consistently turned field position for the Niners. He pinned the Steelers inside their own 15 on four of his six punts and pulled off a rare feat in averaging more yards net (49.2) than gross (47.5), thanks to a pair of negative returns from the Steelers. Lee's net average of 44.1 yards not only leads the league, but would be the best in NFL history if it held, best Oakland's Shane Lechler, who had a 43.85 mark in 2009. The net statistic has only been kept since 1976, however.

Offensively, as predicted, the 49ers were able to make some headway by using Vernon Davis, since nobody on the Steelers is a good match-up for him. The story lines that got people's attention however was the play of the offensive line in not allowing a single sack to the Steelers and the end of the team's red zone slump, since they scored touchdowns on two straight chances to break a 3-for-20 drought.

Not to be a wet blanket, but I think both of these angles are overblown. The Steelers were without their best bookend pass rusher, James Harrison, due to suspension, and on the other side LaMarr Woodley was limited with a hamstring injury and in fact only made it through about half the game. So really, the offensive line shut down their second string. Besides, the pass protection hasn't really been an issue at home all year except for the Dallas game. It's the road that's been their bugaboo.

As for the red zone scoring, while I'm optimistic that maybe they've found a couple of plays that worked (the play-action to Davis was a beauty), I do see an area of concern. Jim Harbaugh seems to me like a stubborn fantasy player who's obsessed with getting certain guys touchdowns at certain times. When he's got a player who got tackled at the 1-yard line or 1-inch line or however close it is, Harbaugh has been peristent in trying to get that guy the score, whether it was Frank Gore (I can think of three separate instances where he's had Gore go up the gut looking for touchdowns to no avail), Michael Crabtree and now Davis. That's dangerously predictable from my perspective, and something to watch for. Also, the only reason the 49ers even scored on two straight red zone chances was because the Steelers had a penalty during a David Akers field goal attempt. At least Harbaugh learned from his Cowboys blunder earlier in the season and took the first down this time instead of the points. (Not that he'd ever admit to it, of course.)

Contrary to popular belief, the 49ers upcoming Christmas Eve game at Seattle will be even more challenging than the Steelers game was. Not only is it a road game, but it's a road game at the noisiest stadium in the league. Not only is it a road game at the noisiest stadium in the league, but it's a road game at the noisiest stadium in the league who are coming off three straight blowouts. And not only is it a road game at the noisiest stadium in the league who are coming off three straight blowouts, but it's a road game at the noisiest stadium in the league who are coming off three straight blowouts and who have already played the 49ers once before.

The Cardinals showed a couple weeks prior what a difference a little exposure to the 49ers makes and they were certainly able to capitalize in their rematch at home. The Seahawks, with a red hot Marshawn Lynch who's scored in 10 games straight could well do likewise.

What the Seahawks don't have, of course, is an explosive receiver anywhere near on par with Larry Fitzgerald. Sidney Rice hasn't been much of a factor all season and their best guy has been Doug Baldwin, an undrafted wideout from Stanford who Harbaugh is well familiar with and admitted during the week he should've drafted over USC's Ronald Johnson. With pedestrian Tarvaris Jackson at the controls and a patchwork offensive line in front of him, the Seahawks don't have the kind of passing game that will put a scare into the 49ers. Lynch is playing as well as anybody these days, and he's a load to tackle, but I trust the 49ers front seven against anyone and it's looking possible that Patrick Willis might suit up for this one (he practiced, albeit on a limited basis, on Thursday and Friday). As long as they don’t give Seattle short fields with turnovers or get sloppy in their tackling with Lynch, the Seahawks don’t figure to get more than 20 points, tops.

On the other side of the ball, the strength of Seattle’s defense, as is the case with the 49ers, is in stopping the run with their beefy line and playing coverage behind the front four and snatching picks. They’re tied with the Niners for second in the league with 21 interceptions. What makes their secondary particularly daunting is their size. Young cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Brandon Browner are both huge, as is strong safety Kam Chancellor, who’s a monster. Free safety Earl Thomas, meanwhile is a ball-hawk who’s not afraid to lay a lick, much like his 49ers counterpart Dashon Goldson.

For the 49ers to move the ball on this unit, the line will have to be poised even in that deafening racket, not pick up needless false start penalties and buy the receivers enough time to escape the jam. Their will be quickness mismatches with Williams, rookie back Kendall Hunter and most of all with Davis. Michael Crabtree, meanwhile, is a fluid enough route runner that he should be able to shake free from those corners. The offensive line will be the key.

