Niner Report: Charged

We would like to think, as the saying goes, that on any given Sunday...

But these 49ers are proving more and more that the victory over the St. Louis, in which the defensive unit held the Rams to their lowest point total of the season, was a complete aberration. In the present condition of confusion and miscommunication, Derek Smith & Co. failed to put up much resistance to the Chargers, who at times looked like they were running against a practice squad. In his first full season as a starter, QB Philip Rivers played like a season vet, putting up a career high in yards (334) without throwing a pick or getting sacked. Rivers even felt confident enough to scoff at the 49ers' letting tight end Antonio Gates loose in one-on-one coverage on the third play of the game. Nolan's response: linebacker T.J. Slaughter shouldn't have been alone in man coverage of Gates but found himself isolated because of an "error in the implementation of the defensive play call."

There were a couple of positive signs from Sunday's game as well. Bryan Gilmore, despite his costly fumble, showed some spark off the bench with a couple of big end arounds (one of which was made possible by a Alex Smith's textbook block) and a nice TD reception. DT Ronald Fields showed some life with five tackles and forcing Rivers to intentionally ground what ended up as a safety.

The bye week couldn't have come at a better time, as Mike Nolan and his coaching staff need the extra week to not only reorganize the defensive unit but perhaps re-think their entire defensive philosophy. Rookie defensive end Parys Haralson figures to play a more prominent role after the off week, while Walt Harris' return to the secondary after tweaking his hamstring should also help. On the offensive side guard Larry Allen should also return Oct. 29 in Chicago, although Norv Turner's unit scored more points against San Diego than any other team so far this season. Of course that might also be because the Charger defense let up a bit after its offense scored TDs on five of its first six possessions.

An ongoing cause of worry: why can't this team convert on short yardage plays?


Niner Report: Um, Mercy?

This weekend's bout with San Diego will be a telling matchup for this young Niner team. After beating the 4-1 St. Louis Rams, Philadelphia sauntered into Candlestick and slapped the Niners around. The next week they were throttled on the road at Arrowhead Stadium, but returned home to a nice treat: the pathetic Oakland Raiders. Last week's win put the Niners at 2-3, and a chance to reach .500. To do so, the Niners will have to take down one of the best teams in the NFL.

The Chargers present a myriad of problems that have plagued the Niners this season:
  • They have a balanced and competent offense, which excels at protecting the quarterback and the football. In the Niners two wins, they were able to pressure the quarterback (especially against the Rams), and force turnovers (four against the Raiders). Neither team was able to expose the Niner's main defensive weaknesses: inability to produce pressure without the blitz, and an inexperienced secondary lacking playmakers. In their losses, the Cardinals and Eagles threw with ease and faced little pressure in the backfield (called it the Avian Complex). The Chiefs did whatever they wanted, as the Niner D turned into a siev. Unfortunately, the Chargers are fully equipped to do things to the Niners D that they only talk about on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
  • They have, arguably, the league's best defense. Shawne Merriman is a beast. As is SF product Igor Olshansky from St. Ignatius (I meet him when he was high school and he was HUGE then). Fortunately, the Niners won't have to dodge any Steve Foley bullets; he is out for the year after getting shot by police in the preseason. The secondary is good, but the Chargers dominate because they put pressure on the quarterback.
  • They have Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, the two best players at their respective positions in the NFL.
This whole game has the makings of another Niner massacre. The offensive line is a mess (will Jonas Jennings ever play a freaking game?), and there are just better players on the blue and gold sideline. One thing working in the Niners favor: at least they aren't coached by Marty Schottenheimer.

This game features a good matchup of young quarterbacks, and also pits two of the top rushers in the NFL against one another (oh, I went there). While Frank Gore did win an award for last week's performance, he is still a humble admirer of the great LT.

The only way I see the 49ers winning this game is if the Chargers are still beaming from taking down the Super Bowl Champs, and overlook this week's game. If the Chargers come to play, the only way to beat them will be to reign in LT and force Philip Rivers to screw up, which is easier theorized than done. Rivers is still only starting his sixth NFL game, and has yet to lay a real stinker, so rattling his cage will be imperative if the Niners want to have a chance. There is no way the Niners can win a shootout, so ball-control--and security (you listening Frank Gore?)--will be vital.

In the end, the Chargers have too much for the Niners to handle. As San Fran has shown this year, they can beat bad teams, but when they play the real teams in the NFL (not the Raiders) they just don't have the players to compete. Knowing this squad, they won't quit, but I don't think they are capable of taking down one of the premier teams in the NFL. I hope they prove me wrong.

Prediction: Chargers 27-10 (and if you don't believe me, look at the ESPN Madden simulation; it's like the hand of God).
Season: 5-0.


Web Watch: Omar Vizquel

Athlete web pages. A trend that's starting to pick up, but probably not the way those superstars (and even superstar hopefuls) envisioned. They see dollar signs and sponsorships; we see over-inflated egos and perfect heckling material. Is it possible to have one of these without coming off as a pompous, self-involved tool? Every Thursday, until I can't find any more, we'll look at a (sometimes ex-) Bay Area athlete's site to find out...

Athlete: Omar Vizquel
Website: www.omarvizquel.com (under construction), MySpace

Look at the old man learning new tricks. While his official site is under construction (and actually has been for a while), Omar "Meatball" Vizquel redirects fans to his MySpace page. In a strange development there was actually an Omar poser that lurked among the MySpace ranks, robbing visitors of heartfelt comments of adulation and praise. Thankfully, the intruder has been "removed."

Kevin Frandsen's MySpace exists somewhere out there also, but unfortunately for him his occupation did not always read "San Francisco Giants" as Omar's does. However as the site tells us Omar's current technological capabilities are somewhat limited because his webmaster "Brad" (no doubt watching the market recap and having an import) is setting up his laptop still. Says Omar:
He will be sending it to me soon.
Nothing like some good off-season news.

