The 49ers enter their bye 11/2 games behind in the division, coming off a humbling loss to the Broncos, with an offense that can’t seem to settle on an identity and with the future of their head coach cloudy at best.
The forecast for the second half of the season, however, calls for mostly blue skies.
For one, the 49ers expect an influx of talent, beginning with their top pass rusher, Aldon Smith. He was due to return from his suspension prior to the Nov. 16 game against the New York Giants, but the NFL could reduce that punishment so that he is on hand for the next game, Nov. 2.
Other top players who missed the most recent contest, Patrick Willis and Mike Iupati, also will be back, and others like Glenn Dorsey and NaVorro Bowman are expected to join the team in the next month or so. All of which makes the second half of the 49ers’ schedule feel like a new season.
Add to that the fact that none of the team’s next seven opponents currently have a winning record and that the 49ers end the season with a stretch of six games in which they will board a plane just once – a relatively short flight to Seattle – and there is optimism they just won’t make the playoffs, they’ll do so on a roll.
The kicker: While they trail the Cardinals in the division, the 49ers are a half-game ahead of their arch nemesis, the Seahawks. They can win in Arizona; they haven’t shown they can do the same in Seattle. Winning the NFC West would be great, but the more important goal remains the same: Just be better than the Seahawks.
Some other thoughts and observations as the 49ers gear up for their second act:
Biggest find: One of the benefits of having so many stars out is it allowed young players, who in recent years have been stuck on the sideline on the 49ers’ talent-laden team, to prove themselves.
The most pleasant surprise may be outside linebacker Aaron Lynch, a fifth-round draft pick in May. He was one of the few 49ers defenders who consistently found his way to the quarterback and, as a result, his snaps steadily rose. He played 29 percent of the defensive snaps in Week 1 and 73 percent in Week 7.
Lynch’s playing time is sure to decrease when Smith returns to the lineup. But at that point, the 49ers will have something they haven’t had since coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio took over: three legitimate pass rushers at outside linebacker.
With Smith on the right side and a rotation of Lynch and Ahmad Brooks on the left, the 49ers should be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks with just four pass rushers. That’s been the simple yet effective bedrock of their defensive formula in recent years but one that was inconsistent through the first seven games.
Biggest disappointment: The 49ers’ offensive line should be the best in the game. They have three first-round draft picks and a young center in Daniel Kilgore who was having an excellent season before suffering a broken ankle Sunday. However, the line’s sum hasn’t equaled its parts for the past season and a half.
Yes, there have been injuries and holdouts that have disrupted the rhythm this year. But there also have been too many individual lapses from stalwarts like Joe Staley and Iupati. The 49ers have given up 19 sacks, tied for fifth worst in the league. If you take away quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s runs, the 49ers are averaging 3.8 yards per carry.
And that last stat isn’t because they have an aging running back. Frank Gore averages 4.1 yards an attempt. Carlos Hyde – eight years Gore’s junior – is averaging 3.4 yards per carry.
Biggest question mark: The 49ers have decided they must pass the ball more. The problem is that three of their four most prolific passing games resulted in losses.
The 49ers didn’t have to play catchup in all of those contests. In two of them – against Chicago and Arizona – they were ahead at halftime. And even before they fell behind to the Broncos, they were using the running game as merely a change of pace from a pass-heavy attack.
They’ve been wildly inconsistent when they turn into a pass-first team. Their passing numbers are up significantly this year – 232 yards a game vs. 186 last year – and Kaepernick is connecting on 63.8 percent of his throws, the best of his career. But his interceptions also are up. He’s thrown five after throwing just eight all of last season.
The 49ers also haven’t been able to put teams away late in games in which they’ve leaned on their passing game instead of their run game.
Maybe the 49ers are smart in taking on growing pains now so they have a sharper passing offense at the end of the season. And it should be noted that a prolific passing attack allowed them to get back into the Week 6 game against the Rams, their only win this year in which Kaepernick has attempted more than 30 passes.
But there’s also an argument that it’s difficult to be a ground-and-pound team one game and a four-and five-wide receiver squad the next. Either persona requires a full commitment. By the end of the season, the 49ers risk being only kind of good at both.
Which has been their offensive identity through their first seven games.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.