Monday, December 16, 2013

From The Ground Up

The 49ers have now played 14 games this season to the tune of a 10-4 record, which has been good enough to keep them in pretty solid playoff contention. But for a lot of the season, it seems like the 49ers hadn't really played up to their capabilities as a team. Their losses have been of the frustrating or baffling variety, where they've either lost close games due to the inability to make a key play or they were blown out simply because the other team wore them down. Every team will have losses like that, but many of their victories haven't exactly been clean games either. Most in the spotlight, naturally, has been Colin Kaepernick, who's been uneven in his first full season as starter. He's certainly shown flashes of the guy who took the league by storm and dominated the 2012 Playoffs, but he's also had plenty of moments where he looks like he's still trying to figure it out. As such, it seems as though Jim Harbaugh has dumbed the offense down somewhat in order to protect Kap. I mentioned this last week, but sometimes the offense has become too reliant on the running attack behind Frank Gore and company, and the result is that far too many times, the team has ended up settling for Field Goals (Fortunately, Phil Dawson's been on a roll on that front, a far cry from the roller coaster that was David Akers in 2012). This is all fine and good, but too many Field Goals and too few Touchdowns can come back to bite you in the ass. This was proven in the Carolina game last month, and it could have cost them the Seattle game last week were it not for an inspired run by Gore and an inspired effort by the Defense.

But Sunday's game in Tampa saw the 49ers open things up a bit more offensively. It's been said more often than I care to remember but only now does the 49ers offense feel complete again, with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham back in the fold to supplement Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. With these pieces together, Kaepernick seemed to have the shackles taken off and began slinging passes around with a bit more abandon than he'd done over a majority of the season. Though it certainly wasn't Kaepernick's best game statistically—he only completed 19 of 29 passes for 203 yards—it was the way he completed those passes that was impressive. The fact that he completed his first 6 passes was also nice; far too often it seems like he'd been starting games completing 2 of his first 9 passes and looking in a fog.

One need look at Kaepernick's two Touchdown passes to see just how different he looked in this game. His first, on the 49ers first drive of the game, went to Crabtree, who became the first 49ers not named Davis or Boldin to catch a Touchdown from Kaepernick this season. On a broken play, Kaepernick had rolled right, looking for Crabtree, who was trying to break away from tight coverage. After circling around and back towards the sideline, Crabtree finally had a step, and Kap threaded the needle just right, whistling a strike in to Crabtree for the score.

The second Touchdown was just pure strength, the kind of throw Kaepernick hasn't really even attempted this season. Early in the 2nd Quarter, Kaepernick took a deep shot at Vernon Davis, who was in single coverage with a Buccaneers Safety. Unfortunately, the pass was overthrown. One drive later, with the 49ers at their own 48 yard line, Harbaugh called the play once again. Kaepernick dropped back and rolled left, stepped up and launched a rocket, an absolute rainbow of a pass that traveled at least 60 yards in the air. This time, the pass was on target, and Davis caught it in stride for the score, his momentum carrying him through the end zone where he crashed into a guardrail. This was the kind of play that seemed to be missing from the 49ers arsenal this season.

These two scores in the first half sent the 49ers out to a 17-0 lead, but for at least part of the second half, they seemed to slip back into some bad habits offensively. The 49ers managed only a Field Goal in the 3rd Quarter and when Bucs QB Mike Glennon capped a 92-yard drive by hitting Tim Wright for a Touchdown on the 1st play of the 4th Quarter, Tampa had closed the deficit to 20-14 and all of a sudden a game that the 49ers had really had a handle on for most of the game seemed now quite dicey. But, as the 49ers have done on more than one occasion this season, they closed well in spite of some momentary lapses. On a drive comprised primarily behind the general fortitude of Frank Gore, the 49ers covered 77 yards in 17 plays (which also featured a key 3rd down conversion by Crabtree—something else the 49ers had really missed this season) that took 10 minutes off the clock and ended with, surprise surprise, Dawson's 3rd Field Goal of the day, getting the lead back to 9 points. Then, of course, the Bucs tried to get fancy on the ensuing kickoff, Eric Page made an ill-advised and ill-timed attempt to pass the ball off to Russell Shepard, Shepard never got a handle on the ball, fumbled and Kendall Hunter alertly jumped on the ball and rolled into the End Zone for what was essentially the clinching score. The Buccaneers then turned the ball over twice more in the final minutes, once on downs and once courtesy of Eric Reid's 4th Interception of the season, Dawson added a 4th FG and the 49ers ended up coasting out of Tampa with a 33-14 victory and a tighter grasp on a Playoff spot.

The 49ers now need to win one of their final two games, or see the Arizona Cardinals lose one of their last two games, in order to lock up a spot in the Playoffs. This seems a likely occurrence; Arizona is playing in the Horrordome in Seattle next week, while the 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship game. In a testament to the fragility of NFL teams, the 49ers certainly appear primed for another deep playoff run, while the team they went on the road to beat to reach the Super Bowl last season has fallen into the abyss, rolling into San Francisco with a 4-10 record. The 49ers and Falcons will meet on Monday night, which means that the playoff question may be academic by time the game rolls around, but it seems fitting to play then. Monday's game will be the final game at venerable Candlestick Park, barring some unforeseen reversal of fortune in the Postseason that somehow ends up with the 49ers playing a Championship game at home. Candlestick Park, though generally reviled by both players and fans alike, has nonetheless been the site of a multitude of great moments over its history, particularly for the 49ers, and many of those moments came under the spotlight of Monday Night Football. It might not hold quite the same significance for me as when Shea Stadium closed (this should be obvious based on the fact that I went to 269 games at Shea Stadium as compared to none at Candlestick Park, even when the Giants played there), but nonetheless the stars will all be out to send Candlestick out in a blaze of glory.

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