49ers report card: Season grades thru 6 games
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- Alex Smith believed in himself all along, even if others didn't, and that confidence and faith have been evident in his play during a sophomore season in which Smith has shown light-speed improvement over his dismal rookie year. Smith has moved the offense and given the 49ers a fighting chance in all but one of their first six games, and he seemingly has grown by the week into a legitimate NFL starting quarterback at age 22. He returns from the bye week ranked 13th in the league's quarterback rankings with a passer rating of 86.4, and nobody could ask for much more at this point in his development. Smith has been accurate, has shown the ability to throw long, has averaged seven yards per pass attempt and has dramatically cut down on his turnovers compared to last season, when he fumbled 11 times and had 11 interceptions with just one touchdown pass in 165 attempts. In six games this year, he has eight touchdown passes and just four picks. Smith has been sacked 13 times as the line in front of him has done a generally good job protecting him, except late in a few games that got out of hand and defenders blitzed relentlessly knowing the 49ers had to pass. The receiver corps also has been solid with Antonio Bryant bringing a legitimate downfield target as the No. 1 receiver, Arnaz Battle developing into an adequate No. 2 and Bryan Gilmore contributing as the third WR option. Eric Johnson has stepped in adequately at tight end since top draft pick Vernon Davis went down in Week 3, which ostensibly hurt both the passing game and offense. The 49ers also have gotten tailback Frank Gore involved, and he has been an additional weapon out of the backfield while leading the team with 24 receptions. The erratic pass blocking of RT Kwame Harris has been the only real downfall along the line. While the 49ers still have a developing passing game compared to many NFL teams, San Francisco currently is 14 spots higher in the NFL rankings compared to where it finished last season and is averaging 83 passing yards more per game. RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The 49ers, who currently rank ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, might have a higher grade here if it weren't for Gore's four lost fumbles, all of which were costly. But Gore has otherwise been both spectacular and consistent, rushing for 520 yards and three touchdowns while averaging a healthy 4.6 yards per carry. Gore has displayed strength between the tackles and explosiveness in the open field. Fullback Moran Norris has emerged as a formidable lead blocker and appears to have taken the regular starting job away from Chris Hetherington, who began the season with it. Even with an unsettled line that has been without LG Larry Allen and LT Jonas Jennings for varying lengths of time, the run blocking has been consistently good with Harris, G/T Adam Snyder and RG Justin Smiley most often leading the way. Rookie Michael Robinson has displayed his strength and toughness in short-yardage situations, but he is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry as Gore's primary backup. PASSING DEFENSE: F -- There's no putting a pretty face on this area which continues to be the team's biggest weakness, even with the standout play of veteran cornerback Walt Harris, who has three of San Francisco's four interceptions. The players around Harris in the secondary have suffered breakdowns galore, and both season-opening regular safeties either have already lost their starting job or are in jeopardy of doing so. After a decent start - 12 sacks in the first three games - the pass rush has just one sack in the past three games and has become a glaring problem. Rookie Manny Lawson got both of his sacks in Week 2 and has not been the pass-rushing threat from the edge that some expected. Then again, nobody has. Stalwart defensive end Bryant Young leads the team with three sacks and has three times as many quarterback pressures, but he's basically a one-man gang up front who opponents can neutralize with double-team blocking. There have been plenty of breakdowns in coverage, but a lot of times it simply is San Francisco defenders getting beat in individual matchups, and that includes the linebackers in underneath coverage. The 49ers have failed to stop the opposition on 51.2 percent of their third downs, a telling figure that repeatedly gives opposing teams a fresh set of downs to beat them. Opposing quarterbacks have torched San Francisco for a composite 98.9 passer rating, and the 49ers aren't going to get better as a team until that figure shrinks and their ability to stop the pass improves. RUSHING DEFENSE: C-minus -- The run defense has had its shining moments, but it still ranks 21st in the NFL entering this week's games, which indicates it hasn't been consistently good. Inside linebackers Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, who generally have played the run well in the past, have not been up to their previous standards so far this season, and the run defense has suffered as a result. San Francisco's front wall has generally played the run well but has been a bit soft up the middle. The most telling numbers: The 49ers are allowing opponents 4.3 yards per carry and have surrendered nine rushing touchdowns in six games - many of them on short-yardage plays. Only two other NFL teams have allowed more than seven rushing touchdowns so far in 2006. SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus -- Kicker Joe Nedney already has missed four field-goal attempts after missing only two in 28 attempts all of last season. Punter Andy Lee is averaging 43.0 yards a punt, with a net average of 35.6, comparable to the numbers he put up last season. Maurice Hicks is third among the NFC leaders in kick returns with a 25.2 average, including a 59-yarder, but he also has lost a fumble. Arnaz Battle had a 60-yard punt return in the season opener, but rookie Brandon Williams now handles that role, and he has yet to get untracked as a return threat. Manny Lawson blocked a punt against the Raiders that helped contribute to one of the team's two victories, but there have been few other big plays on special teams. Despite allowing a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown to Kansas City's Dante Hall in Week 4, the coverage teams have played well, but San Francisco's specialty units as a whole already have been penalized seven times this season. COACHING: C-plus -- It has been another tough start in his second season for head coach Mike Nolan, who continues to oversee a massive rebuilding project and remains committed to being involved in just about every part and detail of that undertaking. It's too much for one man, and Nolan needs to start focusing his time and energy into more specific areas while overseeing the team in general. Nolan has San Francisco's players sold on his grand plan, which still appears to be a good one. But now he must hold some of his defensive assistants accountable for what's happening on that side of the ball, where the 49ers seemingly regressed weekly in the month leading up to their bye week. Nolan's defensive reputation is taking a beating because of it, but he can only do so much short of becoming his own defensive coordinator. Nolan remains a strong leader on a young team, but he continues to have issues with game management, perhaps another trickle-down effect of shaky performance in other coaching areas. The big plus here has been the offensive turnaround led by new coordinator Norv Turner, who has nurtured San Francisco's young players on that side of the ball while producing bright game plans against almost every opponent so far. There also has been steady development by virtually every individual unit on offense. Special teams coordinator Larry Mac Duff continues to do a fine job getting the most out of his units, which always experience some personnel turnover. The overall coaching certainly hasn't been bad; it just hasn't been good enough to stop the bleeding on defense.
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