Niners need to re-establish physical brand of football 

click to enlarge Defensively, the Niners have been giving up big chunks of yardage, allowing an NFL-high six rushing touchdowns in their first three games. - KYLE TERADA/USA TODAY SPORTS FILE PHOTO
  • Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports file photo
  • Defensively, the Niners have been giving up big chunks of yardage, allowing an NFL-high six rushing touchdowns in their first three games.

Well, this clearly is not the start to the season the 49ers envisioned after coming within 5 yards of winning the Super Bowl in February.

After an impressive season-opening victory against the Green Bay Packers, the Niners have nosedived each of the past two weeks and have only a few days to pull out of it with Thursday's suddenly key NFC West game against the St. Louis Rams looming.

So what's been the problem? Sure, injuries have played a factor. The passing game is clearly missing receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, and the absence of tight end Vernon Davis on Sunday was glaring. Defensive tackle Ian Williams is lost for the year, which leaves a gaping hole on the defensive line, and linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha were banged up Sunday.

But the biggest issue has been the 49ers failing to do what they've become known for in the Jim Harbaugh era: playing a physical, bruising brand of football.

Controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is what helped the Niners methodically wear down opponents the past two seasons and reach consecutive NFC Championship Games.

It hasn't been the case this year.

Offensively, the 49ers are only ranked 18th in the NFL in rushing yards, and a big part of that is helped out by quarterback Colin Kaepernick's rushing yards. Take away his stats and the numbers are even more alarming. The 49ers showed signs of life in the running game Sunday as Frank Gore gained 82 yards on 11 carries, but it came almost exclusively in the first half, which reportedly left Gore fuming — and rightfully so.

The passing game hasn't been much better as defenses are making it a point of emphasis to keep Kaepernick in the pocket. With his receivers getting bullied at the line of scrimmage against press coverage and not creating much separation, passing lanes have been hard for Kaepernick to find. It has been a big reason why he has completed less than 50 percent of his passes while throwing four interceptions and zero touchdowns the past two weeks.

The end result: 44 points through three games, second-fewest of any NFC team.

On defense, the Niners are getting gashed for big chunks of yardage in the running game.

Remember when the 49ers didn't allow a rushing TD for the first 14 games of 2011? Fast-forward to 2013 and the Niners have allowed an NFL-high six rushing touchdowns in their first three games and 138 yards rushing per game, the fourth-most in the NFL.

Sure, it seemed like you could chalk up the Week 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks as just one of those days that happens to just about anyone in the great Northwest, but the loss Sunday at home to the Indianapolis Colts reveals there are real issues here.

Defense, offense, you name it. The 49ers have been pushed around the past two weeks.

The good news for the Niners is there are 13 games left, so it's hardly time to panic. But unless San Francisco can return to its physical roots, the story after the St. Louis game will be more of the same.

Dylan Kruse is the sports editor of The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @dylan_kruse.

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Dylan Kruse

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