Monday, November 18, 2013

Walking A Thin Line

I haven't read much of today's NFL headlines, although I'd have to imagine that most of the talk surrounding the 49ers today is something to the effect of "Kiss their Playoff hopes goodbye." The situation for the 49ers certainly isn't pretty right now, not after losing a tight, tough 23-20 struggle against the New Orleans Saints yesterday. At 6-4 their chances at a 3rd straight NFC West title are just about dead and a Playoff spot is certainly no sure thing either at this point.

That being said, they've managed to lose two games in a row to two really tough teams by a total of 4 points. Although teams with championship aspirations generally win these kinds of games (and the 49ers have done plenty of this over the past 2.5 seasons), it requires getting a few breaks and converting a few key plays in order to do so. Unfortunately, the 49ers haven't gotten the breaks and haven't converted the plays they needed to these past couple of games, and the result is that they've lost two straight games that they could easily have won.

The performance of the offense seemed to reflect this throughout the game. Colin Kaepernick struggled to maintain a steady rhythm. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis were, once again, his only real weapons on offense. Frank Gore didn't manage much on the ground and the remaining pieces were a disaster. Of the 20 points the 49ers scored, 17 were the result of turnovers and the other 3 came after the Saints failed to convert a 4th down. Otherwise, though Kaepernick did a better job of avoiding unnecessary sacks than he did against Carolina, Kaepernick still was forced to throw to unreliable targets on multiple occasions with poor results, or, he still got sacked, which happened 3 times. He threw one interception, a bad throw into coverage, but although Corey White appeared destined to run it back for a Touchdown, Kaepernick hustled after White and ended up forcing him to fumble the ball out of the end zone resulting in a touchback and, ultimately a Field Goal, for the 49ers. Still, the effort overall wasn't pretty. Kaepernick's two Touchdown passes came when great field position was dropped in his lap, courtesy of 1) a muffed punt by Lance Moore and 2) an acrobatic interception by Ahmad Brooks. Kaepernick ended up completing 17 passes, but only for 127 yards, an unacceptable amount. And in the 4th Quarter, when it was imperative for the 49ers offense to eat up some of the clock, they were unable to do so.

This once again put an unnecessary amount of pressure on the defense to stop Drew Brees and company, and they did an admirable job, keeping things in control for the most part and preventing the Saints from tearing down the field like they usually do. The Saints scored Touchdowns in the 1st and 2nd Quarter, but after that, they were limited to only Field Goals, and generally the defense got the stops that they needed to get. By the 4th Quarter, the 49ers had nursed themselves to a 20-14 lead, and given the way the defense had played, forcing a turnover and a turnover on downs, there was certainly reason for optimism. But Brees connected with Robert Meachem and Marques Colston on a pair of long passes, and although the defense kept them out of the end zone, Drunken Kicker Garrett Hartley kicked a Field Goal to cut the lead to 3. It's fine to hold the Saints to Field Goals, which is what the 49ers defense did, but they received no help from the offense, and thus set up the sequence that sealed the 49ers fate on this day.

With slightly over 3 minutes to play, the Saints had driven well into 49ers territory, but faced a 3rd down play. Brees dropped back to pass but was ultimately overwhelmed by a blitz and sacked by Ahmad Brooks. Brees also fumbled the ball directly into Patrick Willis' arms. Unhappily, Brooks ended up drawing a penalty for tackling Brees around the neck. Replays showed that Brooks had Brees around the shoulders, but in this day's NFL, that flag will get thrown every time, whether it's merited or not (and in this case it probably wasn't). Goodbye Sack, Goodbye Fumble, Goodbye Opportunity to run out the clock and, a few plays later, Goodbye lead when Hartley kicked another Field Goal.

With an opportunity to right the ship and drive the field for the winning score, Kaepernick was summarily sacked when none of his receivers could get open, forced to heave the ball away to avoid another sack and nearly get flagged for intentional grounding, and then scrambled but ultimately ran out of bounds to stop the clock. On the same field in which Kaepernick nearly performed a Super Bowl Miracle just 10 months ago, he now looked like a raw rookie forced into making bad mistakes.

Punting with slightly over a minute to play, Andy Lee did what he usually does and appeared to pin the Saints deep in their own end. Except that Kassim Osgood ended up running into the Saints' return man after he'd called a fair catch, drawing yet another damaging penalty and setting up the Saints to complete a few passes, drive down the field, eat up the remaining clock and kick the winning Field Goal, sending the 49ers grumbling back to the West Coast with a galling 23-20 defeat.

We've been over the Carolina debacle enough, and after that loss, the luster vanished from the 49ers so quickly that, virtually across the board, people expected the 49ers to go into New Orleans and get their clocks cleaned by the Saints. Even if it wasn't a blowout, I don't recall many places giving the 49ers much of a chance. And no, they didn't win, but they certainly were in prime position to do so late in the game. And sure, it's easy to look at the penalties on Brooks and Osgood and the damage they did, but if the offense could have just made a few more plays instead of just capitulating, the game wouldn't have come down to the penalties.

I'm not about to write the 49ers off just yet, but their performance this season has been so uneven, I'm never quite sure which team is going to show up. Is it the team that runs the ball consistently, allowing the passing game to open up, or is it the team that forces passes and abandons the run, putting unnecessary pressure on the defense to make something happen.

Then again, they were often inconsistent last season, too. We know how that year turned out.

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