As the players are off enjoying their bye week, now is a great time to evaluate the first nine games of the San Francisco 49ers 2015 season.
That brings us to this week's "Four Downs." The trio of 49ers.com writers provide reflection on the team's 3-6 start as well as a look ahead to what's on tap over the course of the final seven regular-season contests.
1st Down: What was the best moment from the first nine games?
@Joe_Fann: Pierre Garçon's Spin Move
Very rarely do highlights go viral, but Hyde took over the highlight reels in Week 1 on his second touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. In front of a national audience on "Monday Night Football," Hyde found the end zone from 17-yards out to seal a 49ers victory. On the play, Hyde began running right before stopping on a dime, changing directions and unleashing a vicious spin move to break free from would-be tacklers. Hyde dove into the end zone in style, flexed and even earned a phone call from LeBron James for his performance.
@TylerEmerick: NaVorro Bowman's debut
The script couldn't have been written any better for the All-Pro linebacker to make his long-awaited return. Under the lights on primetime against arguably the league's best running back, Bowman showed the nation that he could still play at an elite level. He finished the game with seven tackles and a sack while helping limit Adrian Peterson to just 31 yards on 10 carries. If you haven't already, watch this episode of "Mic'd Up," in which Bowman says pregame, "I've waited my whole life for this."
@TaylorPrice: The final defensive stand in Week 9
I think the key to the rest of the season will be centered on young players performing well. We saw this in the final defensive series in the win over the Atlanta Falcons. After Blaine Gabbert threw his second interception of the game, the 49ers could have been vulnerbale to give up a go-ahead touchdown. But Dontae Johnson and Jimmie Ward had other plans. The second-year defensive backs turned in a pass breakup and touchdown-saving tackle on back-to-back plays. The stops led to a controversial field goal and, of course, a memorable San Francisco win.
2nd Down: Who has been the best newcomer?@Joe_Fann: Jaquiski Tartt
Don't look now but Tartt is already transitioning into a dependable playmaker. The 49ers second-round pick in 2015 has two starts under his belt and has made noteworthy plays in each. Tartt has a sack, a forced fumble and a few crushing hits under his belt already, and he'll only continue to improve as the season goes on. San Francisco is counting on Tartt to be a difference maker for years to come, and the early returns show that its investment is paying dividends.
@TylerEmerick: Kenneth Acker
When training camp began, many predicted Shareece Wright would win the starting cornerback job opposite of Tramaine Brock. And if the free-agent pickup didn't, the next logical choice figured to be Johnson, who enjoyed a strong rookie campaign in 2014 with 34 tackles, six pass breakups and one pick-six interception. Instead, it was Acker who came out on top. The sixth-round pick from 2014 missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, and no one really knew what to expect when he got healthy. Acker missed the team's Week 9 win over the Falcons with a concussion, but in eight starts this year, the cornerback has recorded 32 tackles and five pass breakups. His three interceptions are tied for the team lead with Brock. Acker looks like a nice building block for the 49ers moving forward.
@TaylorPrice: Torrey Smith
Even when he's not getting the football, the free-agent addition attracts a crowd and has the ability to open things up for his fellow pass-cathcers. Smith made the splashiest plays of any newcomer this year with touchdown catches of 75 and 76 yards. He leads the team with 21.4 yards per reception. Now it's a matter of completing more throws to the speedy wideodut. Smith has caught 18 passes for 386 yards with the two aformentioned scores. The 49ers will need to do a better job of showcasing Smith's pass-catching ability in the second half of the year.
3rd Down: Who is the second half player to watch? @Joe_Fann: Arik Armstead
Arik Armstead has already shown flashes in his limited role on the team's defensive line. The rookie was the first player to sack Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and had a quarterback hit just last Sunday on Matt Ryan. It's easy to see why the front office fell in love with Armstead's 6-foot-7, 300-pound frame. Even though his week-to-week snap count will vary, I'm looking forward to Armstead's continued development.
@TylerEmerick: Garrett Celek
Celek was tremendous in the team's offseason program, but with eight quality tight ends on the roster at the start of August, his prospects for 2015 appeared cloudy at best. Three trades later (Asante Cleveland to New England, Derek Carrier to Washington and Vernon Davis to Denver), and Celek has become San Francisco's go-to tight end in the passing game. The fourth-year pro tallied 17 receptions for 151 yards and three touchdowns through Week 9, but his production seems likely to increase in the second half. This 49ers offense loves using its tight ends and Celek is a great red-zone target, so look for his numbers to spike.
If things are going to be evaluated on a weekly basis at the most important position on the field, then you have to keep a close eye on the player who will start in Week 11. Gabbert played confidently in his first start with the 49ers. He did not take a sack, and he completed 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns on third down. Gabbert's decision-making was a big reason why he was named the team's Week 11 starter against the Seahawks on Nov. 22. Gabbert's performance in that game will factor heavily into where things go for San Francisco in the final seven weeks of the regular season.
4th Down: The key to second-half success is... @Joe_Fann: Consistent Quarterback Play
I suppose I'm good for one "Captain Obvious" answer per week. As is the case with most NFL rosters, the 49ers can only go as far as their quarterback will take them. That means all of the basics: Limiting turnovers, moving the chains on third down and converting in the red zone. Gabbert was able to do that in his first start, turning two red-zone trips into touchdowns in the first half. Going forward, it will be crucial that the offense is able to finish games. San Francisco went scoreless in the second half against Atlanta. That will be a point of emphasis going forward as the team is surely to be in more close games over the final seven games of the regular season.
@TylerEmerick: Offensive line
In San Francisco's three wins this season, its quarterback has been sacked a combined four times. In the team's six losses, that number climbs to 24. The winning recipe is clear, so how can the 49ers translate that onto the field every Sunday? Well, last week's win against Atlanta provided an ideal blueprint. Marcus Martin and Erik Pears showed improvement while Joe Staley and Alex Boone continued their consistent play. Andrew Tiller played the vast majority of the snaps at right guard and held his own. And when the Falcons did get through the line, Gabbert got rid of the ball or avoided the rush every time. The unit will be tested in the 49ers first two games out of the bye, at Seattle and home versus the Cardinals.
@TaylorPrice: Win divisional games
These games mean more and should be valued heavily based on what's transpired this season. The 49ers are 0-3 in NFC West play and have been outscored significantly in those contests. Making a statement in the division is important. And if things can get turned around, evening the record would go a long way in sparking a second-half run. Weeks 11 and 12 will be back-to-back divisional games against Seattle and Arizona. Week 17 is a home game against St. Louis.