SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There is a chance the San Francisco 49ers will have one of their standout offensive linemen back for a crucial game against visiting Seattle on Sunday.
Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday left guard Mike Iupati, who is undergoing an exam on Monday, could play in the game. Harbaugh said Iupati, who has missed the past two games with a sprained MCL, will likely be monitored throughout the week and the final determination whether he plays will likely be made closer to game day. He has been replaced by Adam Snyder.
Harbaugh did not have an update on star left tackle Joe Staley on Monday. Staley left Sunday's win against St. Louis with a knee injury. Sources said, after the game, the initial diagnosis was Staley sprained his right MCL. He could miss a couple of games. Harbaugh said Monday the team was hopeful it is not more serious.
Update: The word on Staley on Monday evening is he’s week-to-week. How he responds to treatment will determine how long he will be out, but it likely won’t be for an extended period.
With Staley out, right guard Alex Boone moved to left tackle and the inexperienced Joe Looneytook over at right guard. Harbaugh said Monday the makeshift unit played well.
If Iupati misses Sunday's game, the 49ers will have three replacements playing. The 49ers' offense has yet to play a down this season with the starting 11 and that may not happen until Week 16.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said playing without so many offensive linemen at their natural spot will catch up to the 49ers if the situation lingers.
“I think Staley is one of the top three or four LTs in the NFL and is especially great in the run game and yes, he will be missed for sure,” Williamson said. “But Boone was a LT at Ohio State and came to the NFL as an OT prospect. He certainly has that body type. He might be a better 'band aid' player there for the short term than most teams have if their starting LT were to fall, but still, San Francisco is now weaker at three offensive line spots than when the starters are available."
With a dozen games in the books for the 2013 season, I think we know an awful lot about theKansas City Chiefs. First off, the obvious: This is the most improved team in the league, and Andy Reid is the leader for Coach of the Year honors through Week 13. The Chiefs are heading to the postseason, most likely as the fifth seed overall in the AFC, and I would pick them to win their first-round matchup if they visit the Cincinnati Bengals or Indianapolis Colts. The arrow is pointing in the right direction for this organization as a whole. But they are also a rung below the top teams in the NFL right now.
While things are very promising for the Chiefs looking at the big picture, they have now lost three in a row, including two to division rival Denver. This team is much different right now than what we saw earlier in the season, when their defense was dominant and the offense leaned heavily on Jamaal Charles and asked little from Alex Smith and the passing game. But we know that this formula is difficult to sustain in the modern NFL, and that is proving to be true for Kansas City as the 2013 campaign wears on.
With a second loss to the Denver Broncos in the club's rearview mirror, let's run through a "State of the Chiefs" as we look ahead to the final four games and the playoffs. Can Kansas City get back on track and be a legitimate Super Bowl contender?
The Chiefs' defense is still strong, and loaded with good players at every level, but they are no longer dominant. Injuries -- and facing the Broncos twice and the Chargers once over a three-game stretch -- have had something to do with that decline, as Kansas City has allowed a whopping 103 points in three games since their Week 10 bye.
Justin Houston missed this game, and he and Tamba Hali missed much of the contest against the Chargers (and it was no coincidence that San Diego started racking up points when both elite edge pass-rushers were injured). However, the fact is that Kansas City's once-great pass rush was beginning to fall off before those injuries. The Chiefs had 35 sacks in the first seven games, but just two in the past five.
No one gets to Peyton Manning. The Chiefs got sporadic pressure on him in Week 13, but failed to register a sack in either meeting against the Broncos. And in the latter contest, they had the advantage of extreme crowd noise to aid them. While the health issues with Houston and Hali is a factor, it is Kansas City's defensive line that has really slipped in this capacity of late. Dontari Poe was one of the most dominant inside forces in the league against the run and pass during the first half of the season, but he has fallen off noticeably. Mike DeVitomissed time with an injury, and his return on Sunday could be a good sign, as he could also help spell Poe and limit the second-year player's snaps to keep him fresher.
