Bye is a good time to let Alex start airing it out
The 49ers haven’t been in this good of shape entering their bye week since … well … the last time they won a Super Bowl. After a 5-1 start with a 2½-game lead in the NFC West, coach Jim Harbaugh rewarded his team with six days off, but that doesn’t mean the Niners don’t have this checklist of 11 things that need to be done during their break before they return to the field Oct. 30 vs. the Browns.
The Niners haven’t had as many wins at their in-season break since they were 6-2 at their Oct. 30 bye in 1994, and everybody remembers how that season turned out.
That San Francisco team was 4-2 after six games, but it entered the bye on a roll, and that continued after the bye as the Niners won their next seven games coming out of the break. That sent them on the way to a dominating playoff run that culminated with their blowout victory over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX.
The Niners had a 4-1 record at the bye week the next year and the same record at their bye in 1997 in 2001. Each of those teams went on to win at least 11 games and make the playoffs.
Those first two San Francisco teams were veteran-laden, star-studded units that were part of the franchise’s dynastic run through the 1980s and 1990s.
The 2001 team is much more similar to this upstart 2011 unit. Both teams were coming off 6-10 seasons the year before but emerged quickly with fresh young talent playing key roles.
The 49ers have proven they are as good as their record, which matches the best in the NFL behind the 6-0 Green Bay Packers. But there still is plenty of season to come, and many pitfalls to both prepare for and avoid, so here’s a list of 11 things the Niners need to address before they return to action at home Oct. 30 against the Cleveland Browns.
Keep the momentum rolling: This is the main variable intangible Harbaugh and his coaching staff need to continue nurturing through the break. The 49ers have a lot of it – a four-game winning streak that includes three consecutive significant triumphs over NFC playoff contenders. The Niners’ schedule is set up with three of their next four games at home, with two of the four coming against playoff contenders from the NFC East that today have winning records. A week off between games can do plenty to cool down a hot team. When the Niners come back fresh next week to begin preparing for Cleveland, they need to resume the same approach and continue doing everything they were doing before the break that got the team rolling.
Guard against the post-bye blahs: This goes hand-in-hand with the item above, and it’s something the 49ers must be aware of, because they have been horrible coming off the bye in recent years. The Niners were able to tough out a 23-20 overtime victory at home against the St. Louis Rams after their bye week last November, but that snapped a string of six consecutive losses by San Francisco coming off its bye week, a stretch during which the Niners were outscored 202-100. With a week of extra rest and preparation, previous coaching regimes simply didn’t have the 49ers ready to play even with the advantage that extra week gave them. Harbaugh and staff need to make sure this year is different, particularly with a winnable game at home in which the Niners could be a double-digit favorite.
Get the air out: With Braylon Edwards set to return to practice when San Francisco returns to the field next week to prepare for the Browns, the Niners have to start working on adding more explosiveness and downfield routes to their passing game. The 49ers are averaging just 171 yards passing per game, which ranks 30th in the NFL. They have been able to build their elite record despite opponents averaging 90 yards more passing per game in a decidedly pass-happy league. Upcoming opponents will start ganging up even more to stop Frank Gore and San Francisco’s run game, so the Niners need to work on adding more production to a passing game that has finished with more than 201 yards in a game just once this season.
Get everybody healthy: The Niners are in relatively good shape health-wise at the bye, despite the season-ending leg injury to starting wide receiver Josh Morgan. Their most consequential injury to a key player is Edwards’s knee injury, which required surgery to repair ligament damage after he was hurt in Week 2 against Dallas. The usual recovery time for Edwards’ injury suggests he should be close to 100 percent by the end of this month, and both Edwards and the team expect him to play against the Browns. The 49ers have some other injuries and nicks to deal with over the bye week, but none are expected to require missed playing time, and probably wouldn’t even if San Francisco had a game this Sunday. Just the same, guard Mike Iupati (neck, knee), cornerback Tramaine Brock (broken hand), fullback Moran Norris (broken fibula), guard Adam Snyder (stinger) and linebacker Parys Haralson (hamstring) need to focus on their rehabilitation this week so they can hope to be on the field for the Browns game. Brock and Norris are the only players who may need another week or so to return in November, but both have a chance to be ready for the Browns>
More snaps for Colin Kaepernick: This is not a slam on Alex Smith, but it’s time for the 49ers to start finding situations where they can get their talented second-round draft pick more involved in the offensive operation. Kaepernick drove the 49ers 90 yards for a touchdown in mop-up time against Tampa Bay, showing glimpses of his ability, which the 49ers are continuing to nurture and bring along slowly. Kaepernick brings such a different dimension with his athleticism that the Niners can provide even more problems for opposing defenses and enliven their offense further by finding spots to get their rookie quarterback on the field, even if it’s only for a few snaps each game. Kaepernick has added some polish since his raw preseason play, and he is ready to make a contribution – just like San Francisco’s other top three draft picks already have.
Stay balanced: The suggestion that the Niners put more emphasis on their passing game does not mean they should do that at the expense of their running game. The 49ers have done a superb job of keeping opponents off-balance with the equal balance of their offense. The 49ers have run 175 rushing plays and thrown 161 passes, and that’s a terrific ratio for this team as its offense is currently constructed. Add in the 16 times Smith has been sacked, and the San Francisco offense has consisted of 177 passing plays and 175 rushing plays so far this season. That’s a pass/run ratio of 50.28/49.72, which is tremendous. You can’t get more balanced than that, and the Niners need to plan accordingly to keep doing what they’re doing in that area.
Improve the third-down playbook: The 49ers are converting on 30.26 percent of their third-down plays, which isn’t horrible, but it needs improvement. The San Francisco offense won’t get the opportunities it needs to improve on its No. 28 NFL ranking if it isn’t able to keep moving with a fresh set of downs more often. The Niners have done a good job mixing it up on third downs. Now they just have to do a better job of converting and identifying the right plays to make that happen.
Secondary solidarity: Despite allowing 261 yards passing per game on defense, which ranks 21st in the NFL, San Francisco’s secondary has steadily been coming together as a unit, even with several key new parts added to it this year. The 49ers have one of the best rushing defenses in the league, and their pass rush has been solid. To take it to the next level and become a truly elite defense – which San Francisco is very close to being – the Niners just have to tighten up a bit more on the back end, and that might mean sticking with the coverage packages that worked so well last week against Detroit. The 49ers have been tinkering with their secondary coverage combinations and must decide who is best in the key No. 3 cornerback role between rookie Chris Culliver and veterans Shawntae Spencer and Tramaine Brock.
Get Vernon Davis more involved as a deep threat: Davis is averaging 11.3 yards per reception this year. The Pro Bowl tight end averaged 16.3 yards per catch last season. He had just two catches for eight yards in last week’s victory at Detroit. Davis is an elite weapon that the Niners need to start getting at least a little more involved with more touches, with some of them coming farther down the field than the variety Davis has seen so far.
Hold on to that mojo: The 49ers have got it going on. They are being out-gained by an average of 33 yards per game but are outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.7 points per game. The yardage statistic is a void number because the Niners clearly have been outplaying the opposition. Something is going on very right here, and a lot of it has to do with team chemistry. The Niners have to keep building on that and not allow the magic that’s surfacing around them to slip away.
Work on that post-game handshake: OK, Harbaugh already said he’s going to do that. And it’s not a bad idea, just to keep others from focusing so much on it. Harbaugh and his team are going places, so it would behoove both for the coach to tone it down a little and save the celebrating for the locker room, because there could be a lot of that to come this season.