The 49ers come into the game with an NFL-best +25 turnover differential. As long as that trend continues and the offense doesn't cough it up, the Seahawks aren't going to run away and hide from them if they have to travel the length of the field to score. The Niners will get two or three red zone opportunities, one figures, and if they can cash in on those, they'll win. Jackson is as turnover prone as anyone, and 49ers safety Donte Whitner spoke during the week of how Lynch, his former teammate at Buffalo, can be loose with the football. San Francisco won't have Ted Ginn available to steal return yards for them on kickoffs and punts, so turnovers will be their only chance for short fields of their own.

By the way, and nobody realizes this: The reason Alex Smith doesn't have a ton of passing yards isn't because the 49ers pass way less often than fewer teams. The 49ers have passed quite a bit the last few weeks. The reason his totals are low is because the 49ers start off so many of their drives with excellent field position thanks to those turnovers. They lead the league in both starting field position and opponent's starting field position, so those yardage figures in their games will be misleading. Smith simply doesn't have as much field to traverse and rack up the yards.

Anyway, I'm picking Frank Gore over Lynch, Smith (and Smith, and Smith) over Jackson and the 49ers over the Seahawks, 20-17. Merry Christmas everyone.

The Picks:

Denver at Buffalo (+3):
Dare I say Tim Tebow keeps looking better and better the more he plays. We can't say the same for Ryan Fitzpatrick, however, and you have to think the Bills have checked out by now. Broncos 24, Bills 13

Arizona at Cincinnati (-5):
The Cardinals have played well of late and have even been spunky on the road, winning at Philadelphia and nearly upsetting Baltimore. The Bengals have been leaking oil and couldn't even cover against a talentless St. Louis squad. Both teams are on the fringe of their respective conference's playoff races. A shaky vote for the visitors. Cardinals 23, Bengals 20

Jacksonville at Tennessee (-8):
Here's how bad the Jaguars are: They're eight point dogs to a team that lost to the Colts. Hell, they'll probably be underdogs to the Colts next week. Blaine Gabbert has a live arm, but he's got some serious PTSD he needs to get over in the off-season. Titans 20, Jaguars 10

Oakland at Kansas City (-3):
The Chiefs have found new life with Romeo Crennel and Kyle Orton. The Raiders, meanwhile, continue to miss Darren McFadden and Carson Palmer seems to have a revolving door of receivers to work with every week. Chiefs 24, Raiders 17

Miami at New England (-10):
The Dolphins are playing decently, but the Patriots have been otherwordly on offense for the past month. They can smell the number one seed and aren't about to give it up Matt Moore. Patriots 34, Dolphins 20

NY Giants at NY Jets (-3):
Toughest game to pick on the board. I like the Giants quarterback more, but I like the Jets secondary more. Rex Ryan and the Jets are more accustomed to making late season runs than the Giants are, so I'll guess that trend continues. Jets 21, Giants 17

St. Louis at Pittsburgh (-13):
The Steelers will go with Charlie Batch instead of Ben Roethlisberger against the Rams. If that's not an indigment of St. Louis, then how about this: Jim Harbaugh has passed Steve Spagnuolo in career wins, in 32 fewer games. Steelers 20, Rams 9

Minnesota at Washington (-7):
Now that Matt Barkley announced his intention to return to USC (reportedly Oklahoma's Landry Jones will follow suit) the Skins might as well keep winning since they're just gonna trade for Peyton Manning anyway. Redskins 27, Vikings 13

Tampa Bay at Carolina (-8):
I'm not sure if I can remember as comprehensive a teamwide laydown than what the Bucs have pulled on Raheem Morris. This is even worse than the Chiefs did with Todd Haley a month ago or what the Cowboys did with Wade Phillips last season. A story came out that Morris would've already been canned, except his bosses couldn't find a suitable interim coach on staff. Panthers 30, Buccaneers 14

Cleveland at Baltimore (-13):
No Anquan Boldin for the Ravens, which means we're gonna see a lot of Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. Too many points to lay unless the Brownies are in a giving mood with the ball. Ravens 20, Browns 13

San Diego at Detroit (-3):
I'm kind of shocked the Chargers are underdogs in this game. They're just juggernauts in December. If the season ended a month earlier they've have five straight Super Bowls. That game last Sunday night against Baltimore? Nobody was beating them. You could've put the Packers or Patriots or whoever, it wouldn't have mattered. Chargers 34, Lions 20

Philadelphia at Dallas (-3):
This game might not matter at all for the Iggles if the Giants win earlier in the day. However, if it turns out that the Jets won, then look out, Philly will come out roaring. It'll come down to who rushes the passer better and which offense commits fewer turnovers. Eagles 30, Cowboys 27

San Francisco at Seattle (+2):
Alex Smith will have to outplay Tarvaris Jackson. That doesn't sound like a tall order, but you never know... 49ers 20, Seahawks 17

