Radar Week 6: Cardinals @ 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers are on their first winning streak of the season after establishing the power running game against the Rams and Texans. In our weekly Radar series, we break down the strengths and weaknesses of this 49ers team as they head into Week 6's tilt against the 3-2 Cardinals.

Statistics Through Week 5

Offense:

Points per game: 22.6 (#18 in the NFL) previous week: 19.8 (#23)

Yards per game: 321.8 (#25) previous week: 331.2 (#21)

Passing yards (per game): 181.6 (#31) previous week: 200.2 (#27)

Rushing yards (per game): 140.2 (#6) previous week: 131 (#8)

3rd-down conversion rate: 36.76 percent (#18) previous week: : 36.84 percent (#17)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 56.25 percent (#13) previous week: 63.64 percent (#10)

Defense:

Points per game: 19.6 (#12) previous week: 23.8 (#19)

Yards per game: 302.4 (#5) previous week: 299.8 (#4)

Passing yards (per game): 188.8 (#2) previous week: 190.5 (#3)

Rushing yards (per game): 113.6 (#20) previous week: 109.2 (#19)

3rd-down conversion rate: 32.39 percent (#6) previous week: 30.91 percent (#3)

Red zone scoring rate (TDs): 68.75 percent (#28) previous week: 73.33 percent (#27)

Misc.:

Turnover margin: 0 (9 takeaways, 9 giveaways) previous week: -4 (5, 9)

Penalties per game: 8.4 (#29) previous week: 9.8 (#31)

Penalty yards per game: 71.2 (#27) previous week: 84.8 (#30)

NFC West Standings

Seahawks (4-1)

49ers (3-2)

Cardinals (3-2)

Rams (2-3)

What It Means

The San Francisco 49ers caught a break with the Colts beating the Seahawks Sunday, allowing them to gain a game in the standings. The last two wins over the Rams and Texans have gilded the team's identity back towards what was so successful over the last two seasons. Given the upcoming schedule, there are reasons to be optimistic.

After starting with four playoff teams in five weeks, San Francisco is looking at a three-game stretch before its Week 9 bye week that includes the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Titans will likely be without starting quarterback Jake Locker.

It's reasonable to assume the 49ers will go into their bye week at 6-2 in prime position for the second half stretch run.

As the sample size grows, San Francisco continues to get back to its roots in the running game. Despite missing Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Ian Williams and Chris Culliver, the defense remains the fifth-best in the NFL in terms of yardage. They are ranked third against the pass.

The Arizona Cardinals come to town Sunday, owning the same record as the 49ers and have won two of their last three games. But they've done so in ugly fashion, turning the ball over six times in the last two weeks while the offense has combined for just 546 yards. Only 146 have come on the ground as they have struggled to establish a running game.

It looks like the 49ers have dodged another bullet with Ray McDonalds right biceps injury suffered against Houston. He expects to play Sunday. Considering the state of the defensive front, losing McDonald for an extended period of time might have been one of the biggest blows yet. McDonald and Justin Smith have been paramount with their play up front and the defensive line doesn't currently have the same depth as other levels of the defense. But that will change soon with Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial eligible to start practicing next week.

Strengths

Speaking of depth, San Francisco's has been pretty remarkable considering the bad luck they've had with injuries, especially on defense. Corner Tramaine Brock received NFL defensive player of the week honors after his two-interception performance Sunday night against the Texans.

Brock came into the summer with his job in question. The 49ers signed Nnamdi Asomugha, had Culliver return and expected Perrish Cox to take the next step in his development. But Brock continued to work and had a strong training camp. It led to him finding his way on to the field thanks to the injuries to Culliver and Asomugha. The nickel corner job is all but his.

"Everybody on this team, from the starters to the special teams guys to the practice squad guys, everybody wants to shine," Brock said. "Everybody wants to play and make plays, so when it's our time we all just try to make plays and show the other guys and the coaches that we can do that."

Michael Wilhoite could never fully replace the All-Pro in Willis, but he's been playing at a solid level in his place. He made a team-high 11 tackles, including some in the open field.

"(Wilhoite) played great. He did some things that me and Pat kind of do on the run," NaVorro Bowman said. "That just shows how much he's been paying attention to me and Pat's relationship and how we play out there. Just to have a guy like that step up makes us a lot better in the linebacker room. It gives us more depth."

