COMMENTARY | After a 1-2 start and two consecutive blowout losses, there were some who came to the conclusion that the 2013 San Francisco 49ers were set for a major letdown. With the Seattle Seahawks seemingly in domination mode, expectations seemed to be grounded as it relates to the 49ers chances of winning the division and repeating as conference champions.
It's the same story every year. One or two top contenders struggle out of the gate and the skeptics come crawling out of the woodwork.
Since those two losses, San Francisco has won four in a row by an average score of 33-13 and sit a single game behind Seattle with what seems to be an easy game against the Jacksonville Jaguars upcoming this week. It's the first time since 1998 that the 49ers have scored 30-plus points in four consecutive games.
While some will draw the conclusion that San Francisco hasn't played the best competition in those four games, teams can only play who is on their schedule. At the start of the season we expected the 49ers to take care of business against these opponents, and that's exactly what they have done.
Impressive might not be the best term to utilize when defining how the 49ers have played over the past month, but there are indications that they're back to playing Jim Harbaugh-type football.
First and foremost, quarterbacks have struggled a great deal against the 49ers' defense since Week 1. Overall, they have combined to complete just over 50 percent of their passes with five touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 62.8 rating. That's mighty impressive for a secondary that came into the season with myriad of questions.
San Francisco's success against the pass has been in large part due to the emergence of rookie safety Eric Reid and fourth-year cornerback Tramaine Brock. A lot has been made about Reid's performance thus far this season, but Brock has really stepped up. According to Pro Football Focus, the small-school product ranks fourth among cornerbacks in pass coverage this season. He's allowing quarterbacks to complete just 53 percent of the passes thrown in his direction thus far. That's near-shutdown statistics right there, something that the 49ers have been missing for some time now.
Despite dealing with injuries to Ian Williams (out for the season), Glenn Dorsey, Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald as well as off-field issues for Aldon Smith, the 49ers front seven has performed extremely well thus far. While the sack numbers (17 in seven games) might not be there, San Francisco's defensive front is doing a good job putting pressure on the quarterback. A lot of this has to do with specific packages that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is throwing out there, but the likes of Corey Lemonier and the aforementioned Dorsey have been impressive.
Reports from around 49ers' headquarters in Santa Clara indicate that Aldon Smith could return from alcohol rehab during the bye, which would be a huge bonus for a unit that is already playing lights out. As one of the most-skilled pass rushers in the game, Smith's impact will be felt all over the field.
Offensively, it's been somewhat of an up-and-down stretch during the four-game win streak. Colin Kaepernick has looked dominating at times, but seems to struggle maintaining that high level of play throughout an entire game. Since the worst two-game stretch of his young career against Seattle and the Indianapolis Colts, he has put up six total touchdowns compared to one interception for a stellar quarterback rating of 98.2.
Statistics aside, Kaepernick seems to be more comfortable in the pocket. He's progressing past his primary and secondary reads more often, which is enabling Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis to get open down the field. Kaepernick has also found a really nice rhythm with the star tight end, something that seemed to be lacking early in his 49ers' career. Over the course of the last three games, Davis has caught 15 passes for 330 yards and three scores.
As you already know, San Francisco's bread and butter on offense is the run game and that aspect has stepped up big time. It is averaging 174.5 rushing yards per game during the four-game win streak.
San Francisco is also getting some reinforcements on the offensive side of the ball over the next few weeks. Mario Manningham, who hasn't played a snap since tearing his ACL last December, has returned to practice and may be ready to return after the bye.
Fellow wide receiver Michael Crabtree is a bit behind in the process, but recent reports suggest that he will be ready to return at some point in the not-so-distant future. The 49ers' No. 1 pass catcher from a season ago was seen sprinting on his surgically repaired Achilles this past week. While no target date has been set, it's safe to assume Crabtree will be back some time before the end of next month.
This is going to be huge for Kaepernick and the passing game. Manningham and Crabtree combined to catch 73 percent of the passes thrown in their direction last season. For comparison's sake, 49ers' wide receivers not named Anquan Boldin have caught just 46 percent of the 33 targets they have received this season.
With these reinforcements on the horizon, San Francisco might finally be reversing what has been an injury-riddled season. It couldn't come at a better time either. The 49ers are set to take on a winless Jacksonville Jaguars team this week before entering a much needed bye week.
After that, Harbaugh and Co. could conceivably continue this four-game win streak. Outside of a Week 11 matchup against the New Orleans Saints and a December tilt with the division-leading Seahawks, San Francisco has a pretty favorable schedule remaining. Its other seven remaining games come against opponents with a combined .289 winning percentage.
For now, it's all about continuing to improve on the offensive side of the ball, especially in the passing game. If the last two games are any indication, San Francisco will be in good shape, especially with both Manningham and Crabtree returning before December. If so, we could very well be looking at another rather large winning streak and an important December matchup against Seattle that could decide who has home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Niners Nation and was a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. His work has been published on CNN, Pro Football Focus and BR, among other sites.
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- Aldon Smith