Chicago at Green Bay (-11):
Josh McCown, who spent a part of training camp with the 49ers, starts for the Bears after Lovie Smith finally pulled the plug on the disastrous Caleb Hanie era. I doubt Aaron Rodgers and the other starts play the full game for the Pack, especially if the Niners lose in the afternoon. I'm gonna miss this Christmas classic, as I'll be assisting the AP covering the Warriors season opener vs. Lob City. Packers 24, Bears 10

Atlanta at New Orleans (-7):
Two of the hottest teams in the league square off Monday night. It would be a more meaningful game if only one win separated them in the standings; alas that's not the case. I don't see anyone slowing down the Saints in a dome, but if the 49ers win on Saturday then it's quite possible some of the wind will be out of their sails. Saints 27, Falcons 23

Power Poll:

1. Green Bay (13-1)
2. San Francisco (11-3)
3. New Orleans (11-3)
4. New England (11-3)
5. Baltimore (10-4)
6. Pittsburgh (10-4)
7. San Diego (7-7)
8. Philadelphia (6-8)
9. Atlanta (9-5)
10. Detroit (9-5)
11. Denver (8-6)
12. Dallas (8-6)
13. Seattle (7-7)
14. Arizona (7-7)
15. NY Jets (7-7)
16. NY Giants (7-7)
17. Houston (10-5)
18. Cincinnati (8-6)
19. Miami (5-9)
20. Carolina (5-9)
21. Washington (5-9)
22. Kansas City (6-8)
23. Oakland (7-7)
24. Tennessee (7-7)
25. Cleveland (4-10)
26. Chicago (7-7)
27. Indianapolis (2-13)
28. Buffalo (5-9)
29. Jacksonville (4-10)
30. Minnesota (2-11)
31. Tampa Bay (4-10)
32. St. Louis (2-11)

Monday, December 19, 2011

49ers Looking To Overcome Several Slumps Against Steelers

The 49ers, fresh off losses in two of their past three games, are facing their first real adversity of the season. For the first time, there's the sense in the locker room that doubt is starting to creep in and that perhaps there are no answers to be found within.

The Dallas loss early on seems like years ago, and was excusable for multiple reasons. The 49ers were without Michael Crabtree and, after their first offensive play, Braylon Edwards. The team had a 10 point lead with just over seven minutes to go and would've probably won easily had coach Jim Harbaugh just elected to take a 1st-and-10 from the Cowboys 22 instead of a David Akers field goal that pushed the lead to 24-14. Even then, the Cowboys had to convert a 4th-and-6 late in the game just to tie up the game and send it to overtime.

The Baltimore game was a scheduled loss. Practically no time to prepare, a long road trip, some injuries along the offensive line and at receiver, a couple of questionable referee calls, and really the whole thing was a write-off and nobody held it against them, even though having nine sacks is unacceptable.

Then came the Arizona game. No excuses for this one, not with the second seed and a playoff bye at stake. The Niners blew a 19-7 third quarter lead and wasted the chance to turn it into a laugher early, not capitalizing on a pair of Cardinals turnovers in their own territory and a long punt return from Ted Ginn. Three different times they were inside the Cardinals 5-yard-line, and three times they came up empty. If you're counting, that's three times in the last 19 chances they've scored a touchdown inside the red zone. They've gotten away with red zone failures against Cleveland, Washington, the first time against Arizona and against St. Louis, but it finally bit them in the rear here.

The players all had a hand in it certainly, but for me the biggest slice of the blame has to go to Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and the rest of the offensive coaches, because the play-calling has been abysmal down there. Of the nine plays the 49ers ran, I'd classify one -- the back-shoulder fade that Alex Smith attempted to Braylon Edwards -- as a quality play that had a good chance of working. The pass was slightly deflected at the line, which changed its trajectory enough to fall incomplete. The other plays though, from the give up runs up the gut to Frank Gore, to naked bootlegs with Smith, to fades to 5-10 Ted Ginn to those awful one receiver option rollouts they ran, all had practically no chance of working from conception, and I'm dubious that they worked at all on the practice field.

Problem two is zone blitzes, more specifically, how the offensive line is not handling them. Smith has been sacked 18 times in the past three games, and 14 of those have come against Baltimore and Arizona, a pair of 3-4 defenses that favor the zone blitz. On a conference call on Wednesday ESPN "Monday Night Football" analysts Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski both confirmed that the zone blitz has been a major bugaboo for the o-line, with youngsters Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis in particular struggling to recognize what was happening in time. Against Arizona, Frank Gore was so conscious of helping out Alex Boone, who was at left tackle for the concussed Joe Staley, that he left the middle and the right side unprotected. I would posit the theory that Boone needs less help than any member of that line when it comes to pass blocking.

