Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. Plummer and the team will be off this weekend because of the bye, so in this column he breaks down some of the highs and lows over the first five weeks of the season.
Since it's the bye week and I don't have an upcoming game to preview, I'll share some evaluations of the team at this point of the season.
The most obvious positive so far this year has been Andy Lee. I haven't seen anyone like that in a 49ers uniform ever as a punter. In my day, during some of the Super Bowl years and perennial playoff appearances, special teams was a unit that just wasn't emphasized. We knew that the team was so dominant offensively and defensively that special teams were kind of an afterthought. It's interesting to see how this team is being built with an emphasis on special teams. That's what has not only kept us in games but has allowed us to win two of the five games we've been in.
The special teams coverage units have been extraordinary. The one glitch has been the kickoff return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh, but if you watch the tape there were not one but two guys blocked in the back right at the point of attack that would have made a huge difference on that play. It's been fun to watch, it really has. The special teams in general are doing a great job of gaining field position.
For the defense, it becomes a mindset, when your offense is struggling, that you really don't care what happens on that side of the ball. You're almost wearing it as a badge of honor, and it's a great mindset to have as a defense because you truly believe that everything rests on your shoulders. That's the way those guys are playing right now.
I think that Marques Douglas, a guy who has been cut by a team, has played as well as any defensive end in the league against the run. According to the coaches' tally, Douglas leads the league in tackles for a loss with eight. He goes against the left tackle each week, arguably the opposing team's best offensive lineman each week. That's the big money guy, other than the quarterback, on the offense. Just like the cornerbacks on defense, you expect the left tackle to be part of the foundation of your team. He's winning that battle each and every week and that's impressive and fun to watch.
Some of these games that the 49ers have played, according to fans, have been ugly. But coming from a defensive player's perspective, they're not ugly. They've been games of beauty. Of course you like excitement during the course of a game offensively, but if a team like the Ravens aren't moving the football, it's not because they're not any good, it's because the 49ers defense is playing so well. Those guys put up over 400 yards of offense the previous week against Cleveland.
It's almost scary to see how good Joe Staley has been as a rookie. He's another guy who's been so much fun to watch.
It's also been great to see how well Isaac Sopoaga has played this year. It's as if a light bulb finally went off in his head. He's still not there yet, but there were only a few plays kind of far between before for him. Now those plays are happening much more often. When they do happen, they're even more dominant than they were in the past. There were a few plays against Seattle when he played defensive end where it was as if a man were playing against a bunch of boys. I mean he absolutely crushed Sean Locklear, a 320 pound offensive lineman, six yard into the backfield. It looked almost unfair. They have weight limits and size limits in Pop Warner football for a reason. If you get someone that's that much bigger and more developed than everyone else, it really is unfair and that's what it has looked like in a few situations this year with Isaac Sopoaga.
Nate Clements has been everything as advertised. He's had one bad play in five games. You'll take that anytime. Deion Branch did a stutter-go and was able to beat him deep. Some people point their finger and think he's supposed to shut down every receiver on every play. Well wait a second, Deion Branch is a highly talented wide receiver, and has been a very productive receiver in this league and was a Super Bowl MVP. One of the most impressive things about Nate hasn't just been his coverage, but his ability to come up in run support and elevate players around him. You see this defense playing with attitude this year and he's one of the reasons for that.
Michael Lewis has been able to do that as well. He's the physical safety the 49ers have been looking for. He's had quiet productivity, but his presence has permeated through the entire secondary. Mark Roman is also hitting people this year like I've never seen before. He's aggressive and he's the person who put Hines Ward out of the game against Pittsburgh. There's a reason Clements and Lewis were signed as free agents. It's been fun to watch on many different levels.
The job that new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has done has freed up Mike Nolan to focus on other areas of the game. It was hard for him to manage the entire team during the game last year because he was so involved in helping to get the defense straight. You see him this year and he's over there talking to the offensive line while the defense is on the field. The trust that he's shown in a first-year coordinator is amazing and it's helped the entire team because of that.
The bye week is obviously going to help Trent Dilfer. You could see that his ability on timing routes improved a lot last week against the Ravens. This week he'll get to work again with receivers and that will allow him to develop much better timing with those guys.
The 49ers are playing great defense, great special teams and they've managed the games on offense. It was one of the most boring offenses that you could possibly see last week against Baltimore, but they're able to win with that kind of a game. They just needed a little more effort on offense. I think that Dilfer has more mobility than Steve McNair right now. I think that he also has as much arm strength as McNair. I think that Frank Gore is a better back than Willis McGahee. So what I think you need is for the offensive line to step up and take control of the game.
The Ravens line had a bunch of rookies playing and two guys were injured during the game. They really only had one starter from last year who was playing in his normal position and yet they were still able to control the game. I believe that the 49ers can do that as well. If those guys get the mindset that they're going to explode off the line of scrimmage and control the guy across from him, this offense will get going because Dilfer doesn't need a lot of time to analyze the defense. You can get that short passing game going, utilize a big target in Vernon Davis when he comes back, a physical receiver in Arnaz Battle and a hard-nosed veteran in Darrell Jackson. The formula was right there, right across the field in purple and white last week.
You're talking about the short-term when you're talking about Trent, but when Alex Smith comes back, which he will, they can continue to use those half rolls to move the pocket. Everybody talks about the bootleg and that is a good offensive tool for a quarterback, especially one as mobile as Alex. It also changes the launch point where defenders can zero in on the spot seven yard behind the center and know that's where the quarterback is going to be. That's a dimension that Alex will definitely add and I would like to see even more of that during the rest of season. Hopefully that will loosen up some of those defenses that continue to put eight men in the box. You saw that happen last week when Dilfer connected on that long pass to Bryan Gilmore. All of a sudden they were going to back off. Somebody needs to be able to exploit that one-on-one coverage. If it's Bryan Gilmore, great. If it's Ashley Lelie, great. It's not just the offensive line, it's not just the quarterback, it's the receivers as well. In order for the offensive to be more productive, all those guys need to be able to do their jobs better.
After the bye week, you expect this team to get healthier. Jonas Jennings is back and if you get Vernon Davis, Billy Bajema, and Alex Smith back, you're talking about four players who are integral parts of your offense. If they play even average football, they don't even have to play as well as they did down the stretch last year, because given the way this defense is playing the 49ers could win a lot of football games. They're only one game out of first place. You're not just looking for a silver lining in a dark cloud. This glass is definitely half full.