After a triumphant outing against the Detroit Lions, the 5-1 San Francisco 49ers are on a 4-game win streak and entering their bye week. At this point, I think it's safe to say that we have a pretty good idea of what the 49ers are bringing on Sundays. In this two-part piece, I'd like to discuss what we've seen from the Niners and what we can expect to see --- both good and bad.
The way this turnaround has come about seems to begin and end with the coaching, so it feels right to start there. Looking at the 2010 49ers and the 2011 49ers, it appears that Jim Harbaugh has all but turned water into wine. His ability to gameplan for his opponents, the way he conducts practice, the philosophical aspect, and most notably, his hands on approach with the players has all been top notch.
Along with coach Harbaugh, the staff he assembled has been embraced by the players and has produced results much earlier than expected. In all three phases of the game; offense, defense and special teams, have been efficient units that together contributed to the 5 wins in 6 games. It's been the collective team effort that has San Francisco as a top 5 team in the league. The contributions have been coming from all over:
Let's talk statistics. Six games into the season, and quarterback Alex Smith has thrown 8 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, earning him a 95.2 quarterback rating. Smith has been moving the chains for San Francisco and shown us that he can win 5 out of 6 games, including a 3-0 road record against tough opponents (CIN, PHI and DET).
He may not be evoking eye-popping numbers in yards but Smith has signficantly less attempts than the passing leaders ahead of him. He's put together performances in the clutch against tough teams on the road like his 21-point comeback at Philadelphia or the last ditch effort that went for a touchdown to Delanie Walker to finish Detroit at Ford Field. Harbaugh believes in him. The team believes in him. And the fans may be starting to turn as well.
The Draft Class
At this point in the season, the 49ers seemed to have assembled the most productive, already contributing draft class this year. On both sides of the ball, multiple players have stepped up to help this team form it's new identity and most importantly, help win games. On the offensive side of the ball, it's been runningback Kendall Hunter and fullback Bruce Miller who have earned roles and taken advantage of their opportunities.
Hunter has seemingly made workhorse back Frank Gore a more effective runner by keeping him fresh and being the perfect compliment to his running style. Meanwhile, Miller has stepped up in the absence of Moran Norris as a bruising fullback who is also versatile enough to provide a checkdown for Alex Smith.
It almost goes without saying that on the defensive side of the ball, first round choice and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Aldon Smith has been wreaking havoc in the oppositions backfield. Sitting at 5th in the NFL with 5.5 sacks on the season, Smith could hit double digits by mid-December. Smith is not alone either; rookie cornerback Chris Culliver has made some noise already this season, recording his first career interception against Tampa Bay when asked to step up due to injuries.
The Front Seven
The performance of the 49ers front seven this year has been the best I have seen in years. The play by them has been absolutely phenomenal, with a different guy stepping up every week. The managements decision to part ways with Takeo Spikes, Aubrayo Franklin, Nate Clements and Manny Lawson hasn't been harmful whatsoever. In fact, their departure has allowed for other breakout players to take centerstage.
NaVorro Bowman, Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga have most notably stepped up in their new roles on the team. Bowman is looking like Patrick Willis Jr. and McDonald has been an absolute treat to watch at left defensive end. Ahmad Brooks has been contributing left and right, proving he should have been the starter all along. And let's not forget about Justin Smith, who at age 32, is playing at perhaps the highest level of his career.
Patrick Willis has been performing at the same All Pro level we have seen him perform at year in and year out since his rookie season. The only difference this year is the system; they play to a system and have the personnel to ensure that the weight doesn't always fall on Willis' shoulders. As a result, the front seven as a whole has combined for 17 sacks in six games this season.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of "2011, Where They Stand" as I continue to breakdown where the 49ers are in the NFL today, and where they might be headed.
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