The 49ers caught a break of sorts in that they got to play the Cardinals right before facing Pittsburgh. Arizona's defensive coordinator Ray Horton is a former Steelers assistant and a disciple of Dick LeBeau, and he brought his creative blitzing defense to the Cardinals. Obviously the Steelers have more talent and experience, but at least the Niners will have an idea of what to expect now. Not having to face James Harrison, whose suspension for concussing Colt McCoy was upheld, will be another break.

The third problem, appropriately, is third down conversions, or lack thereof. The 49ers are now 31st in the league at converting third downs, and have fallen below the 30 percent mark for the season. The players and coaches trot out the same tired solution again and again -- they have to do a better job on first and second down and avoid the third-and-longs. Huey. Contrary to popular belief, not every 49ers third down is third-and-10. Their percentage is poor because they fail on plenty of third-and-mediums and third-and-shorts too. Remember, Smith is in the top 10 in completion percentage, so I wager he faces less third-and-a-mile situations than most quarterbacks across the league. They're just not converting, period.

The offensive line woes are a part of that, but the receivers and play-calling share more of the burden. Against the Cardinals, nobody was getting any separation in the second half. Arizona's defenders seemed to know what was coming on every play. Second-year man Kyle Williams has had his moments the past couple of games, but for the most part Michael Crabtree has been the only consistent, reliable target for Smith to rely on, and he's basically just a possession receiver. Edwards isn't right physically and is clearly not on the same page with Smith. Delanie Walker hasn't caught a pass in four games and a had a critical third down drop at Arizona. Most of all, Vernon Davis has been a ghost, diminished in the offense, and it's no coincidence that he wasn't available to chat in the locker room all week.

Troy Polamalu will play on Monday, but he barely practiced during the week with a balky hamstring. If ever Davis is going to break out, it's going to be tonight, and the 49ers need to take advantage of the match-up, as it's the most favorable one they have. Ike Taylor and William Gay are aggressive corners who look to jump routes, and while they can be had with pump fakes and double moves, a quarterback needs time in the pocket and some speed on the outside to take advantage of that, and Smith often has neither of those luxuries. Davis and Walker need to come up big.

Aside from the hobbled Polamalu, the Steelers will be further hampered by the loss of Harrison, which will force Jason Worilds to line up across from Staley, who was cleared by the medics on Sunday and is on track to start tonight despite suffering a concussion last week. Staley didn't practice all week, participating in just the Saturday walk-through, and even that in a "no-contact" jersey. If he doesn't look right, Boone will there in reserve. The match-up to watch will be on the other side, with Lamarr Woodley against Anthony Davis. Woodley is battling a hamstring problem of his own, and will reportedly be on a "pitch count," so we'll see how that goes.

On the other side of the ball, center Maurkice Pouncey will miss the game for the Steelers with an ankle injury, and his backup, Doug Legursky, is more of a guard who doesn't have much experience snapping. With Ben Roethlisberger likely reduced to playing almost exclusively from the shotgun because of his bad ankle, Legursky could very well have a bad snap or two. Legursky will also hurt the Steelers run game, as he's nowhere near the run blocker that Pouncey is. Practically nobody can run it against the 49ers to begin with, and with Rashard Mendenhall reduced to settling for those shotgun draws, it will be tough for them to get much going there. Really, I expect the Steelers to just hand it off here and there, with no real expectations of success and more to just keep the 49ers pass rushers honest.

The match-ups to watch will come on the outside, as the 49ers will be in the nickel defense practically the whole game. The Steelers will look to isolate Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown (both of whom average over 16 yards per catch) on Tarell Brown, with Chris Culliver the second option. Carlos Rogers will have Hines Ward in the slot, and Ward is only a factor on third downs or the red zone. Pittsburgh will probably look to exploit Larry Grant, who'll be in there again in the absence of Patrick Willis, with tight end Heath Miller. They have a lot of weapons to use, and the match-ups look harrowing indeed.

Still, I like the 49ers tonight. I think Roethlisberger's lack of mobility will be key. He won't be able to extend plays and buy his guys time like he normally does. His running game will be of no help. The Steelers offensive line isn't very good and the playbook will be somewhat limited because of Big Ben's injuries. I think they'll cough up a couple of turnovers and that the 49ers defensive backs will step up to the occasion by keeping Pittsburgh's fleet receivers in front of them and making them march.

The 49ers are a different animal at home and I think the offense will be just efficient enough, cashing in on one of three red zone opportunities and scoring another touchdown from beyond 20. I've got San Francisco 20-17, with Davis catching seven passes for 92 yards and a score.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Picks and Poll

Picks: (Just assume I totally nailed that Falcons game.)

