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49ers at the midpoint: Do or die from here on out

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With the 49ers fresh off the bye week, I size up where they need to improve and what the road ahead looks like as they charge into the second half of their schedule.

Dilip Vishwanat

It's hard to believe but the 49ers embark on the final nine games of the 2014 season this weekend. They stand at 4-3, two games behind the division-leading Arizona Cardinals and in the thick of the early, ultra-competitive NFC wild card race. Today, I take a look at areas for improvement on the offense and defense, this weekend's matchup against St. Louis, and the road ahead.

The Offense

The 49ers have a bevy of talent on offense but by and large, even with more three-wide receiver sets and use of the spread, the 49ers offense is still the same old 49ers offense once the ball is snapped. They still have trouble moving the ball down the field with consistency. It's either getting in the red zone in seven plays or so (and usually settling for a field goal) or pitching a three and out and trotting a tired defense back onto the field. There are several factors at play here. One is that the 49ers have the same offensive coordinator and thus, have an offense that garners the same results it has for the past three years . Another is that the 49ers' line, the foundation of San Francisco's offense, has been in flux since the season began, with Mike Iupati battling various injuries, Anthony Davis missing the first several games due to shoulder surgery, and center Daniel Kilgore going down for the season during the massacre in Denver.

Thankfully, the 49ers get Iupati back this week and Anthony Davis will have a few more weeks of action under his belt, while rookie Marcus Martin remains an unknown commodity plugging in at center. The rookie is in a precarious situation as he missed over a month with a dislocated knee cap and has only been active at practice for under a month. The upside is that Martin's size gives him an advantage over Kilgore in the measurables category, so he may be able to get better push in the rush game. The downside is that he's a rookie, who missed time with injury, in charge of barking out signals and snapping the ball cleanly to quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That aspect scares me; expect some hiccups one way or another.

Additionally, finding ways to get the ball into receivers' hands in space is something the 49ers still struggle with. Stevie Johnson has emerged as the most intriguing receiver in the group and seems to elevate his play week-in and week-out; Anquan Boldin is the dependable target that fights tooth and nail for the tough conversions; Brandon Lloyd is the homerun threat; Vernon Davis has been disappointing, battling injury and a severe case of stone hands; and Michael Crabtree is, well...Michael Crabtree. What I mean by that is it's time to stop thinking that Crabtree will become anything other than what he's been for the past five and a half seasons—a decent #2 wide receiver. The fact that Stevie Johnson has outshone Crabtree despite being third on the depth chart is a testament to the former Buffalo Bill and an indictment of Crabtree in year six.

Meanwhile, Greg Roman continues to show a disdain for post patterns and crossing routes, opting for hitch and comeback routes with infuriating regularity. How do you expect wide receivers to move down the field when you're sending them five yards (if that, sometimes) up field, halting them to turn around to the opposite side of the field, and ensuring the cornerback hits them in the back, dead in their tracks for a minimal gain? While I derided Crabtree for his underwhelming season earlier, you can't deny that one of his greatest strengths is shaking defenders after the ball is in his hands. Don't you want to give him some space and allow him to utilize his strong suit? Don't you want to give someone like Stevie Johnson the opportunity to catch the ball in stride in the middle? There's little wonder why the 49ers rank 30th in the league in yards after the catch this season but there's plenty of reason to wonder why they don't work to change this.

Despite having venerable Frank Gore and bullish rookie running back Carlos Hyde in their stable, the Niners can't seem to rush consistently game to game. When it's clicking, it can't be stopped; when it's not, there's no getting it going. Part of that is due to the offensive line's performance. But the other part is the playcalling. Hyde is a stronger, faster back at this point; use him to run off the edge or catch passes out of the backfield with more frequency. More importantly, the handoffs out of shotgun to both backs needs to stop right now. Has this ever yielded a positive result? Call me crazy but with backs like Hyde and Gore, don't you want to safely get the ball into their hands as close to the line of scrimmage as possible? Pinning them five yards behind the line of scrimmage as defenders plunge into the backfield to tackle them for a loss isn't doing any good. Sticking with the run game and employing some different designs will go a long way in helping the 49ers' ground attack.

