After proving once again there is no more physical team in football by outmuscling the rugged Seahawks on Thursday night, Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers appear ready for another playoff run. With such a consistently high level of physicality, the team’s contender status is widely accepted, and there are many around the league who would peg San Francisco’s roster as the league’s most complete.
And yet, despite the team’s consistency and reliability, it’s hard to overlook one major flaw of the 49ers that perhaps no other contender has.
They don’t have the tools to play from behind.
Sure, Harbaugh’s Niners have played quite well when trailing in one-possession games, with the wild playoff victory over New Orleans last season perhaps the best example. Including that game, San Francisco won six games in 2011 in which they trailed by one possession in the fourth quarter.
But what about when they have faced greater deficits? Twice this season the Niners have fallen behind their opponent by more than one possession, and both games ended in double-digit defeats.
Against the Vikings in Week Three, they dug a 17-3 halftime deficit and never were able to close the gap, falling 24-13. They again faced a 17-3 deficit early in the second half against the Giants in Week Six and didn’t score another point, a result made more troubling by the fact that they were playing at home fresh off a record-breaking offensive performance.
Under Harbaugh, the Niners have come from two possessions down in the second half to win only once, and that was way back in Week Four of 2011 against the turnover-prone Eagles. San Francisco erased a 23-3 third-quarter deficit to win 24-23, with the help of two missed fourth-quarter field goals from inside 40 yards by Philly and a late fumble by Jeremy Maclin.
Granted, San Francisco’s vaunted defense rarely allows enough points to put the team in such a hole — they have trailed by two possessions in the second half in just four of their 25 games under Harbaugh, including playoffs (with a 1-3 record in those games) — but the fact that it has happened twice already this season has to be worrisome.
Sure, the defense is allowing only 14.3 points per game, but they aren’t catching the same breaks they did a year ago. The defense is on pace for 25 takeaways this season after tying for the league lead with 38 in 2011, while the offense’s nine turnovers have almost already matched last season’s league-low of 10. Without the extreme turnover edge of 2011, you can expect San Francisco might face a few more double-digit holes.
And it’s not exactly a secret why the Niners would struggle in such situations.
When second-half deficits force San Francisco’s run-heavy offense to throw more, QB Alex Smith struggles mightily. With his team trailing in 2012, Smith has posted a passer rating of 76.5 (compared to a 98.2 rating when leading), including a lousy 62.8 rating when trailing by 9-16 points (compared to a 124.3 rating when leading by 9-16 points). In the Niners’ two losses this season, Smith accounted for four second-half turnovers. He committed seven total turnovers all of last season.
Sure, Smith’s difficulties in such situations probably won’t keep Harbaugh’s club out of the playoffs this season; this team is simply too strong and too deep at almost every position. But a few more early deficits to explosive offenses like those of the Bears, Saints or Patriots (coming up on the schedule) certainly could result in a few more losses this season.
And if the Niners can’t grab a first-round playoff bye, they will face a four-game gauntlet made up primarily of the league’s offensive powers. Would it be that hard for the Falcons, Packers or Giants to jump out to an early double-digit lead on the Niners? What then?
Until Alex Smith and Co. can produce a little more explosiveness in the face of defeat, San Francisco’s defense can ill afford a slip-up. On the long road to the Super Bowl, the Niners’ only flaw could very well prove to be fatal.