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Five Things: Improvement Week

Posted Oct 21, 2011

With five wins and one loss in the first six weeks of the 2011 NFL season, the 49ers have their most wins before a bye week since 1994. That season, the team hoisted its fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy. Sure, there’s some degree of hype regarding San Francisco’s strong start, which includes four consecutive victories, but the 49ers are keeping things in perspective as they head into a week dubbed, “Improvement Week,” by head coach Jim Harbaugh. Here are five things to consider as the 49ers enjoy time off this weekend.

1. Improvement Week

The NFL’s trade deadline came and went without much action out of the Bay Area … besides of course, the Oakland Raiders acquiring veteran quarterback Carson Palmer. The 49ers, however, made no trades before the deadline, but will add a Pro Bowl player to their roster very soon. That player is free agent addition Braylon Edwards, a talented wide receiver who suffered a knee injury early in the team’s only loss of the season to the Dallas Cowboys. In his absence, the 49ers have won four straight games, three of which came on the road, including their most recent win in Edwards’ home state of Michigan against the Detroit Lions. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound wideout began running and cutting on his injured right knee earlier this week on the team’s practice fields in Santa Clara. “We’re very hopeful that Braylon is back after the improvement week,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a big week for him. This will be a big week getting on the field, starting to jog, run, make cuts. We’ll see how much progress he can make to know if we’ll get him back next week at practice.” Harbaugh’s week of improvement featured young players getting practice reps on Tuesday. But more importantly, the veterans used the week for “self-scouting,” as left tackle Joe Staley explained. Likewise, quarterback Alex Smith will use the time off to evaluate his performance to date. “This is a time to go through what I can be doing better, things I need to improve on moving forward,” said the quarterback, who has completed a career-high 63.3-percent of his passes this year. “I think it’s all a race to get better. For myself, (I’m) certainly not where I want to be. So it’s about what are the next steps I can take to get there.”

2. Walker Talk

Tight end Vernon Davis draws a lot of attention from the opposition, the media, as well as from his quarterback. But his colleague, tight end Delanie Walker, has had an equally important role in the 49ers’ 5-1 start. The mismatch nightmare makes defenses scramble for answers when the 49ers utilize two tight end formations. Last week against the Detroit Lions, Walker blocked All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh twice on running plays that went for 47 and 55 yards, respectively. Walker’s role in the 49ers offense was even expanded on by the Wall Street Journal this week. “Walker is an example of the tight end position is changing in the NFL,” wrote Reed Albergotti. Walker is an underrated blocker and a threat in the passing game, too. He is tied with Davis for the team lead with three touchdown catches, and has 11 catches for 114 yards for the season. Walker’s involvement bodes well for the 49ers as they continue to exploit defenses with the versatility he provides and the diverse play-calling from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whose system favors the tight end position.  

3. Rookie Watch

Quietly, the 49ers have assembled one of the best rookie draft classes without much fanfare. Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith, the No. 7 overall pick out of Missouri, has recorded 5.5 sacks over the past three games while seeing increased playing time. He leads all rookies and the 49ers in sacks. But he’s not alone in standing out to the veterans on the 49ers roster. Third-round pick Chris Culliver continues to earn more snaps with his strong play on special teams and as a defensive back in the team’s nickel defense. “It feels like you have a full bench of players who can contribute,” said third-year defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois, a reserve defensive lineman. “You can rely on your starters, but if you took one of your guys off the bench and put them in the game, you know it won’t slow down.” Jean Francois also praised rookies on the offensive unit, specifically fullback Bruce Miller. The former college defensive end has filled in nicely for injured veteran Moran Norris, who suffered a fibula injury against the Cowboys. Miller has caught five passes for 40 yards this season. Fellow rookie runner, Kendall Hunter, has totaled 240 total yards (166 rushing, 74 receiving) in limited action. “Any piece that we switch out,” Jean Francois continued, “we’re not going to fall off because we prepare so hard in practice and in the film room.”

4. Closing in on Cleveland

Conveniently for the 49ers, the team can scout two upcoming opponents at once this weekend if they choose to watch the Cleveland Browns host the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers host the Browns next week at Candlestick Park and will see Seattle once again for a Week 16 affair. But in regard to the Browns, 49ers running back Frank Gore should keep close eye on Cleveland’s defense. Gore ranks fifth in the NFL with 541 rushing yards and will face a Browns team in Week 8 that currently allows 129.8 yards per game. Gore needs just 70 yards to move into second place on the 49ers’ all-time rushing list ahead of 49ers Hall of Fame inductee Roger Craig, who totaled 7,064 yards for the 49ers.  Considering he’s rushed for more than 120 yards in each of his last three appearances, Gore could surpass Craig in front of his home fans. The 49ers have already begun preparations for the Browns, though many of the players have gone back to their respective hometowns for the bye week. Jean Francois said the team met on Monday to go over the Detroit game film and to discuss their next opponent. “We’ve been going over some things this week, so when we come back, it won’t seem like it’s brand new,” Jean Francois explained. “We left here with something to think about so we know what to expect when we get back.”

5. Schedule Scouting

While the 49ers look internally to make improvements and will be looking ahead to their next opponent, it’s worth examining the upcoming 10 games left on their schedule. Five of those games will be against NFC West foes which likely determine who represents the division in the playoffs. The 49ers have yet to play the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, who have a combined 1-9 record between them. The divisional battles are always tough and figure to be competitive just like the 49ers’ two remaining primetime contests against AFC North contenders. The 49ers will play the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving night, which is slowly becoming a “Game of the Year,” candidate based on the two sides combining for a 9-2 record at this point of the season. The other primetime contest on “Monday Night Football” is a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 19. The Steelers remain one of the most physical teams in the NFL and will surely provide a stiff test for the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Other home games on the schedule include the Browns (Week 8), the New York Giants (Week 10), the St. Louis Rams (Week 13) and the home finale against the Steelers (Week 15).

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