Dallas at Tampa Bay (+7):
The Buccaneers are in complete disarray and have lost seven in a row, dropping a game even to the lowly Jaguars. The Cowboys need the game desperately, but their secondary is a joke. Shockingly, I'm predicted a close game for Dallas. Cowboys 27, Buccaneers 24

Tennessee at Indianapolis (+7):
Not only do I think Matt Hasselbeck will play, but I'd pick the Titans even if they had to go with Jake Locker. They're still clinging to slim wild card hopes. Titans 23, Colts 13

Miami at Buffalo (+2):
I've kind of lost track of the Bills. I have no idea who they played last week. I honestly have to think about it. ::thinking:: Chargers, right? I didn't even see a highlight of that game. So yeah anyway I'm taking Miami. Dolphins 20, Bills 10

Seattle at Chicago (-4):
I'm trying to figure out how the Bears are favored in this game. The Seahawks have the better quarterback (barely) and are way hot, while Chicago has lost three in a row. Huh? Seahawks 17, Bears 13

Green Bay at Kansas City (-15):
Let me get this straight... Greg Jennings can't help my Roster Marginalia during fantasy playoffs but can help the actual Packers during their playoffs? That hardly seems fair. Also, Kyle Orton starts for the Chiefs, so it'll be his second start against Green Bay this year. Packers 30, Chiefs 20

Cincinnati at St. Louis (+7):
At this point I'm openly rooting for Steve Spagnuolo to be Philly's new defensive coordinator. I think the Bengals blew their last shot for the playoffs with that lost to Houston, which I'm fine with. No defense with Manny Lawson and Nate Clements on it should make a postseason. Bengals 23, Rams 10

New Orleans at Minnesota (+7):
Yet another touchdown road underdog. The Vikes get Adrian Peterson back. The Saints meanwhile get to play in a dome, so it's like a bonus home game. I hope Drew Brees throws ten touchdowns. Saints 41, Vikings 17

Washington at NY Giants (-7):
The Giants always seem to go to crap when they're feeling good about themselves. And yet, you'd have to be a crazy person to pick them to lose. Wonder what the money line is... Giants 24, Redskins 23

Carolina at Houston (-6):
I love the Texans in this game. They would totally be my lock of the week if I still was doing that. I think they're going all out for that #1 seed. Feeling a couple of Cam interceptions. Maybe a looooooong bomb to Jacoby Jones? Yes, I'm begging. Yes, it's pathetic. I know, I know. Texans 27, Panthers 17

Detroit at Oakland (+2):
The Lions come into the game with the healthier running back situation, which just sounds ridiculous to type. Also, I'm starting to have my doubts as to whether Carson Palmer is the fourth best quarterback in the league. Lions 24, Oakland 20

NY Jets at Philadelphia (-3):
All the Eagles need to capture the NFC East is to go 3-0 while the Giants and Cowboys both go 1-2. The most unrealistic part of that scenario is them going 3-0. Jets coming in pretty hot and the Eagles turn it over like it's some kind of game. Jets 24, Eagles 17

New England at Denver (+8):
Eventually this ridiculous magical run by this big doofus is gonna come to an end, right? Yup, Sunday will finally be the day that logic is restored and Tom Brady totally starts to suck. Broncos 20, Patriots 17

Cleveland at Arizona (-7):
I'm sure the league has a good reason why this is a 1:15 game instead of 1:05, but I can't think of it. Match-up of two teams where the backup might be better than the starter. Cardinals 20, Browns 10

Baltimore at San Diego (+3):
I think the Ravens are the far superior team, but it's hard to trust them on the road. Also, Philip Rivers plays like the best QB in the NFL in December. Chargers 27, Ravens 24

Gonna have to wait til' Monday for my Niners pick...

Power Poll:

1. Green Bay (13-0)
2. Baltimore (10-3)
3. New Orleans (10-3)
4. Pittsburgh (10-3)
5. Houston (10-3)
6. San Francisco (10-3)
7. New England (10-3)
8. New York Jets (8-5)
9. New York Giants (7-6)
10. Atlanta (9-5)
11. Detroit (8-5)
12. Denver (8-5)
13. Dallas (7-6)
14. San Diego (6-7)
15. Tennessee (7-6)
16. Cincinnati (7-6)
17. Seattle (6-7)
18. Arizona (6-7)
19. Philadelphia (5-8)
20. Miami (4-9)
21. Oakland (7-6)
22. Chicago (7-6)
23. Carolina (4-9)
24. Washington (4-9)
25. Cleveland (4-9)
26. Buffalo (5-8)
27. Kansas City (5-8)
28. Minnesota (2-11)
29. Jacksonville (4-10)
30. Tampa Bay (4-9)
31. St. Louis (2-11)
32. Indianapolis (0-13)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Niners-Cards Preview, Niners-Rams Recap, Week 14 Picks and More

Well, congratulations, 49ers fans. You've made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Although if any of you out there had even the slightest bit of doubt that you would before Sunday's "game" against the horrendous St. Louis Rams, you all really ought to be ashamed of yourselves, for you root for one of the best three or four teams in the league (it's true!) and the Rams are one of the one or one worst.

