49ers midseason report card

Handing out grades to the 49ers at the midpoint of their season while breaking down the positives, negatives and bottom line in every area of the team.

Shaun Hill led the 49ers to a 3-1 start with steady efficiency and solid game management. Alex Smith emerged by throwing three touchdown passes at Houston in his first half of action in two years. Smith has displayed considerable progress in his development since taking over as the starter. He has the ability to get the ball down the field that was lacking with Hill.
Negatives: Hill's effectiveness wore off quickly during the second month of the season as opposing defenses adjusted to his strengths. Smith had four turnovers against Tennessee, which swayed that game in the Titans' favor, displaying problems with decision-making and ball protection that were evident earlier in his career. Smith still needs to prove he can get it done in the clutch.
The bottom line: The overall play at this position has not been bad, particularly since the team changed its starter midway through the sixth game. But San Francisco quarterbacks failed to come up with that little something extra several times when the 49ers needed it to produce victory. The team's quarterback rating of 80.7 puts the Niners in the lower half of the league.

Frank Gore has been steadily productive with the ball in his hands and averages 5.6 yards on his 80 carries. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 2, when he became just the second player in NFL history to record two touchdown runs of 75 yards or more in the same game. He has displayed breakaway ability with three TD runs of 64 yards or more. Despite missing almost three full games, Gore ranks 11th in the NFC with 447 yards rushing and 11th in the conference in total yards from scrimmage. Moran Norris has been solid as a blocking fullback and also has contributed with the ball in his hands on short-yardage plays. Rookie Glen Coffee had some productive moments in an extended stretch replacing Gore. The blocking in pass protection from this position has been good, and San Francisco running backs have combined for 40 receptions to help the passing game.
Negatives: Gore missed almost three full games with an ankle/foot injury, and when he is out, the offense just isn't the same. Coffee is averaging just 2.6 yards on his 70 carries and he won't play Thursday against Chicago due to a concussion sustained last week.
The bottom line: Gore is in the prime of his career and the Niners must balance keeping him healthy with getting the football into his hands as much possible, because when it's there, he can do a lot of damage as a premier playmaker. Gore has produced 637 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns on his 102 touches.

Isaac Bruce got off to a big start with a 50-yard reception that was key to the victory in the season opener against Arizona. Josh Morgan has continued to display development as a starter in his second NFL season. First-round draft pick Michael Crabtree stepped in immediately in Week 6 and showed that he's the real deal and a legitimate starter from the get-go. Jason Hill produced two touchdown receptions among his first four catches of the season in Week 9.
Negatives: Brandon Jones, whom the 49ers gave a $16.6 million deal in free agency this year, missed the first three games with a shoulder injury and has yet to catch a pass. Bruce has shown signs of slowing down quickly over the past month and may be on his last legs. Arnaz Battle hasn't been much of a factor. Morgan has dropped several passes, had others bounce of his hands and has been inconsistent. The wideouts have had trouble getting open against tight bump coverage but that has changed since the addition of Crabtree and quarterback Alex Smith to the lineup.
The bottom line: The 49ers have some positive young pieces to go forward with here in Crabtree, Morgan and Hill, but they also need to get Jones involved in the equation. San Francisco needs to see more steady production and play-making from this unit over the second half of the season than it got in the first half.

TIGHT ENDS -- Grade: A
Vernon Davis has been the team's offensive MVP through eight games, and he has developed into a legitimate weapon and play-making threat in the passing game. His blocking also remains top tier. Davis leads the team and ranks fifth in the NFC with 42 receptions for 477 yards, and he's tied for the NFL lead with seven touchdown receptions. He enters Thursday's game coming off a career-best performance of 10 catches and 102 yards against Tennessee. Delanie Walker has been effective with the ball in his hands, averaging 16.2 yards on his five receptions.
Negatives: With just two tight ends on the roster, the 49ers don't get much extra blocking from this position in two-tight end sets.
The bottom line: In his fourth season, Davis has become a complete tight end who has shown no weaknesses in his game. He is on course toward the Pro Bowl, not to mention one of the most productive seasons ever by a San Francisco tight end.

The Niners have received steady play from veteran center Eric Heitmann and young left tackle Joe Staley before he was hurt. This unit has held together despite some considerable in-season transition. There have been several stretches of solid performance and young guards David Baas and Chilo Rachal both have shown the ability to clear out space in front of them. Veteran Barry Sims has played surprisingly well at tackle when called upon due to injury.
Negatives: For the most part, the line has been a weakness that has affected the entire offense. Injuries to tackles Staley, Adam Snyder and Tony Pashos have impacted the unit considerably and left the 49ers thin at that position. Pashos, who won the starting job at right tackle last month, is out for the season with a shoulder injury, and Snyder has had problems performing effectively in that spot. Staley, perhaps the team's best lineman, is out another month with a knee injury. Rachal and Baas both have been inconsistent and haven't shown a lot of progress in their development after both ended last season strong. The 49ers rank 27th in the NFL in sacks allowed per play, and this unit is responsible for a large part of that statistic.
The bottom line: There may be better days ahead for this unit, but they can't come soon enough. The line has not been what the 49ers hoped it would be or need it to be, which has forced the team to change its approach on offense. This unit still has upside, but it will be difficult to reach with key players either injured or struggling.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- Grade: B-plus
Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has been outstanding and is having a career season. He's third on the team in tackles – almost unheard of for a nose tackle – and his 6.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage lead the team. He also has two sacks. End Justin Smith was a monster in the season-opening upset at Arizona and leads the team with 28 quarterback hits and 39 quarterback pressures. Isaac Sopoaga has been a steady presence at left end and the 49ers have got contributions from Ray McDonald (his three sacks lead the team), Kentwan Balmer and Demetric Evans in their line rotation.
Negatives: Smith has been limited to one sack and, besides McDonald, the 49ers have not been getting much heat on the quarterback from this area.
The bottom line: This unit has done a fine job so far this season, battling on passing downs and clogging the interior on running plays so that San Francisco's linebackers can swarm to the ball and make tackles. The line rotation is solid and everybody has made contributions. These guys are playing well enough for the 49ers to win.

