Rush defense didn't miss Willis; pass defense did
For the most part, the 49ers have been able to avoid injuries this year, and that has been a key factor in their surprising 10-3 season that has earned them a NFC West championship. But injuries to key players recently have become an issue, and that could be directly related to a recent dip in performance that has seen San Francisco lose two of its past three games after a 9-1 start.
Of the team’s 22 regular starters on offense and defense, the 49ers have had 20 of them for most of the season. However, a recent spate of injuries might explain why the team has fallen into a recent funk.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis was noticeably absent in last week’s 21-19 loss at Arizona. The 21 points were the most surrendered by the 49ers since they beat the Eagles 24-23 on Oct. 2, and Philadelphia has offensive firepower featuring the likes of Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson.
The Cardinals, a team that ranked 23rd in offense coming into the game, were without starting quarterback Kevin Kolb, who exited in the first series because of a concussion.
Where the 49ers missed Willis was not necessarily in the run game and Arizona running back Beanie Wells – in the midst of a breakout season – was limited to just 27 yards rushing on 15 carries.
It was the 35th consecutive game the 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher and their 14th straight without allowing a rushing touchdown. Both streaks are currently the best in the NFL.
The touchdown streak is the best in team history and is the NFL’s second-longest since 1970. The 13-game streak to begin the season without allowing a rushing touchdown is the league’s longest since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. The Niners are the first team since the 1920 Decatur Staleys to not allow a rushing touchdown in the first 13 games of the season.
The 49ers rugged rushing defense continued to excel without Willis, allowing just 55 yards on the ground to improve its NFL leading average to 70.5 yards rushing allowed per game. The Niners rank No. 5 in the league in total defense.
But where the 49ers did miss Willis was in the passing game. Willis has the speed and presence to disrupt deep, in-breaking routes, and he has become more of a factor this year in pass defense than he was in his first four NFL seasons.
Without him, the 49ers were burned on three deep passes over the middle, two of which went for touchdowns. On two of the three, linebacker Larry Grant – playing in place of Willis – didn't get the needed depth to knock down the pass.
Deep routes in the middle of the field are a favorite of Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, because that's one way to beat the high-low double coverage many teams, including the 49ers, play against him.
The Niners also conspicuously missed left tackle Joe Staley, who sustained a concussion on the first offensive play and then was removed during the 49ers' second offensive series.
Replacement Alex Boone filled in admirably, but he didn't have the experience and the cohesion with left guard Mike Iupati to protect well against the Cardinals' constant blitzes. Quarterback Alex Smith was sacked five times and now has been sacked 18 times in San Francisco’s past three games.
The 49ers' woes in the red zone and on third downs could also be a by-product of the failure of the injury-riddled Braylon Edwards to mesh in the offense. The team also lost a big, reliable red zone target when Joshua Morgan broke his leg and was lost for the season on Oct. 9.
The loss of Morgan and Edwards is having more of an effect now as opponents can now focus more attention on receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis as the 49ers drive closer to the opposing end zone.
Injuries can be a flimsy excuse. But they hit the 49ers hard because they lack depth and are still learning new offensive and defensive schemes.
That has resulted in the thin line that has turned the Niners into winners becoming much more defined.
COACH JIM HARBAUGH WAS PARTICULARLY PRICKLY at his Monday news conference.
After getting buffeted with a number of questions about the failure of the red-zone offense and the reason he didn't use Frank Gore more, Harbaugh threw a mini-fit.
"We know there's going to be criticisms, we know there's going to be "Why's" What happened? What took place? Why didn't you do this? Why didn't you do that? Who's your go-to guy? We're not going to talk about it. We are going to talk about it to our players, to our team."
RUNNING BACK FRANK GORE ISN’T MAKING any friends in Arizona after his post-game comments after Sunday’s loss.
"Arizona played hard, but we are the better team," he said.
Gore may be right, but that quote is likely to re-surface when these two teams meet next season. The rapidly-improving Cardinals might prove to be the 49ers' most formidable divisional foe in the years to come.
Arizona, which has won five of its last six games, ended San Francisco’s five-game winning streak in the series between the two NFC West rivals.
Despite the loss, it was still a milestone day for Gore, who carried just twice after his 37-yard touchdown run put the Niners ahead 19-7 early in the third quarter and was walking gimpy after the game.
Gore finished with 72 yards rushing to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier for the fifth time in six seasons. He is the only San Francisco player to record five 1,000-yard seasons.
Gore, who ranks fourth in the NFL this year with 1,054 yards rushing, joins LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Thomas Jones and Ricky Williams as active NFL players to record five 1,000-yard seasons.