As you saw with your own, drunken, blurry eyes, the Rams are completely bereft of talent just about everywhere except for their defensive line. They can rush the passer well (more on this in a moment) and... nothing else. In fact, I'm not sure if I can ever recall seeing a slower secondary in my 20-plus years of watching the NFL. It's no hyperbole to state that I think LSU's secondary would've competed better than St. Louis' DBs.

Offensively, one gets the distinct feeling that Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo came into the game knowing he had NO chance to win and just wanted to get out of there without getting any of his guys hurt. So many useless runs up the middle. If I'm an NFL coach and my offensive coordinator ever calls a run up the gut against the 49ers in any situation besides 3rd-and-inches or running out the clock with a lead, I'd march up to the coaching booth in the middle of the game to ream him out. It's just a total waste of a play, akin to spiking the ball but with the side benefit of keeping the clock running and giving the Niners defense a chance to force a fumble.

In a way it's hard to blame Spagnuolo for the white flag game plan. He had A.J. Feeley at quarterback for the injured Sam Bradford and an offensive line in front of Feeley that was also completely decimated by injury. The Rams had to play Adam Goldberg, nominally a guard, at left tackle because they had no one else. They had to use Tony Wragge, the former 49er reserve guard, at center. At a certain point I think Spagnuolo was just fearful about getting through the game with Feeley intact, and those fears proved warranted when Feeley suffered a thumb injury late in the game.

Defensively, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from the game. The front seven was stellar as always – the Rams averaged a whopping 1.3 yards per run – and Feeley felt a good amount of heat. I thought Ray McDonald had his best game in a while, not just because of his strip-sack (which gave him a career-high four for the season) but with the quickness he showed in penetrating gaps and getting to Steven Jackson time and again. Justin Smith was his usual dominating self on the other flank and Aldon Smith added to sacks to his total, giving him 9.5 for the season, including one where he absolutely bulldozed poor Goldberg with his bull-rush.

If there is one thing the coaches can take away from the game, it’s what I’ve long suspected, that Larry Grant is a perfectly good reserve who you can throw in there in either of the middle linebacker spots without it killing you. Obviously, Grant is no star on par with Patrick Willis and he’s not even in the same athletic phylum as NaVorro Bowman, but he is an adequate starting-level player. I’ve long advocated giving him a couple of series per game in relief of Willis and Bowman (who are both, of course, three down guys), to keep them fresh. Grant is a one-direction guy, a downhill linebacker who is better served playing in the middle than on the outside, where he would over-pursue plays with his aggressiveness and get suckered. But he does play with a fair amount of ferocity and packs quite a wallop on his hits, what coach Jim Harbaugh referred to as “contact courage.”

Like it or not, 49ers fans will get a chance to witness him lay out a few more licks, as Willis’ strained hamstring will keep him out at least one game and maybe longer. It will mean more responsibility for second-year man Bowman, who will now be wearing the helmet with the radio receiver and in charge of relaying the signals to his defensive mates. Strong safety Donte Whitner will also have to take on more of a leadership role, coordinating the fellas in the back.

Against the Cardinals on Sunday the challenge for Bowman and Co. will be more difficult than in their previous engagement, since Kevin Kolb will be at quarterback instead of John Skelton, whom Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio all but admitted to Fox analyst Brian Billick that he couldn’t read a defense. Both Fangio and Whitner spoke to Kolb’s scrambling ability and his propensity to keep plays alive with his feet to buy his receivers more time, like a Diet Coke version of Ben Roethlisberger.

Still, let’s be real. The 49ers are being duly respectful and polite. I’ve seen Kolb play. Lo, I’ve seen him play. The guy is, in technical terms, a spaz. Hit him a couple of times early, and that’s it. He lowers his eyes, focuses on the pass rush instead of the coverage, and calls it a day the rest of the way with check downs and hurried throws out of bounds. He’s not a guy who’s gonna stand there in the pocket and take a hit to make a money throw. Combine that with the Cardinals’ shoddy line, the fact that Beanie Wells will likely miss the game with knee and hamstring injuries (he hasn’t practiced all week) and the various double-teams the 49ers are sure to throw at Larry Fitzgerald, and I don’t foresee a game where the Cardinals are north of 14 points without the 49ers doing them considerable favors on the turnover front or rookie punt returner Patrick Peterson breaking one.

