The folks at Football Outsiders put together a weekly post for ESPN in which they generally break down a game from the perspective of the losing team. This past week they changed it up a bit and took a look at the 49ers and the three things they have done well (INSIDER protected) much of this season to get out to their 3-1 start.
The article is password protected by ESPN Insider so I thought I'd get you some of the details. Here is the three-part formula FO lists:
1. Win the turnover battle
2. Play dominant run defense
3. Excel in the kicking game
The turnover battle has been key for the 49ers as they are currently +8 in turnover differential. One big issue with turnovers can be luck as it comes to recovering fumbles. FO views forcing fumbles and holding on to the ball as skills, while recovering a loose ball as a bit more luck. For the 49ers, they have recovered nine of 15 loose balls (their fumbles and opponent fumbles combined). With teams generally recovering about half the available loose balls, the 49ers are not exactly blowing the door out in the luck department in regards to fumble recoveries.
The big key in the turnover battle has really been Alex Smith's ability to not make too many mistakes with the ball. He has two interceptions since last October 10 and is getting better in his decision-making. Even when the play is breaking down as we've seen a couple times this season on botched shotgun snaps, he has recovered and been able to either get it downfield to a receiver (the end zone PI play) or get out of the pocket and throw the ball away.
The dominant run defense has been discussed repeatedly and has really been a key for the 49ers. The pass defense has its moments but has also struggled from time to time. The Eagles are not exactly the best example of testing the run given how much Andy Reid likes to throw. But even still, if LeSean McCoy had found more success on the ground (instead of nine carries for 18 yards), the Eagles could very well have run down a lot more clock when they grabbed the big lead.
Michael Vick did have a lot of first half success running the ball, but even he was contained to some extent in the second half. He had 75 rushing yards, but 62 came in the first half. The 49ers adjusted to him and even he was held in check in the running game.
The third one was not exactly spectacular on Sunday against the Eagles, but thankfully the Eagles had their own kicking issues and it sort of became a wash. The 49ers did have greater success in punting and kickoffs, so that gives them a slight edge there. But all together on the season, special teams has been a huge strength for the team.
In recent years the 49ers talked about being physical with an F under Mike Singletary or playing some hard core defense under Mike Nolan. They would have their moments of victory, but overall things just sort of turned into a mess. Under Jim Harbaugh, you could argue that along with the precision passing, the team has been quite physical at least along the defensive front seven.
Eric Davis a couple tweets regarding this (tweet 1, tweet 2) and I've heard other people reference the idea that the 49ers are playing Mike Singletary football better under Jim Harbaugh than they did under Mike Singletary. If you believe that notion, part of it might be due to the fact that they're not telling the opponents exactly what they plan to do and then go out and do exactly that. Under Jim Harbaugh the team has not told anybody anything about anything. Then, as they showed in the Eagles game, they go out and make adjustments when things are not looking pretty. Who knew adjustments could work?!?!
I'd argue with that in mind that there is a fourth aspect to the formula:
4. Smart coaching
Normally it shouldn't need to be a part of the formula to include "Smart Coaching" but given the performances of recent 49ers coaching staffs, this seems appropriate. While previous 49ers coaching staffs may have been loaded with "smart people" that did not make them smart coaches. The lack of in-game adjustments alone proves that. It is rather nice having a coaching staff that mixes it up and actually tries to out-think the opposition.