The Broncos played a high percentage of 11 Personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) on Sunday, and the Chiefs matched that personnel grouping with a four-man front that consisted of two defensive linemen along with Hali andFrank Zombo, who replaced Houston. Behind that four-man front that included two OLBs, Kansas City usually lined up Eric Berry, a safety by trade, as a linebacker next to Derrick Johnson. On the back end, the Chiefs used three cornerbacks -- Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper-- along with safeties Quintin Demps and Kendrick Lewis.
This was an active and aggressive group early in the game, forcing two interceptions and putting their team in excellent position to win. But Manning feasted on Cooper, who isn't playing nearly as well as he was to start the season. Denver did a great job at consistently getting Cooper in one-on-one situations, often against Eric Decker, and Manning attacked the rookie without mercy. Lewis also left this game with an injury and was replaced by Husain Abdullah, who was a liability as well. Manning was especially effective in attacking the Chiefs' secondary deep.
Fortunately, the Chiefs won't face Manning again -- at least during the regular season -- but the future Hall of Fame signal-caller showed that there are weaknesses to be exploited in this pass defense. The Broncos also averaged 4.3 yards per carry, and stuck with their running game, totaling 31 running attempts even though Knowshon Moreno was not fully healthy. The Chiefs' defense allowed touchdown drives of 95 and 92 yards in the losing effort.
But maybe this wouldn't have been a loss if Kansas City's receivers hadn't dropped so many passes at crucial times. I am usually quite critical of Alex Smith, but simply put, he played an outstanding game on Sunday. In fact, Smith has played very well of late -- he has a 7-to-2 rate of touchdowns to interceptions during the Chiefs' three-game losing streak -- and it appears as though Reid is now putting more on his plate, asking him to make more demanding throws deeper downfield. Smith is responding to that challenge very well, and he was on point in this game.
But what sticks out most from Sunday's clash are the drops -- often deep downfield -- from Smith's targets. Donnie Avery was the biggest culprit in this capacity. Avery has been a hit-or-miss player, and drops have plagued him quite throughout his career. To me, the Chiefs' biggest offseason priority needs to be finding a major upgrade to Avery as the No. 2 wideout oppositeDwayne Bowe.
Bowe is playing much better now than early in the season, and Reid has done a nice job of utilizing Dexter McCluster in numerous ways, particularly out of the slot. I also am high on rookie Travis Kelce, who should team well with Anthony Fasano to make up a formidable pair of tight ends next year, but an upgrade over Avery is a must.
This upgrade could come via free agency with a player such as Jeremy Maclin, with whom Reid is obviously very familiar, or even Decker himself perhaps. Drafting a wide receiver in the first round should also be strongly considered, though their most recent first-round WR (Jon Baldwin) didn't pan out. This team just doesn't have enough guys that consistently beat strong man coverage, so a big investment here is vital.
Kansas City won the special teams battle Sunday, and got a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Knile Davis. They were also fortunate enough to start with excellent field position after the Manning interceptions early in the game. However, the offense managed only 21 points, and while this unit is trending upward from where it was early in the season, that isn't good enough overall against Denver's defense that played an average game in all capacities.
Even after Branden Albert left the game with injury -- with Donald Stephenson replacing him at left tackle and the struggling Eric Fisher in at right tackle -- Denver still didn't pressure Smith much, and didn't record a sack. Of course, Charles was his usual brilliant self and Denver wasn't dominant by any means in stopping the run, but the Chiefs got away from Charles and their rushing attack more than they should have during the second half.
It also should not be overlooked that Smith once again was a potent and intelligent runner with the football, finishing the game with a whopping 11.5 yards per carry. To compete with the best teams in the NFL, Kansas City's offense still needs to produce more points in such a situation. But in this instance, I blame the dropped passes more than anything.
This is an organization on the rise. I still have my doubts as to whether Smith is the long-term answer for a Super Bowl-caliber team, but I am more open to the idea now than a few weeks ago, and am excited to see what he does for the remainder of the season. Moreover, I'm interested to see what Smith can do if the Chiefs fortify his receiving corps this upcoming offseason. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the exceptional fan base in Kansas City will be able to host a playoff game, and I only forecast the Chiefs to win one playoff game.
