In watching the 49ers 35-11 victory over St. Louis, there were several things worth monitoring. With a boatload of questions going into the game, some were addressed and some still remain. Here's what I took away from the division matchup...
Quasi Fact: Colin Kaepernick played far more poised, like a more seasoned veteran, in his first NFL start against a rabid Chicago team than he has against subpar defensive units like the Colts and Rams.
Does that kind of play look all that unfamiliar? If you answered, no, it's because you've seen this before, Niners fans. Kaepernick is currently doing his best impression of the artist formerly known as Alex Smith, and when I say that... I mean the Alex Smith of 2005 to 2010, not the quarterback reborn in 2011, '12, and '13.
Kaepernick's confidence is shaky at best, he's unsure, he's indecisive, he's making poor throwing decisions, he's not going through progressions, he's throwing when he should run, he's playing slow, he's cutting off his field of vision, he's prematurely escaping the pocket, he's not keeping eyes downfield, he's staring down receivers, and in case that wasn't enough...he even had an inexcusable botched handoff to Kendall Hunter in the 4th quarter just for good measure.
If there was any question that he had an over reliance on Michael Crabtree, that notion has been confirmed by his incessant focus on Anquan Boldin. Does the fact that the 49ers have a bare cupboard at the wide receiver position factor into this? Of course it does, but his defiant reluctance to look for other receivers is sinking this offense tantamount to the Titanic. It seems like only yesterday that the young QB was chucking the ball all over the yard with aplomb; going through his reads, making quick, smart decisions, and using his lightning-quick speed to move the chains when receivers were covered and lanes were open.
Now, he's playing like a shell of his former self: taking sacks when there's no need to and getting run down by bulky lineman far slower than him.
Is there more to the foot injury than the coaching staff is letting on? Have Harbaugh and Roman put the proverbial leash on him (or choke collar, maybe)? Has he hit a sophomore slump akin to Cam Newton? We'll find out as the season marches onward.
But enough with the negativity, even if it's justified. Let's move on to the other key takeaways from the 49ers must-win victory in St. Louis.
1. Frank Gore continues to give a metaphorical middle finger to anyone who tells him he's done. The venerable nine-year veteran proved that he's still the man, and he, not Kaepernick, is the cog that makes this offense tick. Gore is at his best when everyone begins to doubt him. As has been the case for the past several years, the 49ers all-time leading rusher shows up big when external scrutiny rains down upon him. As soon as the hasty, ill-informed masses start declaring Gore "finished", he shreds a defense with a hallmark performance. Incomparable vision, quick cuts, masterful patience, and uncanny anticipation are what make Gore the special back he is. You can't slow down vision, toughness, and experience. It was refreshing to see him make an uninvited appearance at the NFL Network post-game show. It shows that he's taking charge of this team again; reminding everybody that he is the identity of the offense and has been since day one.
As Gore goes, so the offense goes. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, but Frank's big night showed the coaching staff, the pundits, and the doubting-Thomas fan base why he should remain a focal point of the offense. When he goes off, this team wins.
2. If there is anyone left who doesn't think NaVorro Bowman is the best player on this defense (after last season, there shouldn't be) you were proven wrong Thursday night. I know, I know... he whiffed on that pick-six interception in the breadbasket, and Willis' good-natured chortling on the sideline totally said, "I'd have taken that to the house", but regardless... this guy is ferocious and has usurped the throne from Patrick Willis. He's faster, he's more aggressive, and he makes more plays (see the huge interception he didn't drop on opening day against GB in 2012 or, more importantly, the pass he batted away from Roddy White in Atlanta to give the Niners their first trip to the Super Bowl in 18 years). He was a one-man wrecking crew against the Rams, even without Willis in the line-up. Losing Aldon Smith hurts, but having a player like Bowman in the middle greatly mitigates it.
3. Injuries are clearly hampering the team...big time, however, it's evident that playcalling and coaching decisions are still very stubborn and dubious. Why keep Joe Staley in when there's a minute and a half left and your team is up 24 points? Why run a draw play on 3rd and 11? Why throw a hitch route two yards behind the line of scrimmage on 3rd and 7? San Francisco won, inspite of several questionable calls and, in part, due to the fact that the Rams are awful. St. Louis helped this 49ers team a lot-an absolutely anemic running game (haven't seen anything that bad since the Kevan Barlow days), egregious pass drops, off-target throws by Bradford... the list goes on and on.
4. Anquan Boldin has few equals when it comes to relentless effort. Even without the speed to gain ample separation, Boldlin continues to utilize every other facet of his game to make up for it. The superb second effort he used to get into the endzone for the 49ers first score is something the other wide receivers should take notice of and try to replicate. Kaepernick has to start looking elsewhere in the passing game, but Boldin's performances provide rationale for why he's the number one target for #7.
5. Jonathan Baldwin, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter got in on the action and, although James and Baldwin made a minimal impact, it was important to get them on the field. It would have been nice to see Quinton Patton get into the mix as well, but it appears injury had a large part in preventing that. Let's hope it's not too serious.
Kendall Hunter continues to impress. It would be great to see the Niners get him involved more often. I've been barking for this since his rookie year. He's proven to be a shifty, speedy commodity out of the backfield, taking advantage of open-field opportunities and making defenders miss. Gore was on fire in this game, but the Niners would be wise to sprinkle Hunter in more often in the future. With Kaepernick struggling, he provides a great security option in the flat when the pocket breaks down and, additionally, when receivers aren't open (or when Kap doesn't see that they're open-we hear you, Vernon).
6. Corey Lemonier looked very solid in Aldon Smith's stead. His stat line of three tackles is misleading and doesn't tell the story. Lemonier didn't register a sack during the extensive action he saw but he came close several times; continually collapsing the pocket, harassing Bradford, and forcing bad decisions by the maligned Rams quarterback. He's going to be exciting to watch as the season rolls on.
At the end of the day, the 49ers nabbed a crucial win and there were some bright spots to build upon. The main objectives were achieved: get a win, re-establish the power run game, restore confidence, and get the season back on track. But make no mistake, the Rams gave the Niners a huge boost in this one. The collective sigh of relief we're all experiencing has to be tempered with the reality that St. Louis is one of the worst teams in the league. If the 49ers were playing, for the sake of argument, the Chiefs tonight in Kansas City... would they have won?
The team can now take a much-needed, extended break. During that time, they'll look to get as healthy as possible and continue to improve the offense in preparation for a big game against the Texans at Candlestick.