Best comment on the page, courtesy of JOWEEZY THE GUY WHO CANT THINK OF A DISPLAY NAME:
u gotta talk to benitez and set him straight. hes a cancer. its one thing to play bad but another to blame others.
The potential of the MySpace comment as a medium to deal with team issues has not yet been realized. By posting comments every day we can only hope that Vizquel develops some beef with Benitez along the lines of Jose Mesa and Armando is forced to leave...


Niner Report: Take That Raider Nation

Not like we hear at HMB want to brag or anything, but Sunday's victory over the Raiders put us at 4-0 on the season (with one N/A) in predictions. Granted we haven't been going against the spread, but it is still a somewhat impressive feat. I guess this little self-praising exercise means that our first stumble will come this weekend against San Diego, but we'll wait till Friday--and then Sunday--to find out.

The win over the Raiders really isn't anything to write home about; it is obvious that they are the least disciplined, most poorly prepared, and ineptly coached team in the entire NFL. A win like this is something that the players, franchise, and fans should expect henceforth. But it still remains reassuring to see a team that played so poorly last season be expected to win a game the following year. This shows yet another sign that things around here just might be changing.

Despite the abhorrent opponent, there are some good things to take out of Sunday's triumph. Let's take a quick glance:
  • Frank Gore finally held on to the ball for his first fumble-free game of the year, and in the process, scampered to the top of the NFL rushing list. If anyone predicted this at the start of the season, I will immediately make you my bookie.
  • The Niners trailed at halftime and were able to make a spirited comeback behind an efficient Alex Smith and a turnover-forcing D, which included three picks from corner Walt Harris (no, not the Stanford coach).
  • Norv Turner exacted revenge on his former employer, and his offense looked ten-fold more competent.
  • No play better exemplified the divergent directions of the cross-bay franchises than Melvin Oliver's fumble recovery.
  • Arnaz of the Battle Zone caught two TDs in hopes of complementing Antonio Bryant.
Not all things were so rosy after the game, however:
  • Nolan's in-game decision-making is once again a topic up for debate. This time he's being chastised for going for two fourth-and-ones. Either way, you just can't win.
  • Manny Lawson, fresh off of blocking a punt, might be getting a little worn out already.
  • Good news: Rookie Delanie Walker finally made his anticipated regular season debut. Bad news: he didn't do anything.
  • No matter how you slice it, the game was still pretty ugly. But, hey, we'll take whatever we can get.
Overall, the positives outweighed the negatives, which is almost always the case in a victory. Before we jump to conclusions, let's take a gander at the season's statistics so far.
  • The Niners rank 7th in scoring offense, 13th in total offense, 8th in rushing, and 11th in passing.
  • The defense is still seventh-worst in the NFL, but is in the middle of the pack (15th) in forcing turnovers.
Obviously, the offense has been infinitely better than last season, and while the numbers of the defense may suggest little has changed, the ability to create turnovers shows that there is natural talent on the team that has yet to have been fully harnessed. The most telling improvement on the team, however, lies in Alex Smith. Let's compare his first five starts of last year to those in 2006:
  • 2005 first 5 starts (aggregate): 50/109, 46%, 551 yards, 0 TDs, 10 INTs, 23.15 QB rating.
  • 2006 first 5 starts (aggregate): 89/152, 58.6%, 1071 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs, 85.2 QB rating.
  • 2005 first 5 starts (average): 10/21.8, 46%, 110.2 yards/game, 0 TDS/2 INTS per game for an average QB rating of 24.0.
  • 2006 first 5 starts (average): 17.8/30.4, 59%, 214 yards/game, 1.2 TDs/0.6 INTs per game for an average QB rating of 90.14.
The two things that really jump out at you are the increase in completion percentage and decrease in turnovers. Yes, he's thrown for nearly double the yardage, but much of that can be attributed to the 10 more pass attempts he's averaging a game. It's clear that Smith's accuracy is much higher which is apparent in the 12% increase in completed passes, and the significant decrease in interceptions thrown. Some of this can be attributed to the improvement of receiving personnel surrounding Smith, but from observing the game film, he has shown better command of the game in his second season. If he improves at a similar rate for this season and the next, the Niners could be darkhorse playoff contenders before previously anticipated.

(For QB rating research, this site is great.)

Before we all collectively get on our knees, Smith will have to prove his mettle in the coming weeks against--in my estimation--the two best defenses in the NFL. This weekend the Niners take on the Chargers (tune in Friday for the prediction), and after a bye week travel to the Windy City to play Chicago. See you Friday.


Baseball Closure

Rest easy, Giants fans. We fought and failed. We were embarrassed by the Dodgers in the final weekend. The Padres continually beat the Giants down the stretch. It was bad.

Alas, the Padres won one game in St. Louis and the Dodgers got swepted. Their seasons lasted five days longer than ours. Most importantly, they got lured into thinking they were actually good and had a chance. There would of been no pain greater than watching Kent, Lofton, Tomko and friends celebrating again. Thankfully, it did not happen.

While I'm talking about the playoffs, it is certainly time to give the A's their fair share of praise. I'm not sure what happened, but back in June, the Giants split the season series and should of taken four of six. The A's were not a good team. Frank Thomas has found the fountain of youth somehow and Esteban Loiza has straightened out his drinking and driving issues. No one will watch the Tigers-A's series but it be great baseball. Regardless of how much the two beat each other up, the winner will certainly beat the pitching depleted NL champ.

5 World Championships, 0 Splash Hits? Sigh.

Highly interesting article by Scott Ostler regarding the strange saga that is Jeff Kent. Deadspin had a great take on it.