In the wake of Sunday's 23-14 loss to the Cardinals, in which the 49ers were penalized nine more times for 107 yards and were outscored 17-0 in the second half, coach Jim Harbaugh was resolute Monday.
”We’ve been in this position before where there’s an ebb or a flow to a season,” he said. “We’re in it now, that’s the great challenge to a football team. Got great confidence we’ll attack it.”
Harbaugh can draw on the experience of last year, when his team also started 1-2 after being outscored 56-10 by the Seahawks and Colts in Week’s 2 and 3. Those games held a different tone, although they also included the absence of Vernon Davis. He left the game in Seattle early with a hamstring strain and was unavailable the following week against Indianapolis.
After a fourth-quarter ankle injury, Davis couldn't help complete a comeback against the Bears and was inactive Sunday, as was backup Vance McDonald. The last time San Francisco didn’t have two tight ends available they fell 10-9 to the Carolina Panthers coming off their bye week last November.
Harbaugh is 37-13 in the regular season since taking the job in 2011, but he is a combined 2-6 in Week’s 2 and 3 during his four seasons.
It’s an odd stat, to be sure. But given the team’s difficult training camps and unwillingness to play starters very often in preseason games, on top of arrests/suspensions (Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald) and injuries (Michael Crabtree, NaVorro Bowman), there’s enough there to surmise an early-season trend.
Perhaps it’s a characteristic of Harbaugh’s 49ers to start the season slowly before gathering rhythm throughout the year - where they ultimately want to be at their best down the stretch and in the playoffs, as they were in 2013.
Or, the team that’s coming off three straight deep runs into the postseason with an aging roster is in a predictable decline. The secondary that saw massive turnover is off to a hit-and-miss start, bullet pointed by No. 1 corner Tramaine Brock’s toe injury that allowed him to play less than a quarter in the opener, and not at all since.
Antoine Bethea, who got off to a great start in the first two games with his new team, may have been exposed in coverage when coordinator Vic Fangio elected to send Jimmie Ward on a blitz, leaving Bethea to cover Michael Floyd, who made a 36-yard reception down the right sideline. And it appeared there were miscommunications between the corners and free safety Eric Reid, who was out of position on both of John Brown’s third-quarter touchdown catches.
But the key issue has been the penalties. The 49ers have been flagged 26 times over their last two games, low-lighted by consecutive personal fouls on the Cardinals’ go-ahead touchdown drive in the third quarter.
”No doubt he sliding,” Arians told reporters Monday. “That could have ended his career.”
Video evidence might suggest otherwise. Stanton was in the early stages of his slide without any part of his body being on the ground when Skuta hit him shoulder to shoulder. But given the climate of the NFL’s crackdown on forcible contact with QBs, and the whiplash Stanton received, it’s no surprise a flag was thrown.
After watching the coaches’ tape of following play when Willis was flagged for an illegal hit on Stanton, Harbaugh intimated he didn’t agree with the penalty.
”It looked like his face was up. It looked like he was making a tackle and seeing what he hit,” Harbaugh said, before admitting, “We do teach that, yes.”
”In terms of officiating we never point any finger of blame to make excuses,” he said. “…sometimes the football gods can be unforgiving. I say gods with a small ‘g.’ You work to fix and I’m confident we’ll do that.
The Vegas bookmakers don’t seem to be as down on the 49ers as some, making them a 4.5-point favorite over the incoming Philadelphia Eagles this week, who became the first team in league history Sunday to overcome three double-digit deficits to start 3-0.
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