2007 Record: 2-1
2007 Point Differential: -17
Offensive Passing VOA: -37.0% (30th)
Offensive Rushing VOA: -5.8% (18)
Biggest Offensive Strength: Frank Gore/Moran Norris
Defensive Passing VOA: 7.2% (16)
Defensive Rushing VOA: 5.1% (21)
Biggest Defensive Strength: Pass Rush/Playmaking
Special Teams VOA: 1.3% (14)
Biggest Special Teams Strength: Andy Lee
Conservative Power Rushing Attack
I was going to call it "Ultra" conservative, but who can tell with Alex Smith at the helm. Jim Hostler's system is a relic of Norv Turner's system, which is a relic of the early nineties Cowboys. As has been mentioned in many places, when you're offensive line is comprised of pre-Olympian Titans, almost any system will work. To call Turner's system dink and dunk is to discredit dink and malign dunk; his playcalling has the explosive potential of a capless cap gun. Anyway, enough editorializing.
The Niners pass it short and run hard up the middle (a full 66% of all rushes, fifth in the NFL). The system is designed to protect the quarterback, keep the ball moving upfield and cash in with big run plays. To accomplish this San Francisco employs a lot of designed roll outs, curl routes, drag routes and halfback passes. It is, plainly, a neutered offense not unlike what Seattle employs when Seneca Wallace is forced into action. That is important context to consider when evaluating just how bad Smith and this passing offense have been. For the year Smith has a 51.8% completion percentage, a 4.78 net yards per passing attempt (To put that into context, Charlie Frye had 5.0 NY/P in 2005, Beck 7.0 NY/P the same year) and most accurately a -22.5% VOA for the season.
The Niners passing woes open a chicken or egg discussion about the rushing attack. Is the rushing game worse because the pass attack sucks? Or does the passing game suck because the rushing attack is worse? Whichever way you slice it, I don't place much blame on Frank Gore. I never agreed that he was one of the three best running backs in football, but he's very good. Gore's struggles can be linked mostly to the line. After placing 7th in adjusted line yards in 2006, San Francisco has fallen all the way to 30th in 2007. A couple easy explanations exist for this decline, Larry Allen has finally hit the wall, Joe Staley is not as good as run blocker as Kwame Harris and Jonas Jennings could be experiencing an early decline after a career wracked with injuries. Gore is a cutback rusher, and like Alexander is liable to try to do too much with too little. That might be why only 27% of his rushing plays are considered successful.
Even if Gore comes to life on Sunday, it should be understood that San Francisco, because of personnel and scheme, has little chance of busting out offensively. Even when Gore hung 238 total yards on the Seahawks in week 11 of 2006, the Niners only scored 20 points. In fact, San Francisco hasn't scored 30+ points since week three in 2005.
Linebacker Centric 3-4
Injuries have stripped some of the oomph from the 49ers front seven, but the writing was on the wall for this unit to disappoint from the start. Rather than building his defense from the line out, Nolan has drafted linebackers and signed DBs while settling for castoffs and the 35 year old Bryant Young to form his front three. Nolan has only taken one lineman in the first day of the draft, Ray McDonald, who's currently vacationing somewhere around the Springfield Mystery Spot. The resulting defense is very good in spurts, flashy, but never truly dominant.
The danger for the Seahawks is two fold and both surrounding Shaun Alexander. In the passing game the Niners like to send blitzing linebackers. It's not as madcap as the Steelers, but creative packages ensure that pressure from the second level often arrives untouched through the line. T'were Seattle a better backfield pass blocking team, or had better outlet receivers from the backfield, the Hawks could turn this aggression into a liability. The Hawks are not, do not, can not and when Alexander is on the field are among the league's worst at both running back blocking and receiving. Truly, the best protection Seattle can hope to muster in stopping the Niners blitzing hijinks is a steady rushing attack that puts them into good down and distance situations.
It helps Manny Lawson is out, but Patrick Willis and...huh, they've benched Brandon Moore. Moore could return to action with Lawson out, but didn't play against the Steelers, so, uh, maybe he ran over Nolan's dog or something. Moore had a very good season in 2006, including six and half sacks and three forced fumbles and is in his prime (28). Hmm...Well, anyway, four linebackers of any sort present a problem for a cutback rusher. When that rusher had troubles with the Bengals depleted three, you have to be concerned. When that rusher has a cracked wrist and a sudden penchant for fumbling, you have to wonder why he's going to see 20+ carries, but he will. I don't care much if Alexander tops a hundred yards or scores a TD, the Hawks need him to secure the football and keep the Niners blitzers honest. That's about getting productive yards and keeping the team in manageable third down situations. The better candidate to do just that, get through the Niners iffy front three and take what his line gives him, Maurice Morris, will be back for Sunday. Let's hope he gets some looks.