The San Francisco 49ers are in a good place after the season's first eight games. At 6-2, they are one of three teams in the NFC with six wins with all eight of their remaining coming against conference opponents. They've won five-straight games by double-digits for the first time since 1995.
Through the season's first three weeks, the team went 1-2 leading many to believe a Super Bowl hangover was in the cards for 2013. But Jim Harbaugh and his staff revisited the formula that's been so successful since taking over the team in 2011 and began running the ball more than anyone else.
At the halfway point, the 49ers lead the NFL in rushing, averaging 153 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt. Frank Gore, 30, has continued to defy Father Time and is third in the NFL with 618 yards and 146 carries. He's trails only Knowshon Moreno (8) with seven rushing touchdowns.
Utilizing a strong defense and special teams units, San Francisco has reeled in Colin Kaepernick some from last season, asking him to run the ball less and manage the game more. However, his use in the read-option has picked up over the last two games. And no matter how you feel about ESPN's Total QBR statistic, Kaepernick has tipped the scale with performances rating 99.0 and 99.8 (out of 100) in consecutive weeks.
His clip Sunday was the highest of any quarterback in three seasons and he became the first to have back-to-back performances registering 99.0 or higher.
Judging solely on basic statistics and fantasy value, Kaepernick's first full season as a starter might not seem overly impressive. But scoring at least 31 points over the last five weeks while averaging just 173.8 yard through the air is worthy of raising eyebrows. In today's NFL when passing attacks flourish with multiple-wideout formations and rules curbed toward scoring points, this 49ers' offense reminds us that balance is awfully hard to defend.
Considering Kaepernick has only had two viable options in the passing game, it's no wonder the overall passing statistics rank at the bottom of the league. And aside from his 404-yard outlier performance against the Packers in Week 1, Kaepernick has thrown for more than 200 yards just once.
Last season's Super Bowl created awfully high expectations for the 26-year-old entering his first full season as the unquestioned starter. Letting him learn from Alex Smith for a year and change looks like it's paid off. Kaepernick has learned to control the offense from the line of scrimmage and is as responsible for a number of key running plays that he audibled to.
For clarification, Kaepernick's high grade is for his orchestration of the offense. For the most part, his checks and kills pre-snap have been right on point given the structure of the offense. He's made big throws and runs when he's needed to while avoiding the backbreaking mistake. And considering he's missing his top two receivers from last season, he's done very well to make due with Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis as the lone threats in the passing game.
San Francisco's offense might not be as aesthetically pleasing as Green Bay, New Orleans or New England. But it's impossible to argue with five-straight wins (2012's team never won four in a row) and averaging 27.2 points per game, good for sixth in the NFL.
Running Back: A
Frank Gore might not be make the most explosive, highlight-reel plays. But there might not be a more complete running back in football. While he's the league's third-leading rusher, he's arguably the best blocking back in the entire league. Whether it's pass protection or clearing the way downfield for someone else, Gore is having an outstanding season that could garner some MVP consideration should the 49ers remain an NFC power.
In a limited role, Kendall Hunter is quietly having a nice season after returning from his Achilles tear suffered last season New Orleans. Averaging 4.9 yards per carry and with three rushing touchdowns, Hunter is a nice compliment to Gore who's capable of some big runs. His opportunities have been sparse since coming back from the injury, but look for Hunter's role to become more prominent in the offense in the stretch run while the 49ers look to keep Gore fresh for the playoffs.
Believe it or not, Bruce Miller is San Francisco's third-most productive receiving threat. The fullback has been outstanding in run blocking and pass protection this season. The former tight end and defensive end has made the 49ers' coaching staff look good with their decision to make him the team's only fullback.
Because Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James have played sparingly on offense, their production was not factored into this grade. But look for James to get more looks in the second half, as Harbaugh indicated earlier this week. Dixon has just 35 yards on 15 carries while James has carried the ball seven times for 31 in two games.
Wide Receiver: C+
Without Boldin, this grade could be a D. But the 33-year-old has brought reliability and playmaking to a passing game that's needed it in the worst way. Without his 13-catch, 208-yard performance in Week 1 against the Packers, this team might have gone 0-3 and joined the Atlanta Falcons as one of the conference's most disappointing teams. Without Michael Crabtree to this point, he's on pace for a 76-catch, 1,102-yard season. Not bad.
Otherwise, the wideouts have been virtually invisible. But help is on the way as the team expects Mario Manningham to return following the bye week. Crabtree's returns is likely to come toward the end of November.
Tight End: B+
Vernon Davis is having a career year, and that's saying something. But there hasn't been much production from the team's other tight ends. Replacing Delanie Walker has been tough to do so far this season, but Vance McDonald continues to improve his overall game despite being targeted just 11 times through the air.
Davis has seven receiving touchdowns and 518 yards on 29 receptions through eight games. Those numbers paced out to full season equate to 58 catches for 1,184 yards and 14 scores. He's never had a 1,000-yard season, but managed 73 receptions and 13 touchdowns in 2009 – his best season to date.
No player changes the look of the offense more than Davis. When he was out for Week 3 against the Colts with his torn hamstring, the offense struggled to make plays both through the air and struggled to hold the edges in the running game. Davis is the team's best big-play threat and is one of the better blocking tight ends in the league. His ability to run away from safeties and corners is unparalleled for his position.
Offensive Line: B+
The expectations were sky-high coming into the season after what the offensive line did during last season's Super Bowl run. They struggled to create holes for Gore in the first three weeks, but have been on a roll since then. Over the last five weeks, the 49ers have averaged 183.8 rushing yards and lead the league with 15 rushing TDs overall.
Whether it's re-finding their identity or being more precise in their execution, the offensive line is back to its road-grading ways. They've also done well protecting Kaepernick, allowing just eight sacks, tied for the fourth lowest in the league.
Joe Staley continues to play at an All-Pro level, particularly in the running game. Harbaugh has described Anthony Davis' season as his best since getting drafted in 2010. And at right guard, Alex Boone continues to play at a high level despite going undrafted in 2009.
Offensive MVP: Frank Gore
Through the first three weeks, Boldin might have gotten the nod. But Gore's been the most key contributor to an offense that's run the ball more than any one else. He's on pace for 1,428 yards from scrimmage, which would be his second-high total since 2009.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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