Dan Skuta and rookie Corey Lemonier have been tasked with replacing Aldon Smith, who continues his indefinite leave of absence that might be prolonged by his recent gun charges. Skuta and Lemonier have been used in base and passing situations, respectively, to help maximize their production.

Offensively, the running game has catalyzed the team's two winning performances over the last two weeks. Frank Gore is on his way to his third-straight 1,000-yard season – barring health – while the offense has run for 138 more yards than it has passed over the last two weeks.

"It's been fun, get back to the running game," Joe Staley said. "Really back to just attacking, power schemes like we have been the last couple games. It's been successful and that's what it's all about. Moving the chains and scoring points any way we can."

Gore is on pace for 1,203 yards, which would give him three-straight 1,200-yard seasons for the first time in his career.

"I've been blessed," Gore said Sunday. "God blessed me to be here for nine years. When I first got drafted, everybody said it was a bad pick. I'm a hard worker. I'm a team guy. I'm going to do whatever it takes to help my team win. That's motivating me through and even if I didn't have yards, you look at the film and you'll see why things don't go right. But as long as I do all the small things and we get the win and I know I did something to help the team win, I'm fine."

Special teams also stood out in Sunday night's win over the Texans. C.J. Spillman and Kassim Osgood highlighted an overall stout performance on kickoff coverage. Houston's average starting field position was their 21-yard line.

Areas to Improve

While the 49ers might not have needed it over the last two weeks, the passing game has still struggled to find its rhythm. Sunday night's performance through the air was poor at best, as Colin Kaepernick went more than two quarters in the middle of the game between completions, including three consecutive three-and-outs.

Kaepernick completed just six passes for 113 yards on the night, including a 64-yard touchdown late to Vernon Davis that accounted for more than half the total output.

"The only stat I really care about is whether we won or not," Kaepernick said Wednesday.

"I'm happy with wins and consecutive wins. That's the biggest thing for us. As long as we're winning, that's all that matters."

Winning is the cure-all. But if the 49ers had lost, the passing game would be the biggest discussion point.

As we've outlined here before, there are a number of factors to point to when breaking down the air attack. Notably, Kaepernick is without three key offensive weapons he had from last year (Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Delanie Walker). And with a full offseason to prepare for the read-option, defenses have taken away a big piece of the offense that set up things through the air.

With the exception of Walker, the 49ers figure to get those pieces back. Manningham could return as early as next week. He will be eligible to come off the reserve/NFI list Monday and play against the Titans Oct. 20.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said "It's possible" Manningham returns to practice next week.

Looking Ahead

As the season continues to develop, the 49ers look to be in pretty good shape considering all the injuries. The defense has held up despite losing a number of key pieces and the offense has been doing enough to keep the team in the win column.

The silver lining in dealing with all the injuries is the experience given to the reserves. Over the last two seasons, the 49ers stayed remarkably healthy during their two deep playoff runs needing little help from their backups. With Brock, Wilhoite, Skuta, Lemonier, and Dorsey playing well, Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio know they can afford to give their starters more rest in preparation for the playoffs. The defense saw a significant drop off last postseason, which they're hoping to avoid in 2013.

And more help is on the way. San Francisco expects to have Manningham, Carradine, Dial and corner Eric Wright begin practicing as soon as their eligible following Sunday's game. Manningham will be the quickest to see playing time, as the others are coming in playing in the 49ers' system for the first time.

Dial said he expects to be good to go, but isn't entirely sure how he fits in because he hasn't had a single practice after getting drafted in the fifth round last Spring.

"I figure they would put me on the inside like in nickel…to be rushing inside or stop the run inside. We'll all figure that out once I start practicing. We'll see what I can do," Dial said.

Injuries might expedite the process for Dial and Carradine, although it isn't likely either lineman sees action on the field for a couple weeks.

"You have to get these guys ready to play to be fair to them," Fangio said. "These guys got to not only be able to play physically, they got to be able to execute. It's no good just throwing a guy out there and he's making mistakes. It's a very fluid situation."

Once players come off the reserve/NFI list and begin practicing, they have a 21-day window to be activated on the 53-man roster. If they begin practicing next Monday, they must be activated for the Jaguars game in London Oct. 27. The team could also wait to get them on the practice field to allow them to play following the bye week, or even later.

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