By Matt Williamson | ESPN Insider
After losing a tight game at home to the Carolina Panthers last week in which they only scored nine points, the San Francisco 49ers lost 23-20 at the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. On the surface, that doesn't seem overly disturbing. The Saints are undefeated at home and there is no doubt that New Orleans is one of the most difficult venues to visit in the league.
But in a game that had a playoff feel to it, the 49ers' passing game once again failed to show up. With little threat through the air, San Francisco has too little room for error against high-quality opponents. Can this passing game improve in time?
That fact is that it will need to, as the Seattle Seahawks steamrolled the Minnesota Vikings, giving Seattle a three-game lead in the NFC West. And by the way, a second-place finish by the Niners in this division is far from a sure thing. The Arizona Cardinals are now tied with San Francisco at 6-4. It seems highly unlikely that a wild-card team emerges from the NFC East, but between the Saints, Panthers, Bears, Packers, Lions and Cardinals, getting a wild card berth will not come easy in this conference.
But the Niners' offense really struggled again. The usually strong running game had some moments, but in the end averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt. When it mattered most, in the fourth quarter, the 49ers couldn't run the ball. In fact, they did next to nothing in the fourth quarter. But clearly the biggest culprit Sunday was San Francisco's inability to throw the football with any consistency. The 49ers' best weapon this season, Vernon Davis, was back for this contest and made a few plays, andAnquan Boldin had a hot streak in which he got the better of Keenan Lewis, but the weapons overall here are severely lacking. Not only that, but the pass protection was a big problem again and Colin Kaepernick simply isn't playing well enough to elevate those around him. He threw for only 127 yards.
Kaepernick looked unsettled. Crowd noise was a problem, as the Niners burned through timeouts quicker than what is ideal. Kaepernick was obviously rattled pre-snap at times and the offensive linemen were sometimes late off the ball. Kaepernick was sacked three times, but that stat is somewhat misleading, as he was under quite a bit of duress.
The Niners QB looked uncomfortable all game. He was too frenetic in the pocket, undisciplined with his eyes and head and held the ball too long at times. Corey White should have had a pick-six for the Saints but fumbled the ball out of the end zone. A pass that never should have been thrown.
Kaepernick's longest completion of the day was just 17 yards, which says volumes, and this offense mustered just 12 first downs. This is clearly not the dynamic offense that San Francisco flaunted en route to a Super Bowl, an offense that could stress defenses with the threat of a deep attack.
The 49ers have little threat from their zone-read package, as opposing defenses have no concerns about San Francisco's passing game. The 49ers were unable to sustain long drives and capitalized on New Orleans' mistakes to score their points.
The Saints were without Kenny Vaccaro, and Jabari Greer left in the first quarter. This also was Michael Jenkins' first game back. The Saints' secondary was ripe for the picking, yet Kaepernick was unable to grab that low-hanging fruit. His receivers couldn't consistently separate from the man-to-man coverage that New Orleans played all afternoon. Entering this game, San Francisco had the fewest receptions by their wide receivers in the league and we saw an awful lot of heavy personnel plays (a lot of "22" personnel with 2 RBs/2 TEs) yet again Sunday. That needs to change for San Francisco to keep up in the NFC.
This was Mario Manningham's second game back from injury, but he was more or less a non-factor. At some point, San Francisco will get Michael Crabtree back, but frankly, how can we really expect him to return from such a major injury and immediately change the fortunes of this flawed passing attack that showed very little verticality to it today? Sure, it could happen. And he is a great player who has acted as Kaepernick's safety blanket while also incorporating big play capabilities and great after-the-catch skills. Maybe he could be healthy enough to provide a big boost in the playoffs.
But at the rate they're going, the playoffs may not be in the Niners' future. They could lean onFrank Gore for more than the 13 carries he got Sunday. But will the running game be as effective if Mike Iupati (who left the game on a cart) misses time with that knee injury?
The rest of the Niners' schedule doesn't look particularly brutal, but even one or two losses -- say, to Seattle and at Arizona -- could doom them in what is projecting to be a tight NFC race. And if San Francisco doesn't improve its passing game, they're going to have a lot of trouble separating from teams on the scoreboard. If nothing changes, the Niners' postseason hopes are in serious jeopardy.