Statistics Through Week 4
Points per game: 19.8 (#23 in the NFL) previous week: 14.7 (#29)
Yards per game: 331.2 (#21) previous week: 318.3 (#27)
Passing yards (per game): 200.2 (#27) previous week: 216.7 (#23)
Rushing yards (per game): 131 (#8) previous week: 101.7 (#19)
3rd-down conversion rate: 36.84 percent (#17) previous week: 35.7 percent (#13)
Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 63.64 percent (#10) previous week: 50 percent (#17)
Points per game: 23.8 (#19) previous week: 28 (#25)
Yards per game: 299.8 (#4) previous week: 337 (#12)
Passing yards (per game): 190.5 (#3) previous week: 199 (#8)
Rushing yards (per game): 109.2 (#19) previous week: 138 (#29)
3rd-down conversion rate: 30.91 percent (#3) previous week: 36.84 percent (#14)
Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 73.33 percent (#27) previous week: 71.43 percent (#26)
Turnover margin: -4 (5 takeaways, 9 giveaways) previous week: -4 (3, 7)
Penalties per game: 9.8 (#31) previous week: 9.7 (#31)
Penalty yards per game: 84.8 (#30) previous week: 84.7 (#29)
NFC West Standings
What It Means
It took four games, but the San Francisco 49ers finally looked like themselves in St. Louis. The quarter point is still a small sample statistically, but we're starting to see some trends that project to stick around going forward.
Offensively, the lack of weapons in the passing game outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin is producing some stark numbers. Colin Kaepernick has thrown from just over 200 yards per game after averaging nearly 230 in his seven regular season starts last year.
That lack of production can be product of a few different factors. First, he's missing key targets in Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Delanie Walker. Second, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have increased his responsibilities, complicating game plans and moving away from a mostly one-read passing attack implemented in his first year as starter. That transition has been difficult considering the receivers at his disposal and the defenses the 49ers have gone against. Kaepernick, after all, is making just his 15th professional start Sunday against Houston.
One of the big standouts out when looking at the defensive numbers is the yardage allowed against overall scoring. San Francisco has allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL while also allowing nearly 24 points per game, good for No. 25 in the league.
The obvious culprit is the offense that had a hard time getting any traction in their two losses. The -4 turnover differential isn't helping either – the 49ers had a combined +37 turnover differential over the last two regular seasons.
Ten days between games should help. San Francisco has been hit with a number of injuries, but have seen players step up when given opportunities. Thursday night, NaVorro Bowman might have been the best player on the field with Patrick Willis sidelined. In place of Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey has been very good against both the pass and the run. And with Nnamdi Asomugha shelved with a knee injury, Tramaine Brock had a very good showing in St. Louis.
It's clear the 49ers' defense is once again worthy of "contender" status. If the offense can continue to produce on the ground as it did Thursday, they should return toward the top of the NFC hierarchy.
It's only one game, but the track record indicates San Francisco's ability to run the ball is sustainable. For the first time Thursday, the team had Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James all apart of the active 46-man roster. James received just three carries and zero yards in his first game back from his knee sprain, but still isn't far removed from his 5.9-yard average last postseason. Gore and Hunter combined to average 6.5 yards per carry as the offensive line was finally able to create holes while the opposing defense stacked the box.
With Gore's big game, team will continue to stack the line of scrimmage to prevent them from getting beat between the tackles. That's where the speed and elusiveness of Hunter and James on the outside could play a big role going forward. The 49ers will have to be able to run the ball given their current batch of receivers.
San Francisco's defense jumped 10 spots in the rankings against the run after allowing the Rams a miserable output of 18 yards on 19 attempts. It was clear teams were attacking the 49ers' nickel package on the ground, taking advantage of just two down lineman. Dorsey's emergence has gone a long way toward helping in that area. Brock might not have the length or overall cover skills of Asomugha, but he is a far better player against the run. The battle for the No. 3 corner job will be interesting going forward.
Areas to Improve
Penalties. Penalties. Penalties.
Aggressive defenses get penalized. That's the cost of doing business in the NFL. The 49ers are the second-most penalized team in the league and it's hurt them in a number of different ways through the quarter mark in the season. They will have to clean it up.
The defense will also need to get turnovers. Looking at the upcoming schedule, that shouldn't be too difficult a task with the offenses ahead. After Houston, the San Francisco plays the Cardinals, Titans (likely without Jake Locker) and the Jaguars before their bye in Week 9. The -4 turnover differential will likely change drastically over that three-game stretch.
Considering how the read-option dominated the offseason narrative, the 49ers have mostly gone away from it. It could be because they would like to prevent Kaepernick from taking hits, or they are keeping it in their back pocket for later in the season. But it was a major part of their offense last year, and it's been a non-factor so far in 2013.
To be fair, it looks like defenses have it figured out. Clay Matthews' aggression against it in Week 1 might have provided teams with the blueprint on how to take it away. But incorporating it back into the offense might help Kaepernick regain some of the comfort from last season's Super Bowl run. Having James back also helps if the team looks to re-incorporate it into the offense.
The issues in the passing game might be alleviated some given the upcoming schedule (Houston aside). But 49ers could also get Manningham back in three weeks against the Titans once he's eligible. He instantly becomes the second-most experienced wideout on the team and a capable complement to Boldin they've been lacking.
Jon Baldwin made his first two catches Thursday since joining the team and will likely see an increased role given his superior skill set to the other receivers splitting time opposite Boldin.
The extra three days will also allow the San Francisco to get healthier. Vernon Davis' hamstring wasn't at 100 percent Thursday. Willis, who sat out with a groin strain, will also benefit from the extra time off in preparation for Sunday.
The Texans pose a formidable test and should be an angry football team after failing to hold off the Seahawks on Sunday. They'll have to keep an eye on J.J. Watt, who's been arguably the best defensive player in football through the first four weeks after winning defensive player of the year honors in 2012.
We'll have more on Houston in the coming days.
Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.