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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

September 23, 2013
Film review: Woes are largely on offense; Kaepernick's slow starts

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One of the themes from the 49ers' recent slide is how starkly different they look than the 2011 squad that everyone fell in love with when Jim Harbaugh first arrived. In fact, it was the Colts who looked very 2011-49ers-like in playing small ball on offense but making very, very few mistakes along the way.

After re-watching the game, the 49ers at times looked like their former selves. They had an excellent scoring drive on their second possession, then followed that by forcing a three-and-out by the Colts. But San Francisco's offense in particular never could maintain momentum. And it wasn't because they were continually in third-and-long situations. The 49ers had a series of third-and-3 and third-and-4 scenarios - absolutely reasonable, desirable downs - but Colin Kaepernick hardly ever had an easy read.

Was it because there were no open receivers? Or is Kaepernick having trouble going through his progressions? It's probably a combination of both, and it promises to be a big topic during Harbaugh's noon press conference. Either way, it's been an issue for two straight games, and San Francisco will have to find a solution, perhaps reshuffling its receiver lineup. Austin Collie remains a free agent. So does Lavelle Hawkins.

The statistics suggest the defense is collapsing. After all, it's allowed six rushing touchdowns in three games. Actually, the unit played well. Midway through the fourth quarter, for example, the score was 13-7. The defense put the offense in a position to win the game but the offense never could get anything going.

Oh, it certainly wasn't a perfect performance. Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald got flattened by blockers on Trent Richardson's touchdown run. Michael Wilhoite had no clue who had the ball on Andrew Luck's touchdown run.

The worst play of the game came when the defense had the Colts backed up on their own 9-yard line facing third and 9. Luck dumped a two-yard pass to Reggie Wayne. It's the type of play the 49ers typically feast on as defenders swarm the pass catcher after a minimal gain.

Wayne, however, split a bad tackle by Carlos Rogers, then broke free of two more on his way to a 25-yard gain. It's the type of lapse the defense has had in spurts this season, and this one was doubly painful because it left Willis with a groin injury. Still, that was the second longest play of the game for the Colts. They won by stringing together a number of long drives - with the help of some timely penalties - and won the time of possession battle handily, 36:25 to 23:35.

Frank Gore gained seven yards on the first play of the first possession. That gave the 49ers second and 3, which, of course, should mean that the offense picks up a first down and continues the drive. But Kaepernick misfired to Kyle Williams on second down and he threw a wobbly pitch to Kendall Hunter on third down, which gained only two yards. Result: another opening-drive punt.

Kaepernick has had 13 opening drives. His very first, last year against Chicago, resulted in a field goal. Another, vs. New England, went for a touchdown. Another resulted in an interception for a touchdown against the Packers. The other 10 have been three-and-outs.

The 49ers' kick-return game has given them absolutely nothing this year despite the fact they have used three different returners, Perrish Cox, Hunter and Quinton Patton. On Sunday, the 49ers would have been much better off kneeling in the end zone than returning the ball. Their average drive started on their own 19-yard line.

I'm not sure how Donte Whitner's big hit, penalized at the beginning of the game, is different than the big hit two seasons ago against New Orleans' Pierre Thomas that was celebrated to the high heavens. Willis also cracked helmets with a Colts running back later in the game and no penalty was called. That is, there's no consistency with the call, which, in fairness, is a difficult one to make given the speed at which they occur.

Hunter looked very fast on his 13-yard touchdown in the first quarter. That bodes well for Michael Crabtree's return. (Both had Achilles' tears).

McDonald was one of the team's best defenders in the first two games. He wasn't quite as good against Indianapolis, but his ankle injuries didn't seem to hinder him too much, either. He had a solid game.

McDonald played 78 percent of the defensive snaps while Justin Smith was in on 79 percent of the snaps. Both dealt with injuries in the run-up to the game - Smith a shoulder injury - but the bigger reason for their rest likely is that the 49ers have a short turnaround before Thursday's game in St. Louis.

However, for the second straight week, the 49ers badly lost the time-of-possession battle and both defensive ends still played a game's worth of snaps -- 57 for Smith and 56 for McDonald. Tony Jerod-Eddie played 18 snaps and Demarcus Dobbs 16. Aldon Smith, who will not play Thursday, was in on 72 defensive snaps (100 percent) and eight more on special teams.

- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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