On the other side of the ball, as always, there was some good and some bad. Lost in the hysteria of Frank Gore breaking the late Hall-of-Famer Joe “The Jet” Perry’s franchise rushing record (congratulations, by the way) however, was the fact that Gore – 21 carries for 73 yards – really didn’t have all that good of a game. Actually, it was the fourth straight game he averaged less than four yards a a carry. Actually, he’s had seven such games this season (the first three and the last four) versus five games averaging more than four. The Rams stacked the box some, but certainly not as severely as the New York Giants did a few weeks back and no worse than Gore has faced throughout his career. Yes, the 49ers ran 34 times for 144 yards against the Rams, a 4.2 average, but those numbers were inflated by the three end arounds (or as they call them, “fly sweeps”) they ran and Smith’s option keeper. Gore and fellow running backs Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon combined for 29 carries and 79 yards, which works out to 2.7 yards per carry. Not good.

Where the running game particularly struggled was in the red zone. All the chicanery of using extra linemen and shifting and all that isn’t working any longer, as opponents have caught on to it. The reality of the situation is that just as the 49ers front seven dominates down there, not having allowed a single rushing touchdown, their opponents get paid too. It’s very difficult to run the ball down there, when the box is stacked. If I’ve noticed one weakness with Harbaugh through 12 games, it’s that at times he gets too stubborn with the running game, hell-bent on getting Gore, whom he’s clearly fond of, touchdowns. The 49ers have a number of play-action passes or zone floods (such as the brilliant two-point play they ran for Michael Crabtree against the Giants) in their arsenal, but at times they’re hesitant to use them. Even a quarterback sneak would be preferable in some situations to these routine plays where Smith gets the handoff, turns his back to hand it off to Gore and gives a nine man wall time to penetrate and overpower seven or eight blockers.

As far as the pass blocking goes, the team has to be wondering what’s going on with right tackle Anthony Davis. It’s one thing for him to allow three sacks to Baltimore. That game was on short rest, maybe there wasn’t enough time to review film or game plan, and fatigue may have been an issue since the offense was on the field for nearly 90 snaps the Sunday before against the Cardinals. But Chris Long worked Davis over like a speed bag last week, beating him for two sacks and a few other pressures of Smith. It’s one thing for a tackle to ole on a pass rusher on some spin move, but Long completely lost Davis on a swim move. I’ve never seen anything like it, it was like Davis forgot he had arms, he barely touched Long. The 49ers have to hope it’s a two-game blip for Davis and that he can get his game back, but if he gets abused again, they’ll have to think long and hard about benching him to send a message. They’ve been lucky so far, but eventually Smith is gonna get hurt, taking the punishment he’s taking.

Otherwise, the passing game was quite exceptional. Smith had maybe the best deep passing game of his career – taking advantage of that plodding Rams secondary – and was very sharp overall, posting a career-high 142.3 rating. It could’ve been even higher, but Vernon Davis dropped a wide open touchdown on a bomb. Crabtree, finally healthy (“The fans have seen what I can do with one foot,” he told me in the locker room afterward, “so imagine what I can do with two!”) looked fast and explosive. Kyle Williams though was the revelation. The kid looks like he’s shot out of a cannon when he runs, with acceleration unlike anyone else on the team. He also has the best hands of anyone on the roster. With Delanie Walker’s performance waning I predict the Niners will use three receiver packages more and more to get Williams involved. Braylon Edwards is returning this week, but I don’t think he’ll be a full-time player. Really, I expect most of his snaps to come inside the red zone. Williams is a guy who can better exploit the wide open spaces in the field between the 20s.

A sequence of plays I particularly liked came on the 49ers first series of the third quarter, after Dashon Goldson’s interception. A Gore run for eight off tackle, then stretching the Rams defense right with the end around to Ginn, and then stretching them left with an end around to Walker. St. Louis’ defense, completely confused, decided to flatten out and get wide, and boom, the Niners go up top to Crabtree for a 52-yard touchdown. It’s a play that wouldn’t have worked if the safeties were at their normal depth. I like drives where one play sets up the next which sets up the next and so on, and it’s something that has been woefully lacking around these parts for years.

The Cardinals defense played well against the Cowboys, but I don’t see them changing radically from the team I saw at Candlestick Park a month ago. Their pass rush is still ordinary, at best; Davis still gives them fits and Crabtree abused poor Peterson in their past meeting. It’s quite possible that the 49ers will continue to have their red zone struggles, but they should continue to have plenty of scoring opportunities. These teams just aren’t in the same class.

