Not that long ago, the 49ers were one of the model franchises in the league. But following Eddie DeBartolo’s forced departure, several seasons of bad drafts and worse free-agent transactions have left the team struggling to avoid their fourth double-digit-loss season out of the last five.
OFFENSE (#23 total yardage, #24 rushing, #15 passing, #t18 scoring):
After San Francisco finished the 2007 season ranked dead last in total offense, passing yards, and points scored, head coach Mike Nolan – fearing for his job – made the bold move of hiring passing-game guru Mike Martz to run the offense. So much for that idea; Nolan lasted seven games before getting the axe in October, with assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary taking over.
Martz brought J.T. O’Sullivan with him from Detroit, but after throwing 10 interceptions and taking 19 sacks in a five-game stretch, the former Lion was benched in favor of former Vikings clipboard-holder Shaun Hill. The Niners are 1-2 since the switch, but the offense is playing better, with the mobile Hill compiling a 100.0-or-better passer rating in two of his three starts.
Another of Martz’s old standbys from Saint Louis made the trip out West, when Isaac Bruce signed with the team after the Rams released him. Although the aging wideout’s good days are fewer and father between, he can still break loose for a 100-yard game now and again, and the 15th-year vet leads the team with 558 yards and five touchdowns catches. A note to Bills fans: Bruce now ranks fifth all-time in catches and third in yardage, ahead of Andre Reed in both statistics. Bryant Johnson has started most of the games opposite Bruce, although the team wouldn’t mind seeing rookie Josh Morgan – who’s out this week with a groin injury – take over that job. Jason Hill, although also limited in practice this week, will likely line up as the No. 3 receiver. Martz’s offense doesn’t call for many throws to the tight ends; Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker have combined for just 27 catches and three touchdowns.
Despite the turmoil around him, running back Frank Gore just keeps producing. Between rushing and receiving plays, he’s touched the ball just 227 times this year, but has racked up a combined 1,191 yards and seven touchdowns. Speaking before the Giants’ October game against San Francisco, defensive end Justin Tuck praised the Niners back. “I think what makes Frank a great running back is the fact that you can’t pinpoint what type of running back he is,” he said. “He’s a slasher. He’s a downfield runner. He’s patient. He’s quick. He’s elusive. He fits just about every category you can say about a running back, but you really can’t pinpoint on how you need to attack him. He can be a finesse runner. He can be a power runner. When it comes to running backs, he definitely has all of the tools to be a great one.” Something to keep in mind: Fullback Michael Robinson, the 2005 Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year as a quarterback at Penn State, could be dangerous out of a Wildcat-style formation.
Like the receiving corps, the line is dealing with injury issues. Seriously, is any Bills fan surprised to see Jonas Jennings on IR for the fourth time in six seasons? That six-year, $36-million deal bought the 49ers exactly 23 games, including just two starts this year, and they’ll likely cut their losses after the season. Fortunately, they weren’t counting on the oft-dinged Jennings as their left tackle, having already made the decision to flip 2007 first-round pick Joe Staley over to that side. After journeyman Barry Sims filled in for several games, the team moved Adam Snyder over from left guard, leaving David Baas and rookie Chilo Rachal to line up on either side of veteran center Eric Heitman. 49ers quarterbacks have paid for the unsteady line and Martz’s low priority on pass protection, taking 40 sacks in the first 11 games. The 49ers took the unusual step of dismissing offensive line coach George Warhop during the season, shortly after Singletary took over as head coach.
DEFENSE (#23 total yardage, #15 rushing, #29 passing, #29 scoring):
The 49ers use a hybrid 3-4 as their base defense, news that should give Bills fans a sense of unease. As Tim Graham pointed out on his AFC East blog on ESPN, the Buffalo offense has been less than impressive against 3-4 teams.
Fortunately for Buffalo, though, San Francisco doesn’t have Vince Wilfork, Kris Jenkins, or Shaun Rogers anchoring the middle of their three-man front. That job falls to Aubrayo Franklin, with Isaac Sopoaoga moving inside to the other tackle position when the Niners shift to a four-man line, with ex-Bengal Justin Smith and Ray McDonald at the ends. Twenty-ninth overall pick Kentwan Balmer (North Carolina) has been invisible, managing just six total tackles in the first 11 games.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis went to San Francisco with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, one slot before the Bills selected Marshawn Lynch. No matter how good Lynch ends up being, there’s room for regret that the talented Ole Miss product didn’t slide one more spot, because Willis looks like a perennial All-Pro in the making. “You have to account for him,” Seahawks tackle Walter Jones said of the 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year. “He’s a great player who’s going to make great plays. You really have to try to get on top of him and block him. You are going to try to block him, but for the most part he is going to make his plays. The defense is built for him to make plays and he’s making plays.”
Lining up next to him is an old friend, Takeo Spikes. He’s not the same sideline-to-sideline player who made back-to-back Pro Bowls in Buffalo before shredding his Achilles tendon, but the move inside suits the 11th-year vet well; he leads the team with three interceptions. As expected, outside ‘backers Parys Haralson (4.5) and Manny Lawson (3.0) – along with Smith (3.0), who can also rush from a stand-up position – lead the team in sacks. Meanwhile, Tully Banta-Cain continues to prove why he’s never been a long-term starter.
Another familiar face, Nate Clements, is in his second season as the 49ers’ top cornerback after breaking the bank in free agency with an eight-year, $80-million deal. He had a tough game against Terrell Owens last week, getting burned repeatedly during T.O.’s seven-catch, 213-yard performance, but he didn’t have much help from the 49ers pass rush, either. With counterpart Walt Harris likely to miss this game due to a hamstring injury, Lee Evans is likely to see a steady dose of his former teammate while Donald Strickland and Marcus Hudson try to keep the other Bills receivers under control. Safeties Michael Lewis and Mark Roman complete what would normally be a veteran secondary.
Thirteenth-year kicker Joe Nedney is a perfect 13-for-13 inside 40 yards, with his only misses this season coming from . The San Jose native has hit 87.7 percent of his field goal attempts since returning to the Bay Area in 2005, good enough for second place in team history. Andy Lee earned the NFL Pro Bowl bid at punter last season, and currently ranks sixth in the league with a 47.2-yard net average.
Allen Rossum currently ranks third in the conference in both punt and kickoff returns, but is on the shelf with an ankle injury. With Arnaz Battle also questionable for the Bills game, Clements will probably get some work on punt-return duty, while Delanie Walker and Michael Robinson could drop deep on kickoffs.
The coverage units are average, but here’s something to keep in mind: San Francisco has blocked three field-goal attempts this year, returning two for touchdowns.
The 49ers stand at 3-8, well on their way to challenging last year’s 5-11 record for ineptitude. Unless they run the table – and with games against the Jets, Dolphins, and Redskins left on the schedule, don’t bet on that happening – they’ll finish below .500 for the sixth consecutive season. San Fran has enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to pose a genuine threat, but unless the Bills play down to their level, the East Coast teams’ perfect record against their West Coast counterparts should remain intact.
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