With the hiring of Mike Martz to run the offense, the 49ers expected their offense to take a large leap following their dead last NFL rankings in 2007. Despite committing costly turnovers at inopportune moments, the offense has shown a drastic improvement in moving the ball and scoring points.
Now if only the defense could stop an opposing offense from scoring.
"Our offense obviously can produce," said head coach Mike Nolan after the 49ers 40-26 loss to the Eagles on Sunday. "We can move the ball, we can run, we can throw, we can do all that. Like I've said, I think we've changed the problem. We've got to get our defense back on track. Special teams are still good and that's why I believe in the squad. I know we have some good players, but on defense we have to play better.
"I'm concerned," continued Nolan. "We've changed the problem. Last year we were strong on defense and in special teams and our offense was sputtering out. It seems as if it's a reverse trend a little bit, we have to do a better job."
The last three weeks the defense has allowed the opposing offense to score 31, 30 and 33 points (the Eagles scored 7 of their 40 points on a defensive touchdown), and Nolan isn't the only one concerned.
"We are struggling on defense," said Ray McDonald. "We aren't getting off the field when we need to. In every game we've lost, the offense has scored enough points for us to win. As a defense we're just not getting it done right now. We have just got to get more pressure on the quarterback. It's just all around on third down. We have to get off the field."
McDonald helped his unit get off the field on a key third and one down on the Eagles first drive of the second quarter, working his way past Tra Thomas to stuff Correll Buckhalter in the backfield for a loss.
But for most of the game, it was the 49ers who came up short as the Eagles converted 50% of their third down plays.
"They made plays and we didn't," said corner Donald Strickland. "I think that's the bottom line. We didn't get off the field enough on third down and they made some key plays that kept their drives going."
The 49ers made fewer personnel substitutions this week and stuck more to their base defense, but the Eagles still racked up 103 yards rushing, including 93 yards on 18 carries by Buckhalter for a 5.2 average.
"Getting back to our defense is what we worked on all this week," said corner Nate Clements. "We just have to execute and make plays when the opportunity is there. We didn't do that consistently. "
The Eagles also enjoyed success against the 49ers secondary with Donovan McNabb completing 23 of 36 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers put some pressure on McNabb a few times, but they failed to register a sack.
"They hit us on some plays, they attacked some of the weaknesses. I know they got some plays on me," said cornerback Walt Harris. "In the second half, we made some adjustments, but looking at the overall game, I think we lost the field position battle. I think they were able to capitalize on third down and we just have to be better as a defense on third down."
Although Takeo Spikes helped bail the defense out on another Eagles potential scoring drive with an interception inside of the red zone in the third quarter, the defense missed out on a couple of other potential turnovers. Harris and Joe Staley got their hands on some McNabb passes, but neither could haul them in for interceptions.
"I think over the last few weeks, we've played well but haven't finished," said Harris. "This was a definitely a game we were in. This is definitely a tough one to swallow, there were some good things out there, but we have just got to make a lot more plays than we did out there. We have to understand there are tons of opportunities to make plays out there. We just have to come together, not panic and believe in each other. "
Given the off-season addition of Justin Smith and the acquisition of Spikes, the 49ers entered the season with enormously high expectations for its defensive unit. Those expectations seemed reasonable, but the unit has underperformed.
"I lose sleep every time we lose," said Willis, who led the defense in tackles. "I'm reminiscing what could have happened better. It's tough. I know what situation we should be in and what were capable of. It's just, I don't know. If you had the answer, you'd say the right things, do the right things and you would make sure everyone else would do the right things. That's how football is. It's hard to win on Sundays. When you have plays, in order to win, you have to make them. We didn't today. I know I didn't, looking at myself."
After shifting the momentum right before the half with McDonald's blocked field goal and Strickland's subsequent touchdown return, the 49ers fully believed they'd pull out a victory. Instead, the Eagles enjoyed a fourth quarter scoring flurry and handed the 49ers their second straight loss at home.
"It's definitely frustrating, because we know we have the talent, the scheme. Everything is right in our cusp, but we're just not putting a whole game together," said Strickland. "We have just got to continue to work at it, take the positives, learn from our mistakes and move forward.
That's all we can do, there's still a lot of football left."
And although this one got away from them, the 49ers defense still believes it's talented enough to get the job done.
"It's a tough loss," said Spikes. "The reason why it hurts so bad, is because I know what we can be. But the reality of it is, this is what we are at this point right now. It's a process. We have to continue to get better."