Look no farther than Patrick Willis, who is clearly the team's best defensive player – and probably best player overall – and is having another All-Pro-caliber season. Willis leads the team with 86 tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and eight passes defensed. He's doing it all, and he makes everybody around him better. Takeo Spikes has been steady next to Willis inside and outside starters Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson both have had some shining moments. They've combined for 76 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and 44 quarterback pressures.
Negatives: Lawson and Haralson have not been impact rushers on the edge, particularly Haralson, who has just one sack after leading the team with eight last year. Spikes has been hampered by a shoulder injury that forced him out of one game and limited his effectiveness. While they've had a few big plays, Lawson and Haralson have not produced as many as you'd like by the outside linebackers in a 3-4 system, who by design should be the star playmakers of that defensive scheme. Newcomer free agent Marques Harris was a nonfactor and was released by the team near the end of October.
The bottom line: This unit remains a strength for the team, but Willis is playing much better than the players around him, and the Niners simply need more sacks from their edge rushers at this position.

SECONDARY -- Grade: D-plus
Shawntae Spencer has displayed a lot of ability in coverage after moving into the starting lineup at right corner. Michael Lewis has been a solid in-the-box safety and is fourth on the team with 49 tackles. In his first year as the starting free safety, Dashon Goldson has displayed good range and some nasty hitting ability. After losing his starting job to Goldson, Mark Roman has been a solid contributor. Nickel back Dre Bly has made several plays in passing situations, and Tarell Brown has shown progress at cornerback, where he has taken over as the starter for injured Nate Clements.
Negatives: Clements, the high-priced free agent, got beat repeatedly in coverage and played himself out of the starting lineup. In his first non-start as a 49er in Week 7, he injured his shoulder returning a punt and could miss the rest of the season. That's quite a blow to a secondary that was depending on him being its lockdown corner. While Spencer and Goldson have been promising additions to the starting lineup, both have experienced blown assignments and missed tackles that have hurt the team. Lewis missed a game with a concussion, and since he has had three of those since August, the team must monitor his health closely. The 49ers have just four interceptions from their secondary, which isn't enough. They also rank 24th in the league in pass defense, which points directly at this unit.
The bottom line: The 49ers were no doubt expecting better things from their secondary when the season began. Improvement, along with more big plays, are a must from this unit in the second half of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- Grade: B-minus
Punter Andy Lee continues to boom them with the best and has been the star of these units. Lee ranks second in the NFL with a 48.3-yard average and also is second with a 42.5 net average. Kicker Joe Nedney has been steady and reliable and has been putting his kickoffs deeper than last season. Rookie Scott McKillop has emerged as a top performer on the coverage units, where he leads the team with 21 special teams tackles. Michael Robinson, Delanie Walker and Marcus Hudson also have been steady contributors on coverage units. With a 23.6 average, Robinson is developing into a steady returner on kickoffs. After an inconsistent start, the coverage units have picked it up and become reliable. Nate Clements returned a blocked field goal by Ray McDonald for a touchdown in Week 3.
Negatives: These units have not been the kind of strength for the team that they have been in previous seasons. Minnesota's Percy Harvin returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown against the Niners in Week 3. The 49ers released return specialist Allen Rossum in October and have not found an adequate replacement, particularly on punt returns. The 49ers rank 28th in the NFL in punt return average and 21nd in kickoff return average.
The bottom line: San Francisco's kicking specialists remain top-shelf and can be counted upon, but the return game is struggling with transition and has left a lot to be desired. The coverage units seem to be rounding into form, and the 49ers need that from their return game over the second half of the season.

COACHING -- Grade: C-plus
There is little question that Mike Singletary is a strong motivational leader, and he seems to be pushing the right buttons on game day while showing good balance with all his coaching responsibilities during the week. The team believes in him and his message. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky regularly puts together a strong game plan for his unit. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye recently has shown flexibility to adjust his system and play to the team's strengths in light of changing personnel.
Negatives: The offense appeared too conservative and lacking imagination through the first quarter of the season. The 49ers on several occasions played not to lose in close games when they could have gone for the kill and put away an opponent. There have been several times when opponents made better adjustments at halftime than the 49ers, and that showed up on the final scoreboard.
The bottom line: Singletary remains the driving force behind this team, and he delegates responsibility well. His authoritative/inspirational approach has been tested by a four-game losing streak, which has put San Francisco's season on the brink. But Singletary has shown the ability to adapt and make changes, so when he says there still is time for the 49ers to save their season with eight games remaining, you're inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he'll be the reason when it happens – if it happens.

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