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Six for Six: 49ers observations and questions heading into Week 6

As the 49ers prepare for their Monday Night contest in St. Louis, I offer up six takeaways and questions stemming from the first five weeks of the season

Ezra Shaw

In anticipation of the 49ers' divisional battle against the Rams on Monday Night Football, here are some notes and observations through the first five games that merit monitoring during tonight's contest.

Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Antoine Bethea tap fountain of youth

Five games through the season and all three of these veterans have shown no signs of age. Most remarkable is Justin Smith who, at age 35, looks reborn and rejuvenated after a 2013 campaign marred by a shoulder injury. With 3 sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, Smith is back to wreaking havoc in the backfield, which is all the more important considering the 49ers' pedestrian pass rush in Aldon Smith's absence.

No surprises when it comes to Gore. This offense goes as No. 21 goes. He's topped 100 yards the past two weeks and the 49ers have won both contests. That's been a theme since Gore entered the league. The 49ers featured a radically different, spread-out attack during their first few games this year and largely left Gore on the sidelines. Since then, they've gone back to their foundational offensive attack and it's yielded two much-needed victories. Greg Roman cautioned in the media this week that he doesn't want to wear Frank Gore down and while that's a valid concern, the 49ers would be wise to continue their ground-heavy approach with Gore and Hyde until teams show they can stop it.

Antoine Bethea is another seasoned vet playing lights out at the moment. A big question going into this season was whether Bethea would be an upgrade over the departed Donte Whitner and I think it's safe to say he has been through the first five games of the season, particularly in coverage. The great play of Bethea and Perrish Cox in the secondary has allowed the 49ers to continue to rush four (even in times when they should rush more, but I digress...) and effectively play zone. That ability is a big reason why the Niners shut down the Eagles potent passing attack in Week 4.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Lloyd and his gravity-defying grab last week against Kansas City.

Teams know how to defend Kaepernick

After seeing Colin Kaepernick live at Levi's Stadium the past 2 weeks, it's abundantly clear that teams know exactly how to defend the fourth-year QB and he's having a hard time adjusting. While Kap has never been patient in the pocket, he showed some progress in that department in Week 1. Since then, he's looked as skittish as he ever has. It's an extreme rarity these days to see Kaepernick drop back, locate a receiver, and fire a pass in one fluid motion. All too often, he's panicking at the first sign of a pass rush, taking his eyes off the field, and bailing on the designed play in favor of school-yard ball.

Is the offensive line a factor here? Absolutely. Their pass protection has been shoddy at best. But there are plenty of times when he has enough time and simply isn't seeing what's downfield and aborting too early. His habit of locking onto targets and inability to look defenders off receivers is also causing problems, as we've seen a couple interceptions and a couple would-be interceptions result from that. James Laurinaitis complimented Kapernick's growth in this area to the media this past week, citing the cross-field pass to Frank Gore against the Eagles but I saw that as a lucky product of the play breaking down more than I did Kaepernick looking to his third and fourth options. There are plenty of instances where targets are running open downfield and Kaepernick is not seeing them; many times, this is happening when the receives are to his backside. Knowing this, defenses can rush extra guys up front to contain and hassle Kaepernick with little worry that he'll make them pay for it.

Johnson emerges; Crabtree underwhelming

It's still early but with each week it appears more and more likely the 49ers will restructure Stevie Johnson's contract and wave goodbye to their 2009 first-round pick. In typical fashion, Crabtree has had a few nicks this year. First, it was a hamstring issue in training camp. Now, it's a foot issue that Crabtree has dismissed as being any sort of issue. Regardless, it's just another reason in a long line of reasons why the 49ers can't afford to roll the dice and payroll on an injury-prone wide receiver who has yet to show he's a number one in this league. Coming off of a very strong preseason, I felt Crabtree was finally ready to assert himself as one of the game's better wideouts, but six years into his career, it's safe to say we've seen all that Crabtree can offer.

Johnson, meanwhile, has developed a nice rapport with Kaepernick after noting in the offseason that the chemistry wasn't where it needed to be. With a couple crucial touchdowns against the Eagles and Chiefs, Johnson is becoming a go-to option in the 49ers passing game. With a skillset similar to Crabtree's, it makes much more sense to restructure Johnson at a number much lower than what I anticipate Crabtree will be seeking.

What does cornerback picture look like when Brock returns?

Fooch crafted a piece examining this very issue earlier this week and I agree wholeheartedly. Perrish Cox is not only the 49ers' best CB right now, he's one of the best in the league. You can't relegate him to the bench simply because Tramaine Brock returns from injury. In fact, Cox's season this year is much like Brock's breakout season last year. All of this leaves Culliver as the odd man out.

Culliver showed some real promise as a rookie in 2011 and at times during 2012, but his poor showing in Super Bowl XLVII still rings true and his inability to play the ball in the air rears its head time and time again. Of course, nickelback Jimmie Ward has had his fair share of lumps as a rookie and could bump down the chart with Brock's return, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has stood by Ward and applauded his improvement, again signaling to Culliver's eventual demotion.

Trademark red zone woes continue

New year, different players, same results. Five games into 2014 and the 49ers continue to sputter in the red zone. This is the Achilles heel of the team and a big reason why the 49ers either lose games or narrowly win them when the outcomes could be much different. Currently, the 49ers are scoring touchdowns on only 44 percent of their red zone trips (according to teamrankings.com). That ranks them No. 26 in the league in this category. Last week was another prime example. The 49ers marched down the field several times against Kansas City, only to completely shut down and send Phil Dawson out for five field goals.

Many times, you get the sense that they've settled on going for the field goal before they even have to. There's no shortage of viable weapons on offense, so this is symptomatic of the play-calling more than anything else. The problem is, I don't see any of it changing. The 49ers are who they are. Even with more three WR sets than they've ever featured, the 49ers offense still garners the same results. And if something like this hasn't been addressed in the four years since Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been at the control panel, it's not going to change now.

Lynch showing promise early on

The 49ers pass rush is in some serious need of life with Aldon Smith on the shelf for a few more weeks. With only 5 sacks to date, the 49ers are second-to-last in the NFL in that department (the only team worse is the Rams, with a single sack to their name). Justin Smith has helped to put pressure on the quarterback and is responsible for three of those sacks.

The other man helping to give the 49ers a boost in pass rush is rookie Aaron Lynch. While he's yet to record a sack, those who have watched the team know that he's been able to get to the backfield in a hurry and force some bad quarterback decisions. Additionally, he's tallied a tackle for a loss, two deflected passes, and a punt block.

He's still a raw talent and has plenty to improve upon, but there's a great deal of potential here for both the short- and long-term. If Lynch can convert a few of those quarterback hurries into sacks, it will go a long way for San Francisco until Aldon Smith returns.