49ERS REPORT CARD
The story of the first half of the season is the emergence of the offensive line, which has become one of the best if not the best units in the NFL. Frank Gore and his top backup, Kendall Hunter, are averaging five or more yards per carry, due partly to offensive linemen like Joe Staley and Mike Iupati making blocks on the second level of the defense.
Gore ranks sixth in rushing, but he has carried the ball 46 fewer times than he did at this point last season. That bodes well for his longevity this season. The 49ers are especially tough when they get an early lead because they can use their big offensive line to grind away at opponents in the second half. Just ask Buffalo, Seattle and Arizona.
The passing game is better than it was last season, and Alex Smith has thrown for more yards and has a better completion percentage. But that phase of the game remains inconsistent. Smith has many more weapons than he did in 2011, yet the comeback magic he showed last season disappeared in losses to the Vikings and Giants. Smith threw four of his five interceptions in those games, and the five interceptions match his total in 18 games last season. Grade: B
The 49ers have forced seven fewer turnovers than at the midway point in 2011 (12 vs. 19), and they have seven fewer sacks (15 vs. 22) than a year ago.
Still, they have a better unit. The secondary in particular has benefited from a year in Vic Fangio's system and a year working with one another. The result is better cohesion and fewer big plays by opposing offenses. A year ago, the 49ers were one of the worst teams in allowing plays of 40 or more yards, and they were victimized twice on such plays by the Saints in the divisional playoffs.
Through eight games, there have been only two 40-plus yard plays against San Francisco, none after Week 2. Like last season, the 49ers have run into problems when their front four pass rushers have been unable to disrupt the quarterback. With that in mind, the health and freshness of Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith will be key in any postseason run. Grade: A
The coverage units were a liability through the first six games but have closed ranks in the last two games largely because of Andy Lee's excellent punting. Core special teamers such as C.J. Spillman, Tavares Gooden and Tramaine Brock certainly have the athleticism to make for a great unit. To this point, however, the 49ers' special teams have lacked the attitude and personalty of last season's team. David Akers, who kicked a record 44 field goals last season, started out hot this year. But he went into a 6-of-11 slump that included losses in Minnesota and against the Giants. He is 3 for 3 in the past two games. Grade: C
A year ago at this point, the 49ers were 7-1 and the surprise of the NFL. They got sacks, forced turnovers and almost never gave the ball away. Perhaps best of all, they had the magic of an emerging team, getting key plays at critical times, most notably in wins at Philadelphia and Detroit. This season, victories aren't surprising they're expected.
Shoddy play isn't inevitable it's intolerable. One thing the 49ers have had to battle are the expectations that started to inflate when they narrowly lost the NFC Championship Game in January. Their passing game is better this season but not as good as anticipated with the arrival of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. The defense also is better, but it hasn't had the dramatic, game-sealing plays from last season.
The bottom line, however, is the 49ers are more mature, more complete and better than they were a year ago. Through eight games, they are perfectly positioned to realize those lofty offseason expectations. Grade: A-