Sunday Picks

Philadelphia at Miami (-3):
The Eagles are discombobulated and out of the playoff hunt. So of course they'll start winning now, to ruin their draft position. It's what Andy Reid does. Eagles 24, Dolphins 20

Indianapolis at Baltimore (-17):
I picked against the Colts last week against a monster spread and that didn't work out. This week I'll pick them and they'll lose by 50. Ravens 23, Colts 10

Minnesota at Detroit (-10):
I don't trust the Lions to beat anybody by 10. Vikings have a beat up secondary, but they should be getting Adrian Peterson back. Lions 27, Vikings 20

Houston at Cincinnati (-3):
Bengals really need this game and the Texans have to make do with T.J. Yates at QB and no Andre Johnson. At some point reality has to set in, doesn't it? Bengals 20, Texans 13

New Orleans at Tennessee (+4):
We'll see how much the Saints have improved, if any, as an outdoor team. Chris Johnson is finally running well again. Really, the most intriguing match-up of the day in my mind. Saints 27, Titans 17

Kansas City at NY Jets (-11):
Tyler Palko is terrible, but the Chiefs defense is too good to lay 11, and certainly against the Jets. Take the under! Jets 13, Chiefs 6

New England at Washington (+9)
: I think the Redskins will hold Rob Gronkowski to only three touchdowns. Patriots 41, Redskins 17

Atlanta at Carolina (+3):
I have no idea what to make of either of these teams. Or 29 others. I've got the Niners down though. I guess I have to go against that Panthers defense, begrudgingly. Falcons 27, Panthers 23

Tampa Bay at Jacksonville (+2):
Good god. Why would anyone watch this? Jaguars 13, Buccaneers 10

San Francisco at Arizona (+4):
They're rivals in the same way a hammer and a nail are rivals. 49ers 23, Cardinals 13

Chicago at Denver (-4):
One day Tim Tebow will have to deal with a good quarterback on the other team. This isn't the day. Broncos 17, Bears 3

Oakland at Green Bay (-12):
I wasn't very impressed by the Raiders road effort at Miami, but I admit, I'm a tough judge. The Packers are somewhat better than the Dolphins, so by the transitive property, I like them here. Packers 34, Raiders 17

Buffalo at San Diego (-7):
If you bet on this one, you have a problem. Chargers 24, Bills 16

NY Giants at Dallas (-3):
It's time for the Giants to make their last stand. Either they win this game to make the NFC East a race to the finish, or hand it to the Cowboys, call it a season and dump Tom Coughlin. Giants 24, Cowboys 20

St. Louis at Seattle (-11):
This may set Monday night ratings records, and not in the good way. Looking forward to the announcers talk about anything else but the game for three hours. Seahawks 23, Rams 3.

Power Poll

1. Packers (12-0)
2. Ravens (9-3)
3. 49ers (10-2)
4. Saints (9-3)
5. Steelers (10-3)
6. Patriots (9-3)
7. Texans (9-3)

Oh god I hate everyone else

8. Lions (7-5)
9. Cowboys (7-5)
10. Giants (6-6)
11. Broncos (7-5)
12. Jets (7-5)
13. Bengals (7-5)
14. Titans (7-5)
15. Falcons (7-5)
16. Dolphins (4-8)
17. Raiders (7-5)
18. Bears (7-5)
19. Chargers (5-7)
20. Seahawks (5-7)
21. Cardinals (5-7)
22. Bills (5-7)
23. Chiefs (5-7)
24. Panthers (4-8)
25. Redskins (4-8)
26. Browns (4-9)
27. Vikings (2-10)
28. Jaguars (3-9)
29. Buccaneers (4-8)
30. Colts (0-12)
31. Rams (2-10)
32. Eagles (4-8)

Finally, because I lost a bet, a word about my colleague, Matt Maiocco. He's a swell guy and I strongly encourage you to follow his work at Matt often refers to me as the "son he's never wanted" and I can honestly say that I too look up to him as a father since in all the time I've known him he's only spoken to me to tell me when I've done something wrong or to belittle me and besides that he's ignored me completely. He really is quite something and no one is more plugged into the 49ers except for like five or six people. Seven, tops. Readers of Matt may be under the misconception that he never has opinions, but as someone who has been privy to them, let me tell you, he does and they're often amusing. I shudder at the plight of this tortured soul, who has to keep all shreds of his personality out of the camera's glare and off the printed page, but then I remember how much money he makes and don't feel too bad for him anymore. Send him tweets and emails and tell him to be nicer to me.