When the San Francisco 49ers pulled off a rollercoaster 34-28 victory over the Green Bay Packers in their season opener on Sept. 8, it seemed as though the reigning NFC champions, despite a plethora of offseason adjustments, were a team capable of returning to the Super Bowl behind the strength of their offense.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, beginning his first full season as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in an offseason trade, caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Vernon Davis had the other two touchdown receptions.
The nine games since have frequently demonstrated the opposite. Though the 49ers will enter their nationally televised Monday night game against the Washington Redskins with a 6-4 record, they do so on a two-game losing streak fueled primarily by the lack of any offensive burst.
“I wouldn’t call it a season-long issue,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday. “But, definitely … we didn’t have any big hitters in the last game. I think our longest play was 24 yards. We’re always striving for big chunks when we can get them.”
San Francisco averaged 34.8 points per game during a five-game winning streak that lasted into its Nov. 3 bye week. Since returning from the time off, however, the 49ers have encountered a glaring inability to get into the end zone, losing first to the Carolina Panthers, 10-9, on Nov. 10 before falling, 23-20, on the road to the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday.
The 49ers’ defense held the Panthers to a season-low 250 yards, then again held quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints to two touchdowns on five trips into the red zone.
“When the plays are there, we’ve got to make them,” said running back Frank Gore, who had a costly drop on second down late in the fourth quarter on Sunday. “I point at myself with the pass. I should have made that catch. We wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”
Kaepernick struggled mightily against the Panthers, completing 50 percent of his passes for a season-low 91 yards and a 42.0 passer rating.
The next week, the 49ers figured New Orleans would stack the box to try to stop the run, considering Gore had run for more than 70 yards in the previous six games. Gore had only 13 carries for 48 yards, but Kaepernick failed to hold up his end of the deal, completing 17 of 33 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. His longest completion was a 17-yard touchdown pass to Davis in the third quarter.
That has tested a 49ers defense that, to this point, is seventh in the league at 323.8 yards allowed per game but, more impressively, is fourth in the league at 17.8 points allowed. Only Arizona scored 20 points during San Francisco’s five-game winning streak.
“When you’re on the sideline, of course there’s frustration,” 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers told reporters earlier this week. “You’re sitting back and asking, ‘What’s going on?’ Move the ball. Put some points on the board – especially if you’re playing real good on defense. But once we get back on the field, it’s, ‘Man, let’s get the ball back for the offense and find a way to get a turnover.’”
That hasn’t been difficult for the defense: San Francisco has forced 21 turnovers already this season. It caused two turnovers against the Panthers and three against the Saints, which the offense turned into two touchdowns and a field goal.
It would appear wise, then, for the Redskins to mimic the Saints on Monday and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. One problem they’ll face, however, is that they haven’t necessarily thrived at stopping the run game, either.
“[Kaepernick] doesn’t have to be a great risk-taker,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “They run the ball as good as anybody in the National Football League and they use the quarterback extremely well, so I think when they envision how they’re going to win football games, I think they coach the quarterback up to do exactly what they need to do to win.”
Gore ran for 107 yards on 19 carries when the 49ers last played the Redskins in 2011, a 19-11 victory for San Francisco.
In his ninth season, the running back has seen his fair share of struggles in San Francisco. As was evident last season, he’s also tasted a measure of success.
“It’s us,” Gore said. “It’s not them. Like I said, if we tighten up on the small things, we should be fine. We’ll do whatever it takes to get the win.”
• Zac Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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