Niners at the bye: What's right and wrong

With the 49ers taking a break this Sunday at their bye, SFI breaks down the team by position, analyzing what's right and wrong and whether each unit is getting better or worse since the season began. Here, we take a look at the offense.

QUARTERBACKS

WHAT'S RIGHT:
Hmmm … Let's see … Well …. OK, it's difficult to find much that went right here as Alex Smith put up pedestrian numbers before he was injured on the third play from scrimmage in a Week 4 loss to Seattle. Smith still looks like a mobile, athletic player who is brimming with promise, and he spearheaded a remarkable comeback in the season opener against Arizona when he guided the 49ers 86 yards to the winning touchdown in the final two minutes. Smith was at his very best during that drive, breaking loose for a career-long 25-yard run on fourth-and-1 to keep the drive alive, then hitting Arnaz Battle with a 22-yard strike at the goal line on third-and-13 to set up the winning touchdown. He displayed an ability to make plays with his legs and was averaging 22 yards rushing per game before being injured.

WHAT'S WRONG: Smith suffered a Grade 3 separation of his right (throwing) shoulder when he was slammed to the ground by Seattle defensive tackle Rocky Bernard during the opening moments of the team's Week 3 loss to Seattle. Smith did not play again before the bye week and his timetable for return when the team gets back to action still is undetermined, though he appears to be making rapid progress and could return to action Oct. 21 against the New York Giants. Through three games before being hurt, Smith had completed just 51.2 percent of his throws for 461 yards and had just one touchdown pass. Last year through three games, Smith had 814 yards and three touchdowns passing. Smith had problems getting rid of the ball quickly and he missed open receivers while occasionally looking uncomfortable in the pocket. Thrown in to replace Smith against Seattle, veteran backup Trent Dilfer was not up to the task, completing just 12 of 33 passes for 128 yards with two interceptions – a 23.3 quarterback rating – in his first regular-season action since playing with Cleveland in 2005. Dilfer showed improvement the next week, going12 of 19 for 126 yards and a touchdown with one pick in a 9-7 loss to Baltimore – but the 49ers didn't show much confidence in letting him go down the field, asking him instead just to manage the offense while the defense did most of the work.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Worse. Though the talent and potential clearly still are there, Smith took a step backward before being hurt, and Dilfer hardly distinguished himself when he was summoned from the bullpen for the first time since joining the 49ers.


RUNNING BACKS

WHAT'S RIGHT:
Frank Gore still is Frank Gore, and he led the NFL with three rushing touchdowns after two games, including a 43-yard scoring burst on fourth-and-1 that keyed San Francisco's one-point victory in Week 2 at St. Louis. Gore rushed for 81 yards in that game, his highest total through the season's first month. He also gained 79 yards while averaging 4.9 yards a carry against a Seattle run defense that has been one of the NFC's best in the early going. Moran Norris continues to be a strong blocking complement in front of Gore, who also was a threat coming out of the backfield on passing plays.

WHAT'S WRONG: Gore, the reigning NFC rushing champion who throughout the year has talked openly of his goals for a 2,000-yard season, was on a pace to gain just 936 yards this year at the bye. The holes haven't been there, but Gore – who shed some weight during the offseason to add quickness – may not have the same power between the tackles that he exhibited last year. Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson have done little to distinguish themselves in the dual role as Gore's backup. The pass blocking from this position has been suspect as the 49ers have had to leave in backs to help a struggling offensive line with protection. Gore has dropped several short passes.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Worse. Opposing defenses are ganging up on Gore worse than ever before, with predictable results that are far off last year's production.


WIDE RECEIVERS

WHAT'S RIGHT:
Arnaz Battle has been what he's supposed to be – a tough, reliable possession receiver who can make the tough grab over the middle and also help the team with his route running and blocking down the field. Battle reached high in the air while absorbing a big hit at the goal line to make the last-minute catch that set up San Francisco's Week 1 victory over Arizona. Darrell Jackson has displayed the ability to get open in the intermediate lanes and was averaging nearly 15 yards per catch through the first month of the season. Bryan Gilmore joined the team in Week 5 and gave the team and immediate boost with his ability to get deep.

WHAT'S WRONG: Taylor Jacobs was a bust as the No. 3 receiver and was released after recording just three receptions in San Francisco's first four games. The team brought back veteran Gilmore – who was released before the season began after recording just eight receptions last year as the team's third receiver – to replace him. Ashley Lelie – who twice led the NFL in average yards per catch before coming to San Francisco – barely got on the field and didn't look very good when he did, finishing with no receptions through the first five games and having just one pass thrown his way. Jackson and Jacobs each had multiple drops with Jackson also failing to make several tough grabs that were within his grasp. Unless Gilmore can fill the role, the 49ers don't appear to have a legitimate deep threat and have struggled to get the ball down the field.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Worse. The production here has been even worse than last season, when it was mediocre even on its best days.


TIGHT ENDS

WHAT'S RIGHT:
Vernon Davis looks more comfortable in the position now and is a legitimate big-play threat in the passing game, as he exhibited in Week 3 against Pittsburgh with four receptions for 56 yards before he was hurt in the third quarter. Delanie Walker has displayed precise route running and an ability to get open and catch the ball as a complementary target. Billy Bajema has been a solid blocking complement in two-tight end sets.

WHAT'S WRONG: When making a leaping catch deep in Pittsburgh territory that later was ruled an incompletion after a controversial instant replay decision, Davis was hit low by safety Troy Polamalu and suffered a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee that kept him out of action into the bye week. Bajema also has been hampered by injuries. In Davis' place, Walker had an opportunity to make several tough grabs but couldn't come up with them, including a pass that would have gone for a touchdown against Seattle.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Better. Davis has shown clear signs of living up to his vast potential, and Bajema and Walker have been a nice 1-2 complementary punch.


OFFENSIVE LINE

WHAT'S RIGHT:
The development of first-round draft pick Joe Staley as the starting right tackle has been swift and conspicuous. Coach Mike Nolan says Staley is playing as well as any of the other four veteran starters on this unit, and the fact is, he probably is playing better. Staley has been an upgrade in pass protection over Kwame Harris, the veteran he replaced, and has held his own in the run game. Jonas Jennings has had his moments at left tackle and guards Larry Allen and Justin Smiley have shown glimpses of being as good as they were last year in the run game.

WHAT'S WRONG: Besides Staley, just about everything. Jennings, Allen, Smiley and center Eric Heitmann each are playing well below their standards of 2006, when this unit was considered one of the team's primary strengths and also one of the NFL's rising offensive lines. But his year, it has been a nosedive plummet as the line has struggled to open lanes for the running game and has been even worse in pass protection as the 49ers languish near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed per play. This unit allowed six sacks in one half of action against Seattle in Week 4, and Heitmann and Allen allowed Seattle's Bernard to slip right between them on a straight rush to get the sack that injured Smith. There also have been several holding and false-start penalties by the guys up front.

GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? Worse. Surprisingly, this unit has lacked both cohesion and production and has consistently played poorly throughout the first quarter of the season, seldom showing its fine form of last season.



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