Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Take Back Pride

The reeling 49ers went into Washington last night for a Monday Night matchup that ended up being billed as a game featuring a pair of Quarterbacks who were viewed as phenoms that came crashing down to earth. After lighting the league on fire last season, both Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin, III now found themselves slogging through miserable, inconsistent seasons. Kaepernick has been hampered by both inconsistency and injuries to players around him. To his good fortune, the team behind him has been strong enough to overcome this and win games. Griffin has been hampered by his own injury that he's not quite recovered from, and as such has been unable to play the type of football that made him such a sensation last year. The Redskins (a taboo word these days) have frayed around him and the result has been an ugly 3-7 record coming into Monday's game. Desperate for a win and ready to unleash their frustrations on a struggling team, the 49ers went out and did what they had to do in a 27-6 victory over Washington, ending their two-game losing streak and quelling some of the panic for a few days.

Whether or not this was truly a righting of the ship for the 49ers or just beating up on a bad team remains to be seen, but nobody's giving this win back. After a pair of middling performances that called his abilities as a Quarterback into question, Colin Kaepernick responded with one of his better games, throwing for 235 yards and 3 Touchdowns and generally looked comfortable for the first time since the Jacksonville game in London. After a slow start that saw both teams trade punts at a record pace, Kaepernick finally moved the 49ers down the field, converting a 3rd down play to Anquan Boldin, who made a great over-the-shoulder catch over hapless Josh Wilson (whom he picked on all night), and then scored on the following play as he beat Wilson again for a 19-yard Touchdown.

While the 49ers managed to get going somewhat, Washington remained flat. On their ensuing possession, Griffin did scramble for a first down, but on the following play, after being chased around by Aldon Smith, Griffin heaved a dying quail right into the arms of Donte Whitner. The image of Griffin lying on the ground may well become the enduring image of the game. The 49ers only netting a Field Goal out of the drive was a bit of a moral victory for Washington, and they made a spirited attempt to get back into the game, but a long drive fell short and resulted in a Kai Forbath Field Goal, and with the clock running out before halftime, Forbath rushed out and kicked another FG to cut the 49ers lead to 10-6.

The 2nd half got off to an ugly start for the 49ers. Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis over the middle on a 3rd down play and, while fighting for extra yardage, Davis fumbled and Washington recovered. But given a golden opportunity, Washington could do nothing of consequence. Santana Moss caught a short pass on 3rd down but was stopped short of the 1st Down by Patrick Willis, and on 4th Down, Roy Helu was stuffed for no gain by Willis and Navorro Bowman and the ball went back to the 49ers. This time, the Niners ripped right down the field with Kaepernick spreading the ball around between Davis, Frank Gore and Mario Manningham before zipping a 6-yard TD pass to Boldin in traffic in the middle of the End Zone. This opened the game up once again and allowed the defense to, as is often their wont with the lead, dig their heels in and really lay down the hammer. Washington barely managed any offense of consequence over the remainder of the game. The 49ers scored another TD following a 40-yard Punt Return by LaMichael James that set up a 1-yard score from Kap to Davis on a play where Washington appeared to sell out for a run, allowing Davis to slip into the End Zone with nobody in his general vicinity.

Kaepernick led the offense on this night, which was helpful because Washington zeroed in on stopping Frank Gore. Gore, who's struggled these past few weeks and ceded many snaps to the equally ineffective Kendall Hunter, only ran for 31 yards. It appears as though this is now the MO of teams that are playing the 49ers. As the league has adjusted to the read-option threat, the 49ers haven't called many running plays for Kaepernick. As Kap has struggled to adjust to a purely pocket-pass game, the 49ers have tried to lean more on Frank Gore and their other rushers. So, obviously, the better Kaepernick can perform, the better the chances are for the 49ers to have success because teams are naturally trying to stop the running game first and worrying less about Kaepernick passing. This could be playing with fire, since Kap has had a few strong passing games, but he hasn't done that enough to strike fear into the hearts of other teams. A large problem hasn't been ability, but simply a lack of talent around him. However, the 49ers are, for the first time all season, starting to get healthy. Kaepernick started the season with a receiving core of Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and nobody else of note. But Mario Manningham has returned healthy and now Michael Crabtree is expected to return next week and this should give the passing attack a bit more teeth. But he managed to do that against Washington, and it was good enough to get the 49ers a sorely-needed victory.

The 49ers now return home for a pair of games against divisional opponents and the results of these games should say a lot about where this team is going this year. The Rams are first, and although the 49ers handled them easily in September, the Rams have looked better of late and took out the Colts and Bears impressively the last couple of weeks. After that, our dear friends from Seattle come to town in a game that should just be a great big love-fest. It should be a very interesting couple of weeks.

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