Offensive line: It seems like just a few weeks ago that this unit was crumbling before our very eyes and being largely responsible for holding back the offense, if not the team in general. Now the big boys up front are accepting awards. After a tremendous all-around performance to a man during last week's 48-3 wipeout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco's offensive line was named the NFL's Top Protectors for Week 5 games by John Madden, making the unit eligible for the Madden Protectors Award that will be presented to the NFL's best offensive line in February before Super Bowl XLVI. "Last year the 49ers started two rookies on their offensive line and with a year experience they have become a formidable group," said Madden, the Hall of Fame coach and NFL celebrity. Here's what else was said about San Francisco's line in the news release to announce the honor: "The offensive line starts outside with tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis. The guards providing protection inside are Mike Iupati and Adam Snyder while center Jonathan Goodwin called the signals from the middle. Snyder made his second consecutive start after beginning the season as a backup. Tackle/guard Chilo Rachal and tackle Alex Boone also saw action." Well, that about covers everybody. And it's true that each of those linemen contributed to the run blocking that produced 213 rushing yards and the pass blocking that protected quarterback Alex Smith, who wasn't sacked and was hurried only twice the entire game. The dramatic improvement not only has this unit rising, it has the line going from sad-sack outfit to league-wide darlings.
LB Patrick Willis: Off to a modest start – by his high standards – during the first quarter of the season, the four-time Pro Bowler showed everybody who's boss during a vintage Patrick Willis performance to spearhead the defensive drubbing of the Buccaneers. Willis was all over the field making 18 tackles, knocking down a pass and also recovering a fumble. He also played a lead role in socking and shutting down Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount, who gave the 49ers fits last season but was limited to just 34 yards rushing this time before he was knocked out of the game in the second half. After his best game of the season, and one that goes on the list among the best of his career, Willis was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week, the first time he ever has received the honor.
RB Frank Gore: The seventh-year veteran has determinedly sprinted away from his troubling slow start by returning to top form the past two weeks. That form was quite evident against the Buccaneers as Gore slashed and gashed and ran through and over the Tampa Bay defense for 125 yards on 20 carries, his second consecutive 100-yard game. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared Gore might finally be slowing down and would be losing more of his carries to flashy rookie backup Kendall Hunter. Now Gore once again is the main man, the revving engine of the offense, and he has climbed from oblivion to No. 9 among the NFL's leading rushers this week with an even 400 yards. In just two weeks, Gore has raised his average per carry from an ailing 2.5 to a healthy 4.3, and he has never looked much better than when he was breaking off "get-the-heck-out-of-my-way" runs of 21, 19 and 18 yards against the Bucs, usually coming at them right up the gut.
Wide receivers: It's suck-it-up time for San Francisco's wideouts, a unit that lost its best receiver when Braylon Edwards went down in Week 2, then lost its most productive receiver – and the other starter opposite Edwards when the season began – when Josh Morgan broke his leg Sunday and then was placed on injured reserve three days later. The 49ers are down to Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams at the position, along with newcomer Brett Swain, who was signed off the free-agent scrap heap this week but is unlikely to see the field on offense Sunday against the Lions unless somebody gets hurt and the situation demands it. There's enough talent here to hold down the position until Edwards can return at the end of this month, but there is no depth, and Ginn is going to have to prove he can get off the line and get open or else Crabtree is going to get double vision from all the double-coverage he'll be looking at.
WR Josh Morgan: What a heck of a time to sustain a season-ending leg injury. Morgan was off to the best start of his career and was establishing himself as a mainstay in San Francisco's passing attack before breaking his right leg in fourth-quarter garbage time against the Bucs. Morgan had been building a strong rapport with quarterback Alex Smith and was asserting himself as Smith's most reliable target among wide receivers before the bad break. Now others will get the opportunity that should have belonged to Morgan in a San Francisco offense and passing game that finally look like they're going somewhere. This is Morgan's contract year, so draw your own conclusions about what this injury might cost him. Coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday that the 49ers will make it a priority to re-sign Morgan, but this is the NFL and that day still is a long way off, so there's no guarantee it will happen.
RG Chilo Rachal: The fourth-year veteran was in on a handful of plays last Sunday and actually contributed to the mauling of the Buccaneers on short-yardage plays. But the gap between Rachal and Adam Snyder, the veteran who replaced Rachal as the team's starting right guard two weeks ago, just got a lot wider against Tampa Bay. Snyder continued to assert himself at the position against the Bucs, and that coincided with an overall stability that has seemed to hit the unit since Snyder became a starter. Rachal played himself out of the starting lineup during the first three weeks of the season, and while he still has the ability and potential to be an effective starter if he ever gets it all together, Rachal's chances of that happening just get farther away when the line continues to get better without him with Snyder becoming a factor in that improvement.