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Injury and Adversity: A Defining Moment for Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers

The 49ers face their biggest obstacle in the Harbaugh era. What has gone wrong? Can they fix it?

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

There's no need to recap the debacle that has been the San Francisco 49ers over the past two weeks. It's been all over the news and web; even those outside of the 49ers sphere are aware of the early-season crisis they're currently battling. So let's get down to what the problems are and how (if at all) they can be resolved, as the team desperately looks to get the season back on track in a must-win game against St. Louis on Thursday.

To be fair, the amount of injuries this team has suffered through only three weeks of the season and preseason is astonishing and supremely frustrating. The casualty count in the war of attrition is as follows:  Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham (dating back to last year), Chris Culliver, Ian Williams, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis, LaMichael James, Nnamdi Asomugha, and then we have Aldon Smith's indefinite rehab stint. That is a crippling number of players on the shelf. The great coaches, however, find ways around this. Heck, the Giants have won Super Bowls with a decimated secondary. This is an unfortunate part of the game and, after two relatively healthy seasons, the 49ers have been bit hard by the injury bug.

On top of the injuries, let's add in a few more wrinkles of panic for good measure. The coaching staff's play-calling ability has significantly regressed. This staff made their mark in 2011 by maximizing the talent they had, getting creative with play-calling, and adapting to what other teams were doing against them. All three of those elements have recently been polarized. They've gone away from their strengths (running the ball), they have trudged through inane play-calling to no avail (a backfield pitch to Anthony Dixon, are you serious?), and they continue to shy away from what could possibly make this offense tick (getting Patton, Baldwin, and James into the mix, and playing Kaepernick from under center more often).

Lastly, Harbaugh is in real danger of losing locker room morale. The team looked utterly flat, unmotivated, and uninspired from the get-go this past Sunday. After the game, reports indicate that Frank Gore had some "choice words" for coach Harbaugh. The fiery head coach seems exasperated, and just as empty on answers as fans are.

These are all firsts in the Harbaugh era. Very detrimental firsts, all hitting at the exact same time. The team has never lost back-to-back games under Harbaugh until now. Check one. The team has never had a losing record under Harbaugh. Check two. The team has never led the league in penalties under Harbaugh. BIG check three. The team has never questioned leadership or game-planning under Harbaugh. Signs point to check four.  For a more gruesome account of just how poorly this team has played as of late, check out Eric Branch's article (if you have the stomach) which points out some of the putrid recent statistical low points-ones that have sunk lower than even those of the Singletary regime.

So much drama. So much turmoil. So many injuries. So many questions. How in the world is this team going to right the ship during a short week, in an attempt to beat a Rams team that last year's Super Bowl team couldn't best-on the road, mind you? Let's take a look at some ways they can climb back to respectability.

Harbaugh would be wise to pop in the 1994 San Francisco 49ers America's Game DVD and give a call to George Seifert and Steve Young for some advice on the situation. Although it wasn't two straight losses, the '94 Niners were decimated by the Eagles to the tune of 40-8 in the early part of the 1994 season. As the game grew more out of hand, Seifert pulled Young, inciting an incendiary reaction from the 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback. In fact, Young recalls "looking for a fist fight" with Seifert on the sidelines.

The following week, the 49ers had to travel to the Pontiac Silverdome to take on the Lions, deflated and agitated. Things started out shoddy, as the Lions jumped out to a 1st quarter 7-0 lead and Young went down, mired in pain. He remained in the game and led San Francisco to a hard-fought 27-21 victory. Young looks back on his diatribe during that blowout against Philadelphia as a turning point in the season. It served to galvanize the team and solidify Young as the locker room leader.

Granted, that 1994 team was far healthier and this time around, Frank Gore, not the quarterback, is the one lambasting the head coach...but there are parallels there. The wheels were coming off early on a team poised for greatness in 1994 and yet, they muscled through and it sparked a run that resulted in a fifth Lombardi trophy.

