Every week when watching the 49ers there are a number of things that jump out to me that don’t make it into an article or on that week’s episode of the Better Rivals podcast. Whether it’s an interesting play design, a funny touchdown celebration, an under-the-radar player performance, or an idiotic comment from the announcer, going forward I’ll be sharing my favorites with you here. Some things will be more important than others and other things might be interesting only to me, but hopefully you’ll find a few things you didn’t know or happened to have missed during the game.
With the preamble out of the way, here are 12 things I liked and didn’t like from Week 11’s match-up against the Giants.
1. Revival of San Francisco’s Pass Rush
Aldon Smith and Aaron Lynch combined for just one sack on Sunday, but that doesn’t even begin to measure their impact on the game. San Francisco’s bookend pass rushers were constantly harassing Eli Manning and forcing hurried or errant throws, totaling 17 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus.
Aldon will be getting more in-depth, all–22 treatment tomorrow so I won’t spend a ton of time on him here. But man, it was nice to have him back on the field and playing well right from the start.
Lynch continues to ascend and the addition of Smith to the mix will only make life easier for the rookie linebacker. Giants starting right tackle Justin Pugh left the game with a quad injury after only eight snaps, forcing Charles Brown into the lineup, and it wasn’t pretty. Lynch had his way with Brown for most of the day, making him look silly on numerous occasions. Perhaps my favorite example came on a play that ultimately didn’t even count.
Lynch’s initial punch sends Brown stumbling to his backside several yards in the wrong direction, giving him a clear path to Manning for the sack (which was wiped off the board due to a holding penalty on Michael Wilhoite). It was the type of splash play that I’ve been waiting to see from Lynch all season. If he can continue play at this level, the 49ers’ pass rush has the potential to be better than it has at any point under the current coaching regime.
2. Brooks’s Self-Benching
The return of Aldon Smith meant that at least one person was going to see reduced snaps at outside linebacker. With Lynch playing as well as he has, it always made sense that player would be Ahmad Brooks.
While Brooks came up big in a key situation last week against the Saints, his run as the team’s supposed primary pass rusher in Aldon’s absence hasn’t gone well. The idea that he should be playing every snap and the lack of interest in being part of a rotation is a bold position for a player that’s been as underwhelming as Brooks has been this season.
I can certainly understand Brooks’s desire to be on the field, but his handling of the situation was disappointing, to say the least.
Brooks has three years remaining on his current contract. But with Lynch’s ascension and Brooks’s swelling cap numbers, it’s possible the 30-year-old linebacker sees the writing on the wall. Brooks and the 49ers going their separate ways prior to next season seems to be the most likely scenario.
3. Chris Borland… Defensive Rookie of the Year?
You don’t replace Patrick Willis. But Chris Borland’s attempt at doing exactly that has gone far better than anyone could’ve reasonably imagined.
Borland led the Niners defense yet again with 8.5 Stops and four Defeats against the Giants. He’s moving at warp speed seemingly at all times and always seems to find his way to the football, particularly in key spots.
There might not be another player in the league that’s maximizing his skill set to the extent that Borland is currently. We’re seeing everything that draftniks and football people thought Borland could do well prior to the draft executed to the highest degree. I don’t know that Borland’s current level of play is sustainable, but if he continues to play anywhere near that level over the remainder of the season, he’ll have a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year despite not seeing the field until Week 6.
4. Back-to-back impressive performances from Marcus Martin
I jumped on the Marcus Martin bandwagon after watching his college tape shortly after the draft. Had he not been hindered by an ankle injury, and later a knee injury, during much of the preseason, I still think he would’ve been the 49ers best option at center to begin the season.
It’s unfortunate that it took an injury to Daniel Kilgore to make it happen, but Martin is showing off why he was widely considered to be the best center in the 2014 draft. After a rough outing in his first career start against the Rams, Martin has been a standout in back-to-back games. I raved about Martin’s play against the Saints on last week’s podcast and he put together another solid outing in New York.
Martin has misfired on a few shotgun snaps, but that’s an issue I fully expect to disappear in the coming weeks. More importantly, he’s been a stabilizing presence at the fulcrum of the 49ers’ offensive line, performing well in both pass protection and the run game.
5. Gore and Hyde Carry Split
In San Francisco’s first two games following their bye week, the carry distribution between Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde moved drastically in the direction of the veteran. Gore received 14 carries to Hyde’s two in the 49ers’ loss to the Rams, with a 23-to–4 split in favor of Gore the next week in New Orleans. While Gore absolutely deserves to receive the majority of the carries, Hyde is simply too talented to be only touching the ball just a couple of times per game.
That split balanced out a bit against the Giants, with Gore toting the rock 19 times to Hyde’s nine, which feels about right. There’s no reason Hyde shouldn’t be getting 35–40 percent of the carries going forward.
