The San Francisco 49ers come out of the bye week at the halfway point in their schedule. We've got a rundown of five key storylines to follow heading into this weekend's matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
1. Team performance after a week off
We start with the item most pressing. It's imperative that the 49ers not be complacent or sluggish coming out of this bye week as they have in years past. Additionally, they cannot overlook as very strong Panthers team with a week 11 showdown in New Orleans looming the following week. Last year, the 49ers stumbled out of the gate and into a tie with the Rams after the bye week. Yes, it was the game where Kaepernick was thrust into the starting lineup due to an Alex Smith concussion, but the game was at home against an inferior Rams team; the 49ers had their chances to seal it and they squandered them. In 2011, they nabbed a 20-10 victory over the Browns following the bye week. This was another home contest, and one they nearly gave away. The 49ers didn't come out necessarily sluggish against Cleveland, leading 17-0 in the 2nd quarter, but they allowed the Browns to get back into the game and cut the lead to 17-10 in the 4th.
The Panthers are on a four-game winning streak that looks an awful lot like the 49ers' five-game streak on paper. They're consistently blowing out opponents and putting up 30+ points. The 49ers have to make sure they come out swinging and not allow themselves to fall into an early game rut. Doing so would possibly cause them to get away from the run and lean on a passing offense that's left much to be desired up to this point.
2. The return of Mario Manningham and its effect on the passing game
How big of an impact will Mario Manningham make once he is reinserted into the lineup? He could possibly play this weekend against Carolina but how much will he play, what kind of shape is he going to be in, and what effect will it have on the passing game moving forward? These all bear monitoring.
The 49ers have gotten by with Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, but it's come against modest competition and mainly due to the fact that they're running the ball at will. Carolina boasts one of the league's better defensive units and has a star inside linebacker in Luke Kuechly. The Niners must get the passing game clicking when they need it and Manningham will be counted on for that once he's available. Somewhat lost amid the 49ers 6-2 start is the fact that their passing offense ranks 31st in the league. Again, that's at least a partial product of how much they're running the ball, but it's still an area for much-needed improvement.
Colin Kaepernick seemed to have some great early chemistry with Manningham but before its full potential could be realized, it imploded on the field in Seattle a year ago. Hopefully they've been getting extra reps in at practice and can pick up where they left off last season.
3. Aldon Smith, on and off the field
The 49ers defense has played remarkably well in the recently maligned pass-rusher's absence, but it stands to get a great boost with Smith back in the lineup. There's been no definitive statement that he'll make his debut against Carolina but it seems a safe bet that he'll at least see some situational reps, if not more than that. After all, he played the entire game against the Colts on the heels of his DUI arrest earlier that week.
Despite the defense's admirable play, the pass rush has been noticeably tamer with #99 not in the lineup (with the exception of a five-sack outing against St. Louis in Week 4). To the secondary's credit, that unit has done a phenomenal job of shutting down opposing receivers and that has resulted in a handful of coverage sacks. Smith's reemergence on the field will make an immediate impact in the pass rush department and command frequent double-teams from the opposition. According to teammates, Smith looks to be in solid shape and the linebacker himself has indicated getting in "a real good workout" a couple times a week during treatment.
Another intriguing aspect of Smith's return is how he'll handle off the field life and pressures. Relapse is not an uncommon occurrence for those returning home after rehab. While statistics vary greatly, the percentage of those who relapse after treatment ranges from 50 percent all the way up to 90 percent. Smith must maintain a strong support system, stay focused on football and family, and alter how he approaches his free time off the field if he wants to stay on the straight and narrow. There will be plenty of temptation for a 24 year-old superstar athlete with a high bankroll, so it won't be easy, but hopefully the lessons he's learned after multiple run-ins with the law and a stint in rehab will empower him to make the right choices.
4. Michael Crabtree's debut and performance
Of all the rookie debuts and players coming back from injury, none are met with more anticipation than the return of wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The 49ers undisputed number one receiver returned to practice this week for the first time since completely tearing his achilles heel back in late May. When he will see his first game action remains unclear. It could be as early as a couple weeks from now against the Saints, or it could push into the beginning of December. Anything past the 49ers' rematch against the Seahawks at Candlestick would be a surprise, from the reports we've heard.
The biggest question, much like the case of Mario Manningham, is: what kind of receiver can the 49ers expect? Will it be business as usual for Crabtree or will lingering effects of the injury hinder his performance? After all, part of Crabtree's strength is his ability to stop on a dime and shift direction after the catch. Will he be able to pick right up where he left off with Kaepernick, or will it take time to shake the rust off and regain that rapport?
Personally speaking, I'm pretty optimistic about all of these unanswered questions. I don't think the 49ers' trainers and coaching staff would rush him back to the field if they weren't at least close to 100 percent confident in his health. In a recent example, Terrell Suggs came back just five months removed from surgery in 2012. November 22 will be six months since Crabtree had his surgery.
Granted, it stands to reason that an injury such as this would impact a receiver more than an outside linebacker, but it's worth noting that Suggs returned, made an impact, and stayed healthy for the remainder of the season (outside of a clearly unrelated right bicep injury). These next few weeks of practice will go a long way in getting the star wide receiver back on the same page with Kaepernick. Once he does, the Niners' dismal passing attack has the potential to turn into one of the league's most explosive units.
5. Frank Gore's workload
Praise of Frank Gore has been ubiquitous in local sports media over the past few weeks and rightfully so; the 30 year-old back is having one the best seasons of his career thus far. This should come as a no surprise. Gore has never lacked for motivation, he engages in a serious offseason training regimen that even includes boxing, and was coming off a very strong 2012 campaign. Something to watch moving forward, however, will be how the coaching staff manages his workload.
Last season, Harbaugh and Roman went on record to state the importance of having Gore "fresh" for the postseason. Logically, one would assume that continues to be a priority this season, but through eight games, Gore has carried the ball 146 times. That total ranks him fifth in the league in that category. At the halfway point of last season, Gore carried the ball 119 times. It's a fine balance. On one hand, when a player is performing at such a high level, you want to feed him the ball as often as possible. On the other, you don't want to burn him out for the postseason and reduce his effectiveness.
With that said, I don't expect Gore's touches to drop significantly, but Kendall Hunter should get more opportunities to spell number 21. Hunter is capable of running between the tackles and possesses great quickness around the edge, as well as in the open field. Getting him more involved will not only benefit Gore, but it will also keep defenses guessing and open up the offensive playbook.
So there you have it: five items, among several others, to keep an eye on as the rest of the 49ers' season unfolds.
What other storylines are you looking forward to following? Share in the comments section below.