No one will be yelling, Sell! Sell! Sell! after looking at the 49ers' quarterly report, but it's not exactly a bull market either. The 49ers are a .500 ball club, which is precisely where most people would have put them after games against Arizona, Seattle, Detroit and New Orleans. They're certainly better than last year's team (also 2-2 after four games) but not ready to take on any elite teams either as shown by their disappointing performance in New Orleans. Here's how I see the team with three-fourths of the season still to go.
Offense. This is a Mike Martz offense, no doubt about it. The 49ers are eons ahead of where they were last year in everything from creativity to giving opposing defenses something to worry about. They rank 12th - TWELTH! - in total offense and are averaging 334 yards a game, which was unheard of last year. Three different receivers have had big games for the 49ers and Frank Gore has far more running room than he did last season. But it's not all good. Martz is living up to his reputation for exposing quarterbacks. The 49ers lead the league with 19 sacks allowed and have been particularly bad in that category on the road. Mike Nolan joked that he didn't mind a lot of sacks as long as they were "gentle" ones. The sacks J.T. O'Sullivan absorbed in New Orleans were not gentle and you wonder if he can make it through a season being flung to ground nearly five times a game. In fact, the loss to New Orleans looked eerily similar to how Lions games played out over the last two seasons - and that's not a good thing. Still, the bottom line is that the 49ers are moving the ball, and barring one game where they had trouble finding the end zone, appear able to keep pace with anyone. Grade: B+
Standouts: Frank Gore, Eric Heitmann, J.T. O'Sullivan
Need to see more: Vernon Davis, Jonas Jennings
Defense. Heading into the season, the belief was that an improved offense would boost an already solid defense. So far, that's not the case. The 49ers finished last season ranked 25th in total defense, giving up 346 yards on average. This year, they are 22nd overall and giving up 336 yards on average, hardly a quantum leap forward. They've actually dropped a bit in points allowed. They ended the 2007 season with a 22.8 points-against average and are giving up 24.2 points a game this year. Part of it might be the opponents. The 49ers have played four pass-happy teams that can gobble up a lot of yards. The Saints, Cardinals and Seahawks are all among the Top 11 teams this season in total offense. Still, there doesn't seem to be much change at all from last year. There's only a mediocre pass rush - 2 sacks per game, just like last year - and their opponent's 3rd-down percentage is exactly what it was last season. Grade: C
Standouts: Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Walt Harris, Nate Clements
Need to see more: Aubrayo Franklin, Isaac Sopoaga, Manny Lawson, Dashon Goldson
Special Teams. Last year the defense was bad at times, the offense was bad all the time, but the special teams were consistently solid. This year - not so much. Sunday's game against New Orleans was the most 2007-ish showing yet with Joe Nedney hitting long field goals and the coverage teams looking strong. Allen Rossum has boosted the return game, an element missing from last season. But overall, the unit is off to a slow start. Andy Lee is averaging 41.8 yards a punt, down from his gaudy 47.3 average from a year ago. Nedney has missed two field goals from 40 to 49 yards; he was perfect in that category a year ago. The coverage units - perhaps the best part of the team a year ago - also are off pace. They are allowing opponents slightly more on kickoff returns and a lot more on punt returns - 14.2 yards per attempt vs. 7.6 yards from a year ago. Grade: C
Standouts: Michael Robinson, Zak Keasey
Need to see more: Andy Lee
Overall. The 49ers are unquestionably better than they were a year ago. The question is: How much better? The offense took a huge leap from 2007 to 2008 but the defense has yet to make a similar jump. If it can, there's no reason why the 49ers can't be scratching and clawing for the division lead in late November. If it can't, then you might as well refer to the 49ers as "Lions West."
-- Matt Barrows