QB Colin Kaepernick: His mistakes that contributed to last week's overtime loss to the Rams aside, Kaepernick just produced an impressive month of action and results that will give him an opportunity to lead the 49ers forward at quarterback for their final four games and the playoffs. Kaepernick has been impressive in every facet of his game and has been consistent in his production, throwing for 208 yards or more and completing 64 percent of his passes or better in all three of his starts while throwing for three touchdowns and just one interception. More significantly, Kaepernick has added a new dimension of deep passing to the offense that the 49ers didn't have with Alex Smith at quarterback, and the things he can do with his feet are rare and can be matched by few NFL quarterbacks. Kaepernick led the 49ers with 84 yards rushing against the Rams and has 189 yards rushing – averaging seven yards a carry – since taking over for Smith in the second quarter of San Francisco's Nov. 11 game against St. Louis. It took high-level poise and performance for coach Jim Harbaugh to stick with the second-year player at quarterback after Smith was healthy enough to play again, and the position now looks like Kaepernick's to lose, with a more likely scenario seeing Kap as the QB that leads the 49ers into the playoffs come January.
OLB Aldon Smith: The second-year veteran took his already impressive game to the next level over the third quarter of the season, producing a whopping 10 sacks in two games against St. Louis and victories over Chicago and New Orleans. That included 5½ sacks against the Bears, the second-most in a game by a 49er in team history. That sack spree has Smith leading the NFL with 17½ sacks – matching Fred Dean's franchise record – and he still has an entire quarter of season to take that number where no other San Francisco player ever has been. While Smith's sack total has been impressive and helped earn him NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November, his all-around play also has been notable as Smith's progresses as an every-down outside linebacker. Smith had a career-high 12 tackles against the Rams on Nov. 11 and has recorded 26 stops over the past four games. Smith leads the 49ers in sacks, tackles behind the line of scrimmage (22.5) and forced fumbles (three) and is making a bid for both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
DL Justin Smith: The All-Pro defensive tackle has been on a rampage, recording 41 tackles during the season's third quarter, a period during which Smith also collected his first three sacks of the season, all of which came in the past three games. Smith has been an overpowering beast in the trenches, contributing significantly to San Francisco's strong defensive play that has the Niners ranked second in the NFL in total defense and third in rushing defense. Smith ranks third on the team with 111 tackles and is second with 12½ stops behind the line of scrimmage after recording three against the Rams last week. That was one of Smith's best games of the season, when he led the 49ers with eight tackles.
Linebackers: The entire unit had a fabulous third quarter of the season. Besides Smith's standout play, middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman also came on strong during the past month within the framework of the defense. Willis had 37 tackles over the four games and Bowman had a team-leading 50 over the same span, including 15-tackle outings against the Rams and Bears. Both middle backers made plays all over the field throughout the month. Not to be left out or overlooked, left outside backer Ahmad Books has been a playmaker himself, returning an interception 50 yards against the Saints for his first career touchdown – a pivotal play in San Francisco regaining the momentum after falling behind in that game. Brooks also had 1½ sacks against the Saints and is second on the team this season with 5½ sacks. Bowman signed a lucrative five-year contract extension last week that will keep this unit together for several years to come.
K David Akers: For the second time in a month last week, Akers missed an overtime field goal that would have won a game for the 49ers. This time, it ended up costing them in an upset loss to the Rams. Akers missed a 51-yard attempt with 4:11 remaining in overtime of a 16-13 loss last Sunday, and it came only two weeks after he missed on a 41-yard try in overtime in a game during which the 49ers had to settle for a 24-24 tie. That continued a slump that has seen Akers make only 15 of his last 24 field-goal attempts, and he's just 7 of 15 from behind 40 yards this season. Akers has been dealing with a pelvis injury, and the 49ers brought in veteran kickers Billy Cundiff and Nate Kaeding for tryouts last week. A year after making a NFL-record 44 field goals with just eight misses and being named first-team All-Pro, Akers is dealing with one of the roughest stretches of his 14-year career.
QB Alex Smith: Smith's stock was at an all-time high just a month ago, when he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the first time, but my how things have changed in a month, and it had nothing to do with his performance on the field. Well, except for sustaining a concussion on the field against the Rams on Nov. 11, which gave Kaepernick an opening to get on the field. Smith wasn't medically cleared to play the next week against Chicago, and Kaepernick went out and excelled on national television against the Bears. The 49ers have stuck with Kaepernick behind center over a healthy Smith since then, leaving the eighth-year veteran both unhappy and wondering about his future with the team. Despite ranking fourth in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating and continuing to lead the league with a 70.0 completion percentage, a healthy Smith finds himself watching from the sidelines and may not get another opportunity to play this season if Kaepernick continues to progress at the position.
WR/KR Ted Ginn Jr. Ginn was practically a nonfactor as a kick returner over the third quarter of the season, and he barely got on the field as a receiver during that span. Ginn has averaged 4.8 yards, 6.5 yards and 3.0 yards over his past three games returning punts, not exactly what the 49ers are expecting from a guy who was fourth in the NFL returning punts last year. Ginn also has just one reception for 1 yard over the past month, even though he moved up on the depth chart at wide receiver after Kyle Williams was lost for the season two weeks ago. Ginn also was slow to react to a pitch that went over his head on a read option in the pivotal fourth quarter against the Rams last week, and instead of immediately jumping on the football, he allowed St. Louis cornerback Janoris Jenkins to dive in front of him, recover the fumble, and slide into the end zone for a stunning touchdown that allowed the Rams to tie the game.
DL/TE Demarcus Dobbs: The versatile second-year player, a core member of San Francisco's special teams units, had recorded a team-high 567 points on special teams – according to a system devised by coaches to tabulate performance – heading into last week's game against the Rams. But Dobbs never made it to St. Louis for that game – he was left behind after being arrested Nov. 30 on his 25th birthday. Dobbs was in an early-morning automobile accident and was charged with DUI and possession of marijuana, and he did not travel with the team later that day to St. Louis. Dobbs has been contrite and apologetic about the incident this week, but it is still unclear if the team plans to penalize him for the incident or what it may mean for his future with the 49ers.
Tight ends: Delanie Walker had a dubious performance against the Rams, dropping a potential game-winning touchdown pass at the goal line late in the fourth quarter, then being flagged 10 yards for holding on the next play, a penalty that ultimately forced the 49ers to settle for a field goal that the Rams were able to match before the end of regulation. Starter Vernon Davis had just two catches for 15 yards in that game – and that was Davis' total over the past two games after he was shut out the week before at New Orleans, an opponent Davis burned big-time the last time the two teams played in the NFC divisional playoffs.