The Defense

Switching to the other side of the football, the bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the San Francisco's decimated defense. While Tramaine Brock and Patrick Willis remain questionable for this week's game against the Rams, there's still a chance that one or both could play. Meanwhile, rookie nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward returns from injury and Glenn Dorsey is coming off the shelf from a torn bicep suffered during the preseason. Most importantly, the team will welcome back star pass rusher Aldon Smith either next week or the week after (depending on whether Roger Goodell abbreviates his suspension or not) and NaVorro Bowman is still slated to make a return as early as late November. So while holes remain, the 49ers are getting bodies back and proved up until the Peyton Manning beatdown in Denver that they can remain a stout unit in the face of injury. With a crucial conference matchup against the resurgent New Orleans Saints in NOLA next weekend, the defense will need to be at their best. The prospect of having Aldon Smith and upstart rookie Aaron Lynch coming at Drew Brees off the edge is a very promising one.

The true star of this defense has been defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Despite all of the injuries, he has proven that his scheme and coaching acumen can rise above and keep this unit playing at a high caliber. There's not much else to say about the defense. It's still a very strong unit and one that stands to get even better once they welcome back some key members.

This Week

The primary objective this week (like any week) is to get off to a quick start versus a tricky Rams team. It took a long bomb to Brandon Lloyd and a furious comeback by San Francisco to nab a win in St. Louis three weeks ago, so they'll have their work cut out for them against Jeff Fisher's squad this week. The Rams consistently play the 49ers very tough (with the exception of last season) and the Niners are notoriously sluggish coming out of the bye week under Jim Harbaugh with a 1-1-1 record since 2011. The Rams will be looking for revenge; feeling slighted by a bad call against tight end Jared Cook which swung momentum to San Francisco and gave them life when they were all but dead in the water. The Rams are dealing with some injuries on the defensive side of the ball, with rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Janoris Jenkins listed as questionable this weekend.

With the Rams' defense ranking second-to-last against the rush, the 49ers will likely look to attack St. Louis on the ground. Expect St. Louis to counter by selling out to the run, stacking the box, and putting Colin Kaepernick and a shaky offensive line under pressure, forcing the 49ers' signal-caller to beat them with his arm. Whether Kaepernick can do so remains to be seen.

Looking Ahead

So where are the 49ers right now and where are they headed? Right now, they're an underwhelming, injury-riddled 4-3 team fighting for their playoff lives. Where they are headed remains to be seen. They're entirely capable of making a run in the second half of the schedule and equally as capable of continuing on the road of mediocrity they're on. If the offensive line can jell a bit more and provide a boost in pass protection and the run game, the 49ers offense could see marked improvement over the last nine games. If they can't, Kaepernick will continue to look skittish in the pocket and fail to find receivers.

While the second half of the schedule is somewhat more favorable than the first half, it's still not easy by any stretch. The Rams are a tough out this weekend, battling the Saints in New Orleans is a scary proposition, the Giants (despite looking pretty bad most of this season) have the benefit of playing at home and getting the Niners in a back-to-back road game situation, Thanksgiving against Seattle needs no descriptor, and wrapping up the season against San Diego and Arizona will likely have big playoff implications for all teams involved.

The playoff push is now for San Francisco. The Niners can't afford to have any more than 3 losses the rest of the way. That means at least a 6-3 record from now until the end, which still doesn't guarantee them a spot (lest we forget Arizona missing the postseason with a 10-6 record last year). Is that possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? I'm not so sure. The 49ers still have a lot to prove and a lot of question marks. Getting healthier will work to their advantage but just because they'll get some players back doesn't mean they can't lose others along the way. Stringing a few wins together will go a long way in the confidence department and in silencing the ceaseless media scrutiny that has plagued the team for the first two months of the season. Jim Harbaugh purportedly relishes chaos, adversity, and the underdog role, but anyone who doesn't think he'd like a smoother ride for the second half of the season is fooling themselves.