But I digress, let's get back to what has to happen tactically for the Niners to bounce back.

As Bill Williamson points out in a recent article, the 49ers need offensive firepower any way they can get it. That could come in the form of Jon Baldwin and LaMichael James. I'd expect appearances from one or both of those two, even more so if Vernon Davis is forced to miss Thursday's game. Without any of those guys in the line-up, the 49ers truly have no viable threat in the passing game. Severely lacking top-end speed, Boldin desperately needs other viable targets around him to gain separation and stave off defensive attention.

Stubbornness has gotten this team nowhere over the past two games. The coaching staff's ability to make in-game adjustments to combat what the opposing team is doing, a trademark of the 2011 and 2012 team, has completely evaporated. Regardless of whether it's sheer arrogance or a true belief that repeating the same thing will garner a different result, it's clear this team needs a different approach.

Another hallmark of the 2011 team was the ability to maximize the skills of each player and use it to the team's benefit. They converted Bruce Miller, a 7th round defensive end, into a starting fullback; developed Chris Culliver into a very strong nickel back; used Kendall Hunter as a great change of pace back to complement Gore; and made Aldon Smith a situational pass-rusher who almost stole Rookie of the Year honors. They seemed to do a complete 180° in 2012 and 2013, showing a defiant reluctance to play rookies, even when situation demanded so.

To this end, there should be no reason that Quinton Patton is not getting more involved in the gameplan. What has Kyle Williams, or any receiver outside of Boldin for that matter, shown so far to keep Patton on the bench? If they are worried about the rookie's downfield blocking and/or other facets of his game, then they need to put him different positions where he'll be most effective. Yes, it was only preseason but with the dearth of competence at wide receiver, doesn't his performance in those games warrant more regular season consideration?

Then you have the run game. They need to start using these things called "running backs" more frequently, and calling creative run plays from under center as they did in 2011. After lighting it up in the first quarter against the Colts, Frank Gore was ostracized from the offensive attack for the rest of the game. To quote former 49er Ricky Watters, "For what? For who?" Additionally, it would be nice to see Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James in a split backfield set, to give Kaepernick some speedy, viable check-down options if the wideouts continue to fail at gaining separation.

The defensive side of the ball, although not quite as concerning as the offense, has its fair share of serious problems as well. A sizable portion of the defensive woes have come due to the offense's turnovers and an inability to move the ball down the field. As a result, the defense is on the field far too much and getting too gassed to keep up with opposing offenses. On top of that, there's the ever-present injury factor.

Vic Fangio seems allergic to dialing up blitz packages, despite the fact that a four-man rush just isn't getting it done. He has to start implementing more aggressive blitzing, especially with a secondary that can't seem to shut down (or even contain) wide receivers like they used to. An effective pass rush is the best medicine for an ailing secondary.

If Fangio, like Roman, remains obstinate, it will only spell further disaster for San Francisco. Getting Corey Lemonier involved often against St. Louis, sending guys like Bowman up the middle, or even calling for a corner blitz on occasion, will help to rattle Sam Bradford early on if they can get to him.  Additionally, it will help in forcing turnovers-which is the kind of thing this team needs to do more of.

Beyond that, the excessive penalties have to stop. They impede the offense from moving the chains, and ill-timed, 3rd down flags have kept crucial drives alive for the opposition. This, again, points to the 49ers dwindling composure. Harbaugh could also do well in refraining from mouthing off to the officiating staff. Does he truly think that does him or his team any favors? I'm sure those refs love to flag San Francisco as much as they can on account of him being a constant annoyance to them.

It's not going to be easy, but this coaching staff must get back to basics and look to what worked for them in 2011. It's only Week 4, but it's unfortunately do-or-die time. St. Louis represents a real challenge, in a dome environment that is far from forgiving. But the 49ers have the ability to change some things that may just work better if they are amenable to do so. The definition of madness is repeating the same thing and expecting a different result...let's hope the 49ers don't find out what that looks like on Thursday night.

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