The 49ers have been one of the NFL's biggest 2011 surprises to this point with three of their wins coming against opponents that reside on the East side of the Mississippi River. San Francisco became the first NFL team since 1996 to record three such wins in consecutive fashion during the same season.
The combined record of San Francisco's six opponents is 17-7. The Niners have victories over the 5-2 Detroit Lions, the 4-2 Cincinnati Bengals, the 4-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and have a road upset against Philadelphia, a team considered a Super Bowl contender and NFC favorite by many entering the season. San Francisco's lone loss came in overtime against a 3-3 Dallas team.
But can the 49ers continue to win games with relatively poor offensive output? They seem more concerned about just continuing their current path of progress.
"We're just trying to go get better today," general manager Trent Baalke said Monday. "We don't want to look too far ahead, because we want to get better today. If we can get a little better today and every day, then we'll be where we want to be at the end of the season."
The 49ers certainly are where they want to be coming out of their bye. They are tied for the NFL's second-best record and have a three-game lead atop the NFC West. San Francisco is 4-1 in the NFC with three victories over top conference playoff contenders.
And the Niners have been tremendous stopping the run on defense, establishing themselves as one of the NFL's best run-stopping units.
The answer to San Francisco sustaining its success may reside in the Niners' ability to get turnovers and secure the ball. The team is among the NFL leaders with eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries. Conversely, starting quarterback Alex Smith has thrown only two interceptions, although he has had several near-interceptions dropped in the first six games. The 49ers are averaging just one turnover per game.
Smith, however, seems dedicated to keeping his fine season progressing. Even though his clutch 6-yard scoring pass to tight end Delanie Walker on fourth down with 1:51 remaining to play helped beat the Lions, Smith was disappointed with his play in what amounted statistically to his worst game of the season.
Smith told Baalke that he could play much better, and the seventh-year veteran spent a lot of time around 49ers headquarters during the team's week off. Smith threw consistently over the bye week in the hopes of correcting footwork that was lacking against the Lions and resulted in several high throws.
"Alex participated in our opportunity practice last Tuesday and threw again on Thursday," said coach Jim Harbaugh, who gave his players six days off during the bye week. "He's working at it, keep staying sharp. I didn't think he wanted to go any longer than two, three days without throwing the ball."
If the offense doesn't pick up, the 49ers will also need to continue to score in non-traditional ways. Ted Ginn Jr. scored on a punt return and a kickoff return to key a 33-17 season-opening victory over Seattle. Cornerback Carlos Rogers returned an interception for a score to help spark a 48-3 rout of Tampa Bay.
But no team should consistently rely on that.
If the 49ers are going to continue their climb in this surprising season, they'll need to keep improving, particularly on offense.
Notes and quotes
--- The Lions' game refuses to die. That's what happens when you have two weeks to mull an emotional win. Last week, Lions volatile defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had a few choice words about Niners' right tackle Anthony Davis, and Davis's vulgar comments on his twitter account about the win. "Like their (right) tackle, I don't even know his name, he's talking about blocking everybody," Cunningham said. "Well, I looked at the tape. I might make a highlight tape and put it on Twitter so everyone can see what he did. It just really – the more I talk about this, the madder I get because, I just want to play them again."
--- Since Jed York took over as team president and CEO, the 49ers no longer seem to be doing things on the cheap. Not only did they spend an entire week in Youngstown, Ohio, between wins over the Bengals and Eagles, they are also taking their entire practice squad on the road each week. Harbaugh wants to reward the squad for their work on the scout team and he hopes attending all the games will help in player development.
--- Wide receiver Braylon Edwards ran routes during the bye week and seems ready to return against the visiting Browns on Sunday. He is expected to return to full practice drills Tuesday.
--- Fullback Moran Norris is also ready to return from his broken fibula, but he'll have to earn his starting job back from rookie Bruce Miller, who has displayed steady progress after replacing Norris in the starting lineup. The 49ers will evaluate Norris in practice this week to determine whether he'll be ready to return to the field against the Browns.
--- Cornerback Tramaine Brock might also be ready to return from his broken hand/finger and will also need to earn his nickel spot back from rookie Chris Culliver. Brock also might need another week before he is ready to return to action.
Six-game instant analysis
PASSING OFFENSE: Solid but unspectacular. The 49ers' longest pass play is only 44 yards, and the team isn't taking full advantage of star tight end Vernon Davis' ability as a downfield threat. One counter to the team's punishing run game could be throwing out of their heavy run formations. The offense may be poised to do just that. Quarterback Alex Smith has protected the ball well and produced more big plays and clutch plays than in the past. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Delanie Walker have emerged as dependable options and the team will get back top WR Braylon Edwards after the bye week.
RUSHING OFFENSE: The 49ers were atrocious with the run in their first three games, but then they exploded. That coincided with the team getting explosive rookie RB Kendall Hunter regularly involved in the game plan, which allowed star RB Frank Gore to break out of his early slump and thrive during one of the best three-game stretches of his career. Gore had 393 yards rushing on just 50 carries in wins over the Eagles, Buccaneers and Lions. Over their last three games, the 49ers have rushed for 580 yards on 90 carries, which is more than the season totals of five other NFL teams.
PASSING DEFENSE: The 49ers have been opportunistic but inconsistent defending the pass. San Francisco has eight interceptions through six games, but the Niners are allowing too many yards through the air, including 432 against Dallas and 416 against Philadelphia – San Francisco's only loss and its most narrow victory. If this pattern continues, the 49ers will need to continue to be stingy in the red zone, which has been a defensive strength. Newcomer free-agent starters Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner have provided upgrades at their positions and given a lift to a revamped secondary.
RUSHING DEFENSE: The 49ers rank second in the NFL in rushing defense and have been getting tremendous play from their front seven, including the starting wall of Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith in their 3-4 scheme. That trio has been stuffing the run and also absorbing blockers so that active middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman can swarm to the ball and make tackles. The 49ers have been setting the tone against every opponent with their ability to stop the run. That's given the team an opportunity to highlight rookie pass rusher Aldon Smith with its scheme and the first-round draft pick is responding. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has yet to blitz much, which is his specialty.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers are having Pro Bowl-worthy seasons and have played major roles in the team's success. Akers has been reliable on field goals from every distance, even long distance, and his booming kickoffs along with Lee's booming punts and skilled punt placement have played big factors in San Francisco winning the battle of field position. The coverage units have been solid and Ted Ginn Jr. has been fearless with his returns, two of which he has brought back for touchdowns. It all has added up to consistently good field position for the offense and the defense.
COACHING: It's difficult to imagine another coach doing a better job than Jim Harbaugh, who's getting the most out of his team in his debut season as a NFL head coach while pushing his players to higher performance. And it's not just Harbaugh. His staff of assistants – particularly coordinators Greg Roman (offense), Fangio (defense) and Brad Seely (special teams) – are doing wonderful jobs and coaching to their players' strengths. Harbaugh and his staff have stressed unity, and they have the players believing. The game-day schemes and adjustments have also been excellent. In their first season working together as a unit, Harbaugh and his staff have been terrific in turning around a franchise that has gone eight years without a winning record or playoff berth.