Jim Harbaugh is a master at getting his team ready after a loss
The 49ers are now 4-0 after a defeat during the Jim Harbaugh era, and the opposition has scored a combined total of 11 points in those four games, two of which San Francisco won by shutout. It’s obvious that when the Niners stray off the path of their ultimate objective, Harbaugh is able to quickly reinforce their ideals and their mission. The unexpected and unexplainable 24-13 loss in Minnesota on Sept. 23 left a lot of puzzled expressions on the faces of the 49ers and their fans, but there is no question Harbaugh was able to move his team past it, as he promised he would the day after the loss. Despite having the distraction of preparing during the week away from the comfort of team headquarters, not to mention the fly-by-night conditions and arrangements of a week on the road in Youngstown, Ohio, the 49ers were as ready against the Jets as they’ll ever be for game. A 34-0 mashing of a first-place team on its home turf before the always unruly enemy fans of New York is a testament to how Harbaugh keeps his team grounded and how he and his coaches can devise a game plan to both expose and dismantle and overmatched opponent.
Throwing deep really is a concern for Alex Smith
We suspected this entering the season, and we saw evidence to support the premise several times during San Francisco’s first three games, when Smith rarely even attempted to throw passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. But he did that several times against the Jets, and he again struggled to hit on passes deep down the field after his receivers had beaten New York defenders – most noticeably on two deep shots down each sideline when Smith overthrew Mario Manningham after the veteran newcomer had gotten behind the New York defense. To be sure, Smith can hit the long ball on occasion, as he displayed several times last year and again this season to Vernon Davis. But he’s already missed on numerous opportunities to hit on those big plays a quarter of the way into this season, and he must start connecting on them more frequently for defenses to play the 49ers honest. The Jets, even without cornerback-supreme Darrelle Revis, challenged the Niners with man coverage and did not fear Smith to beat them deep. And he didn’t. Other opponents will follow that pattern until he does.
Colin Kaepernick is a veritable weapon that needs to become a part of the offensive game plan
He doesn’t need to become a big part. But he does now, after his auspicious breakout cameo against the Jets, need to become a regular part of the game plan, even if it’s just for a handful of plays each week. A handful of plays was plenty enough for Kaepernick to make a difference in New York. The second-year quarterback made a dazzling impact each time he appeared in the game from the first time he stepped on the field for the third snap of San Francisco’s second offensive series. Hardly anybody had noticed that Kaepernick had snuck into the game when he lined up behind center in shotgun formation on a first-down play from the San Francisco 19-yard line, but they noticed after he took a direct snap and sliced over left tackle for a 17-yard gain and then immediately left the game. They noticed again three plays later when Kaepernick again took Alex Smith’s place in the huddle and this time took the snap behind center. Kaepernick dropped back and launched a pass that traveled some 60 yards in the air toward a triple-covered Randy Moss in the end zone, and though it fell incomplete, it served notice that opponents will have to be wary of what Kap can do with his strong right arm as well as his legs. Kaepernick’s next appearance came with the 49ers facing third-and-goal from the New York 7 early in the second quarter, and he again took a direct snap and cruised around the left side and into the end zone for his first career touchdown. Then it was back to Smith – until Kaepernick replaced him for San Francisco’s final offensive series. After the two-minute warning, facing third down, Kap fooled the New York defense with a 30-yard bootleg run on which he would have scored easily if he hadn’t slid at the 3-yard line to prevent himself from strolling into the end zone. Four plays, three carries, 54 yards rushing, one TD and one launched pass. Yes, the Niners need to start getting him at least four plays a game while Smith remains their starter.
The 49ers are back on the takeaway trail
You sort of had to wonder through the first three weeks if the 49ers would have the same knack for creating turnovers that they did last year, when San Francisco led the NFL with 38 takeaways and also led the league with a plus-28 turnover differential. The Niners had just one pick in each of their first two games, then added two fourth-quarter fumble recoveries against a second-string halfback against Minnesota in Week 3. But their aggressive, ball-hawking tendencies returned and were on full display against the Jets. The Niners played tip-drill for their one interception, which was recorded by Patrick Willis, and two of their three fumbles were the results of big hits to dislodge the football. The four-takeaway Sunday was a total they matched only twice during their spectacular turnover season last year. On a pace to produce 21 turnovers this year entering last week’s game, the Niners now are on a pace for 32 at the quarter pole of the season. And you can bet with the way this team plays defense, that pace is likely to increase as the season progresses.
A spark of diversity can add fire to San Francisco’s ground game
The 49ers rushed for 245 yards against the Jets, their greatest output of the Jim Harbaugh era. But it wasn’t the usual grind-it-out, power rushing game highlighted by the inside bursts and outside slashing of Frank Gore. San Francisco’s meal-ticket back did have game-high totals of 62 yards rushing on 21 carries, but that represented just less than half of San Francisco’s total carries as the Niners got the ball into the hands of nine different players for at least one carry, something rarely seen by any NFL team. That included the runs from shotgun formation of Kaepernick, and it also included a series of reverses using receivers Manningham, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn to soften the New York defense. Even fullback Bruce Miller got a middle-of-the-line plunge for five yards, and it’s good for the Niners to give him the ball every now and then so that opponents know he can be more than just a blocker in the run game. It was Miller’s first carry in four games this season. With Kendall Hunter complementing Gore superbly for 7.0 yards a pop on eight carries, the Jets never knew what was coming as the Niners hit them from all angles and directions, giving future opponents more things to consider when they scheme to stop a San Francisco rushing attack that now ranks third in the NFL.