6. Manning Face. Manning Face. Manning Face. Manning Face. Manning Face.
7. Kaepernick’s Checkdown
San Francisco’s first offensive play of the second quarter was a great example of a simple, but necessary, play Colin Kaepernick needs to make on a more consistent basis.
Kaepernick moves within the pocket to avoid interior pressure and then dumps the ball off to his checkdown, netting the 49ers offense eight yards on 1st-and–10. This is a play that Kaepernick needs to be more willing to make, especially on early downs when simply picking up positive yardage to setup a more manageable third down is often more important than looking for a bigger play downfield.
8. Read-Option Blocking
The 49ers haven’t used a ton of read option plays this season, but when they have, their most successful plays have come on plays when Kaepernick has given the ball to the back as opposed to keep it himself. A big reason why Kaepernick hasn’t been able to break off a big chunk of yardage on a designed run has been the blocking of San Francisco’s receivers and tight ends on the edge. Late in the first quarter, we got a play that was indicative of those struggles.
When utilizing read option plays, the 49ers will often have either a tight end or receiver on an arc block. The arc block is designed to loop around the edge defender being read to block the second level defender scraping towards the quarterback. On this play, it’s Stevie Johnson being asked to pick up this crucial block. As you can see from the GIF above, it doesn’t go so well.
Even though Kaepernick would be able to easily beat Jason Pierre-Paul to the edge, Johnson can’t turn the corner quick enough to seal off Giants linebacker Devon Kennard (59), who proceeds to close up Kaepernick’s rushing lane. If Johnson is able to get that block, only the safety is standing between Kaepernick and the end zone. Instead, it’s a seven-yard loss that was the precursor to yet another red-zone field goal.
9. Overachieving Secondary
Here are the stats for two defensive backs after Week 11, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:
Player A: 65 targets, 56.9% completion, 13.4 yards per completion, 2 touchdowns allowed, 4 interceptions, 6 passes defensed, 65.9 passer rating
Player B: 51 targets, 54.9% completion, 12.7 yards per completion, 2 touchdowns allowed, 2 interceptions, 2 passes defensed, 73.6 passer rating
One of those players is someone who’s been showered with praise while the other has been the subject of a good deal of criticism.
Player A is Perrish Cox and Player B is Chris Culliver. Both players have performed well above expectations this season. The difference is that Cox made several splash plays early in the season. Those plays tend to garner attention leading to the perception that he’s been a much better player. With interceptions in back-to-back games, those plays are starting to come for Culliver and hopefully people will start to take notice.
10. Odell Beckham not being available for the 49ers to pass up
It’s a good thing that ODB was off the board before the 49ers had the opportunity to pick in May’s draft, because I don’t know if I would’ve been able to handle watching him make plays like this had the 49ers had the chance and inevitably passed it up.
11. Baalke’s 2014 Draft Class
Dreams of Beckham aside, Trent Baalke’s 2014 draft class looks to be right there with the quality of the 2011 class. I don’t know that there’s anyone of the caliber of Aldon Smith in this year’s class, but it’s filled with players already making an impact.
Carlos Hyde, Marcus Martin, Chris Borland, and Aaron Lynch were all mentioned earlier and are all performing well in meaningful roles. Dontae Johnson has shown flashes in limited snaps, including a critical fourth-down pass break-up at the goal line that led to Borland’s second interception of Eli Manning.
Jimmie Ward and Bruce Ellington haven’t had the most glowing of rookie seasons, but there’s no reason to think that they can’t round into meaningful contributors over the next couple seasons. Ellington’s issue is mostly a lack of opportunity with the likes of Crabtree, Boldin, and Johnson ahead of him on the depth chart. Ward was much better after a rough start and it’s a shame his season has been cut short due to injury.
It’s far to early to judge this class, but it’s already been good enough to put that horrid 2012 class well in the rear-view mirror.
12. Lack of a Dominate Win
Contrary to popular belief, the mark of a good football team often lies in their ability to dominate inferior opponents rather than squeak out wins against quality foes. Ten games into the season and the 49ers are still searching for that first dominate victory.
San Francisco has played in six games decided by one score or less, going 4–2 in those contests, and they’ve actually been outscored by a single point on the season thanks in large part to the 25-point shellacking at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Broncos.
Though it ended as one of those six close games, the Giants did their best to gift-wrap a 49ers’ blowout. Five Eli Manning interceptions consistently gave the 49ers good field position, and though San Francisco moved the ball well early, they were unable to take advantage, producing just three points off of those five turnovers.
Getting the win was obviously important for staying alive in the wild card race. However, unless the 49ers can string together some impressive performances over their final six games, even if they’re fortunate enough to sneak into the postseason it’s difficult to envision anything but an early exit.