Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Sunday's home game against Philadelphia.**
One of the things about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is that he's always been noted for having a cannon for an arm. Seeing what's happened to the 49ers the past couple of weeks with getting beat on the deep ball, you can bet he's very anxious to throw the ball deep against the 49ers secondary. That's No. 1. The second thing, obviously, with the injury to Brian Westbrook, you're probably going to see a bigger back — another power back in Correll Buckhalter. We had talked a couple of weeks ago about what Deuce McAllister can do, and Sammy Morris presented a similar challenge. And now the 49ers will have to deal with Buckhalter, who runs the same way as those other two backs.
I think that Westbrook, even if he plays, is not going to be the Westbrook you would expect. I played with separated cartilage in my ribs, which is about the same as having broken ribs. It's very difficult to function. He's going to be exhausted because he won't probably sleep all week long. Hopefully he doesn't get a cold and nobody tries to make him laugh, because sneezing, coughing, laughing — any of those things put you through excruciating pain. So, how do you go out there and perform against some of the greatest athletes in the world, ones who know you're injured? It's next to impossible. The reason he was able to continue in the game last week was because he had the adrenaline pumping. The adrenaline that's occurring during a game is different than the adrenaline or anxiety before a game. It's happened to me three or four times and it just had no impact to try and use pain killers on that particular injury. You can play with a sprained knee or ankle, stingers, back aches, even partially separated shoulders. It's amazing what your body can go through, but broken ribs, I'm telling you — in all the years I've played — it's one of the most painful injuries anyone can have. So, I don't see him being very effective against the 49ers. I think the Eagles will shore-up the short-run game with Buckhalter.
Here's a statistic about Westbrook. Since 2004, the Eagles score almost 24 points per game with him. Without him, they've scored just over 16 points per game. If he doesn't play, it's obviously going to affect them. If he does play, I truly believe he's going to be used as a decoy, and that won't last long.
The Eagles are a tough group at wide receiver. They've got Reggie Brown back and rookie DeSean Jackson is having a great start to the season. The other thing is that Kevin Curtis could possibly be back. He had a sports hernia, but from what I have read, they're expecting him back. He's a guy last year who had 1,110 yards on 77 receptions, and he had 6 touchdowns, and so his return is huge for them. Brown has been, obviously, very productive. He's got great speed. He uses that speed to run comebacks and hitches. DeSean Jackson is going to be running out of the slot a lot. He's a threat in the short areas kind of like Detroit's Mike Furrey. But, he can also go deep. He's got the ability to run by people. I'm not going to put him in the Randy Moss category, but with what's happened the last two weeks to the 49ers on the deep ball, you've got to be aware of those two guys.
I think that what we've seen the last two weeks with both New Orleans and New England, is that they're going to take their shots deep to try and loosen up the 49ers secondary. And, if you're going to play Big Nickel, they're going to run the football. The 49ers changed up their fronts more last week, unlike in Seattle and unlike in New Orleans. They did run some 3-4 last week. I just believe one of the reasons you run a 3-4 is so that you can keep quarterbacks guessing where the rush is going to be coming from. One of the best things about the 3-4, and one of the reasons Mike Nolan brought the 3-4 in, is because there's a lot of deception involved. We haven't run it much at all this year.
Unfortunately, most of the time when the 49ers ran the 3-4 last week they got pushed around up front. You see Joe Staley making 22 tackles. You see Takeo Spikes making 14 tackles. Unfortunately, a bunch of those tackles are after a 5- or 6-yard gain. The 49ers front has to do a much better job, and what's happening is the 49ers defense isn't taking away anything that past two weeks. They've gone with Big Nickel and tried to take away the pass, but that hasn't happened as the 49ers have been getting beat deep. So if that's not taking care of that, do you play a 3-4? What if you play a 3-4 hoping that you get more pressure on the quarterback, and then your secondary doesn't cover? Right now, there isn't an answer in terms of coaching. There's no magic formula. Guys just have to play better. The 49ers went out and spent a ton of money on the defensive side of the ball. A lot is expected of those guys, and it's a big deal. You're getting paid millions of dollars for a reason because the 49ers expect you to produce, not just out at practice, but on game day. Right now, across the board, they're not producing.
One of the things that is happening is that 49ers defenders aren't trusting each other. So, if there's technique error by one guy and an assignment error by another guy, your teammate next to you is saying, 'I can't count on that guy. I'm not just worried about my job, I'm worried about him doing his job.' And when that starts to happen, that's when you get huge breakdowns on defense. And that's what's happening to the 49ers defense right now. Guys aren't taking care of their responsibilities because they're too worried about other guys' responsibilities.
I think the 49ers offense should attack Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz-happy, pressure-oriented defense by running draws and screens. I still believe the 49ers need to use some bootlegs and some half rolls. We haven't seen it nearly as much as is warranted for the kind of pressure the opponents are getting on J.T. O'Sullivan. So, until you do that, guys like Trent Cole and Chris Clemons and Darren Howard get in sprinter's stances, and they know they're going to go to a spot somewhere between 5 and 7 yards behind the center, and that's where J.T. O'Sullivan is going to be. And that just makes things so difficult. You're making it hard on yourself. You've got to make people account for Vernon Davis. Davis has become a glorified blocker, and he's become frustrated. You have to get him involved in the game plan early on. Throw him a screen early on. And the 49ers tight ends have to stop dropping balls. The dropped ball early on by Delanie Walker, that's a difference maker. It's an interception versus a 1st-and-goal. Those are the kind of plays that make all of the difference in the world.
The offense needs to mix things up. The 7-step drops are a staple of the Mike Martz offense, but you have to pick and choose. You have got to also use some quick plays including some 3-step and 5-step drops, rollouts, screens, draws, half-rolls, bootlegs. You have to do it all, otherwise you just become too predictable and those pass rushers are just sitting there drooling and it's a party at the quarterback.
Asante Samuel is not just a good corner, but an elite corner. That was part of the problem last week for J.T. O'Sullivan on plays when he was scrambling and there was not a receiver open. The New England secondary just plastered the 49ers receivers. They've got to do a better job of beating coverage and finding holes in the zones. It's not just O'Sullivan, it's not just the offensive line. The receivers have to get open, and catch the ball.
It's a tough task this week, and it's getting to the point where players are going to start pressing. They're frustrated. They're dropping footballs. They're standing around. They're not finishing plays. When all those things happen, that's when things really start to go bad. This is a pivotal game for the 49ers. Obviously, after this one, they go on the road to New York, which is just going to be brutal. The Giants are probably playing as well as anyone in the NFL right now. This is a team in Philadelphia that knows it has to win because they're already three games back in their division. Philadelphia has played very good opponents and played very good against them, even in their three losses. The 49ers the past two weeks have been beaten soundly. They need a victory in the worst way right now in order to stay in the hunt with the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC West. Because, trust me, nobody is going to come out of the NFC West as a wildcard. You're either going to win it and go to the playoffs, or you're done.