All is Not Yet Lost
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a defense in Minnesota. And Cleveland. And St. Louis.
Or at least, that's what the 49ers' offense would have us believe.
Let's review, shall we? Following the 49ers' blowout win against the Team Formerly Known as the Chicago Bears (George Halas is spinning in his grave), the 49ers regaled us with two nailbiter losses against the Rams and Browns.
Yeah, okay, sure, fine. Hiccups occur, especially in a league with parity like the NFL.
But then the 49ers went out and laid a huge, rancid egg against the Minnesota Vikings.
So what the hell is going on down by the Bay? Glad you asked.
Against the Rams, penalties killed the 49ers. False starts, pass interferences, personal fouls, you name it. The 49ers created turnovers, but were unable to convert them into touchdowns. So while they should have been up 24-7 heading into halftime, they were up only 10-7. But we'll touch on the red zone offense more in a minute. Finally, mental lapses. Whether be it Cedrick Wilson not getting down and calling a timeout, or a costly personal foul penalty on overtime's opening kickoff, the 49ers beat themselves.
Against the Browns, the red zone offense once again reared its ugly head. 4 FGs. That's all the 49ers could muster offensively. Though the defense was masterful through three quarters, they ran out of gas by the 4th, which allowed the Browns to drive for the winning touchdown. Turning point in that game? With about 8 minutes left, the Browns are driving for the go-ahead TD, when Kelly Holcomb is intercepted on a fantastic play by Julian Freakin' Peterson (His new offical name). Following a 15 yard penalty on the Browns, the 49ers have the ball at the Cleveland 40. They only need to get 10 yards to get into field goal range for the red-hot Owen Pochman. Only 40 for the clinching TD. So what happens? Incomplete, run for no gain, incomplete. Cleveland takes back possession, and that's all she wrote.
Now granted, Dennis Erickson should not have instructed Jim Mora to put the defense into Prevent mode on the final drive. But regardless, the Niners had this game in hand and squandered it. The defense left everything out on the field, and had nothing to show for it but a loss. If the 49ers can grind out yards after that interception, everyone walks away happy. But, things happen. Let's forget it and move on to next week.
And then the flood gates burst.
Against the Vikings, the 49ers were just simply and unequicovally beaten. Physically dominated. Trounced. Rent asunder.
The Vikings have two great weapons offensively, and they're going to pay huge dividends come playoff time. The first is, of course, Randy Moss. Despite his rather checkered past, he is still the key to the Vikings' O. If Moss sneezes, the defense backs off 15 yards. He is one of the few NFL players who forces opposing defenses to completely discard their gameplan. The second part, and certainly the least-heralded, is the Vikings' offensive line. One of the biggest in the league, the line of Bryant McKinnie, Chris Liwienski, Matt Birk, David Dixon, and Mike Rosenthal has an average size of 6'6", 325 lbs. That kind of pure beef on the front five allows the Vikings to pass protect all day, giving Moss the kind of time he needs to beat corners on the outside. It also allows them to plow holes in the running game for such average talents as Moe Williams, Doug Chapman, and Onterrio Smith.
Versus the undersized front seven of the 49ers, the Vikings just plain dominated. The Niners tried and tried and tried to blitz, but they could get nary a sniff of Gus Frerotte, totalling 2 sacks on the day.
Offensively, the 49ers were killed by the absence of Derrick Deese. Anyone who questions Deese's talent needs only to watch film of the Vikings game. The only time Jeff Garcia faced pressure was from the left side of the line, when overmatched rookie Kwame Harris' mental mistakes let Vikings pass rushers get free looks at the QB. Deese returns this week against the Lions, but the damage has been done.
Analysis of this game has led me to a bit of a revelation. The Vikings and the 49ers play completely different styles. The Vikings are all about mauling. They get their big boys out in front of the offensive skill players and just grind all day long. They're about size and strength.
The 49ers, meanwhile, are all about speed. Everything about their gameplan is quick-hitting, from the precise timing in the short passing game, to the agressive blitzing style of the fastest defense in the NFL. But the 49ers have been trying to play away from their strengths this season, it seems. Dennis Erickson has preached a deep passing offense and more agressiveness practically since he walked in the door. And that's all well and good, but it's not what the 49ers' offensive unit is designed to do. When Terrell Owens and the rest of the 49ers' receievers get open downfield, it's by design, not because the line gave Garcia 10 seconds to look downfield. The line is talented and athletic, but they just can't hold their pass blocks forever. They aren't big enough. It is, however, one of the best run-blocking lines in the league. The 49ers need to let their passing game come as a product of their running game. This will be the key to the season. Deep passes will open up off of play action, when the defense has 8 men in the box to stuff the run. With the line finally getting healthy, San Francisco will be able to put this plan to work.
"That's all well and good," you might be saying, "but what's going on with the red zone offense?
Check it out. If you've watched any of these games, it's not hard to see that the 49ers are struggling offensively in the red zone. Yes, San Francisco ranks 5th in the NFL offensively, but the majority of those yards have come between the 20s. It seems the Niners march out the practice squad when the field gets short. Get this: The 49ers have made 18 trips inside the opponent's 20 yard line, 2nd in the NFL. But to show for those trips, the 49ers have 8 field goals, 7 TDs, and 3 turnovers (2 on downs). That ain't cool.
So what's causing it? To be honest, I got no friggin' clue. If I knew, I'd be sitting in the offensive coordinator's booth, not sitting in front of my computer waxing philosophical about the 49ers' red zone offense. But whatever it is that's causing the 49ers to stall at the finish line needs to be cured, and now. Fix it and the season can be righted. Let it suffer further, and everything will be lost.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The season doesn't get any easier from here, but there is yet hope. The Niners draw the Lions in Steve Mariucci's return to the Bay Area. We could get all mushy about the implications and the revenge factor or whatever, but let's cut to the chase and call this game a victory. Detroit's just not very talented, and the 49ers have too much pride and too much character to squander another game against an inferior team. Quite simply, if the 49ers lose this game, I don't think they'll be able to recover.
Assuming a victory there, then comes the real challenge. The Seattle Seahawks are undefeated at this point of the season, and could very well remain so when the Niners march into Seattle. The 'Hawks have been the class of the NFC, and Mike Holmgren is lookin' like a genius again. But if the 49ers beat the Seahawks (and believe me, it can happen), San Fran pulls to 3-3 and serves notice to a national television audience that there is, in fact, life in the Bay area. And they'd better freakin' win, because I'm paying good money to be at the game. But more on that later.
In short, friends, the season is not lost. I know it feels that way, but in all reality, if a couple plays go the Niners' way, this team is 3-1. Granted, it's a flimsy 3-1, but I know I didn't expect the 49ers to be immediately perfect right out of the gates under a new coach. How they react over the next three weeks will decide the 49ers' 2003 season. What'll happen? I don't know, but there's still time. Still time.