The 49ers are not following the script. They were supposed to be one of the teams most negatively affected by the long labor impasse this summer. If they were going to win, it would be toward the end of the season when new offensive and defensive playbooks finally started to sink in to the players.
Instead, the 49ers have won early. They have the second-best record in the NFC, and what's more, they've played only one division game. As it stands now, the rest of the NFC West has a combined record of 3-15. In fact, the 49ers' 10 remaining opponents have a winning percentage of .383. (Rams and Cardinals were counted twice). Only the Giants, Ravens and Steelers have winning records. Here are some other early-season surprises:
â€¢ No crazy blitzes. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was supposed to be a mad scientist when it came to blitzing. The cornerbacks were going to come after the quarterback. So were the safeties. Heck, at times Fangio was going to send the cheerleaders and mascot on blitzes. That hasn't happened. The 49ers are tied for 7th in the league with 17 sacks, mainly by rushing four defenders.
When they have blitzed, it's mostly been up the middle from NaVorro Bowman or Patrick Willis. Still, defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, and outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Aldon Smith, are the only 49ers to record sacks through six games. No one is surprised that Justin Smith has been as productive as he's been. In his first season as Smith's bookend, however, McDonald also has been excellent. Fangio's achievement, with an assist from GM Trent Baalke, has been putting the right pieces in the right places and carrying over into 2011 the things that worked well in 2010.
â€¢ Alexander the Very Good. Consider this contrast: Through six games last season, Alex Smith had thrown eight touchdowns against nine interceptions. At the same mark this year, he has eight touchdowns against two interceptions. He ranks in the Top 10 among starting quarterbacks in both accuracy (63.3 completion percentage) and passer rating (95.2). What's perhaps most remarkable is that Smith - and his head coach, Jim Harbaugh - have virtually eliminated the hometown booing that was so prevalent last season.
â€¢ Look ma, no experience! The 49ers have already received big contributions from nearly half of their rookie class. Aldon Smith leads the team with 5 Â½ sacks (he currently ranks ninth in the NFL in sacks) despite not starting any games. Cornerback Chris Culliver and running back Kendall Hunter have important supporting roles, and Bruce Miller improves at fullback with every game. My sense is that Miller's emergence will limit veteran Moran Norris to a short-yardage role when he returns in a few weeks from a broken fibula.
â€¢ Here's the catch. Of the five wide receivers currently on the 53-man roster (a group that includes former first rounders Michael Crabtree, Braylon Edwards and Ted Ginn), the only one with a touchdown is former sixth rounder Kyle Williams. (Crabtree, to be fair, probably should have had a TD in Cincinnati). Of Alex Smith's eight touchdowns, six have gone to tight ends (three each for Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker). The other touchdown went to Josh Morgan, another former sixth-round pick who is on injured reserve. The key here is Walker, who had never had more than one touchdown in a single season. The 49ers have known for years that he was a unique talent. Only this year, however, have they taken full advantage of it.
â€¢ Play of the year? It belongs to Justin Smith with honorable mention going to Alex Smith and Walker. Before Justin Smith poked the ball free from Jeremy Maclin in Week 4, however, the 49ers were teetering between good team and ho-hum team. Smith's extra effort seemed to push the 49ers forward in their development. They have been playing like one of the top teams in the league since. The question is whether they can keep it up over the next 10 weeks.
-- Matt Barrows