Welcome back to part 2 of "2011, Where They Stand" where I conclude how the 49ers have done so far this season and what to expect going forward.
The secondary in the Bay Area looks nothing like it has in the past decade. Two new free agent acquisitions that have really made an impact on the back end have been safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rogers. Rogers is having a Pro Bowl caliber year, tied for 2nd in the NFL with 3 interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown.
Beside the fact that the team is averaging 1.3 interceptions per game with 8 in six outings; what has impressed me more has been the red zone defense and not allowing the big play. Dashon Goldson looks to be back to his 2009 form, laying big hits and being where the action is. Chris Culliver, Tramaine Brock and Reggie Smith have also joined the party this year, contributing with interceptions and pass breakups.
The play by the secondary seems to be a product of coaching and playing to the system. New secondary coach Ed Donatell and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have been doing a great job utilizing the talent on the roster by playing to their strengths. The defensive backs know their roles and play them well.
The San Francisco 49ers may have one of the best put together and most efficient special teams units in the league today. Andy Lee and David Akers are at the top of their games, giving us great field position and putting clutch points on the board when they're needed most. In addition to their contributions, special teams ace Ted Ginn Jr. has been a team MVP week in and week out.
In the Niners debut against the Seattle Seahawks, Ginn Jr. returned both a kick and punt for touchdowns in the elapsed time of 59 seconds to give the 49ers their first win of the season. He is yet to return another for a score but he has been providing the offense with great field position in 2011. And finally, the tackling by the special teams players has been crisp and clean; not giving up anything easy and making the job for the defense that much easier.
The overall theme that we've seen from the 49ers in all three phases has been efficiency. San Francisco is first in the league in turnover ratio, and has been for a couple weeks now. The red zone defense has been incredible, limiting teams to field goals instead of touchdowns, if anything. The special teams has been providing the offense and defense with great opportunities in terms of field position. And the 49ers ability to run the ball has enabled them to take control of football games with a stable, efficient attack.
This is Jim Harbaugh football and the greatest thing about it, is that it comes with consistency. The 49ers have shown flashes of greatness from talented players in the past but haven't managed to be consistent game to game. This year, the 49ers have been consistent with their philosophy of efficient, smart football. Reaching game milestones like getting Frank Gore over 100-yards rushing and winning the turnover ratio improves San Francisco's chances of victory. By executing and dominating certain aspects of the game, they have been put in position to win.
Predictions (12-4 or 13-3)
After the bye week, San Francisco will take on the visiting Cleveland Browns at Candlestick Park, and in all probability will bring their record to 6-1. The 49ers, 3-0 on the road, have only a couple real threats remaining on the back end of their schedule in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The 49ers have a chance to finish the season 12-4 or conceivably 13-3; allowing the 49ers some room for error.
San Francisco has 5 more division games left between Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona, which may prove to be easy wins based on how they've performed thus far. If San Francisco can sweep the division and overcome either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, they could be in line for homefield advantage in their first playoff appearance in a decade.
At this point, this is as great a start as anyone could have expected, even the Niner Faithful. The 49ers have earned themselves a comfortable spot at #4 on ESPN's Power Rankings as of 10-18-2011 and still have the mentality to get better every week. This team could be a true Cinderella story, going from 6-10 to playoff berth and a potential NFC Championship appearance in a shortened league year.
Coach Harbaugh is about finishing, so hopefully he applies that mantra to not only individual games, but the season as a whole. If that's the case, expect the San Francisco 49ers to come out of the bye week, guns blazing and on a mission.
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In early September before the start of the 2011 season, I wrote an ode to the 49ers as it were, in a prediction filled article called Save Me San Francisco. It entails why this years 49ers were going to be different than years passed.