Thearon W. Henderson
The 2011 draft class was on display in prime-time against the Chicago Bears. One of the best defenses in the league was beaten early and often, while the 49ers defense cemented their case for being No. 1.
The national news media is abuzz about Colin Kaepernick. I'm abuzz about Colin Kaepernick. There's no doubt about it, he played a magnificent game against the Chicago Bears, one of the most opportunistic defenses in recent memory and a team that was second in the league in scoring defense coming into the game. Conventional wisdom said that the 49ers would use a conservative gameplan (my preview article had the running game as being key, though I would like it noted that the 49ers won the ground war 121 yards - 85 yards, thus propelling them to victory) and attempt at all costs to avoid costly turnovers against the Bears. Good thing Coach Harbaugh calls the shots in San Francisco and not the conventionally wise ones.
The 49ers, perhaps feeling unthreatened by a toothless Bears offense led by Jason Campbell, perhaps knowing something that none of us suspected, unleashed the offense against the surprisingly overmatched Chicago defense. Kaepernick was as good as one could ever hope a quarterback making his first career start could be. He completed 16 of 23 passes for a fraction under 70% on the day, with two touchdowns. The scrambling 'wildKaep' quarterback we've watched sporadically throughout the season was nowhere to be found. In his stead was a poised and confident QB with complete command of his offense. At no point did he look overwhelmed by the moment and he led the 49ers to 20 points on the first four drives of the game.
Just how good was Colin Kaepernick in this game? He was so good that he's stirred up a quarterback controversy in San Francisco between him and Alex Smith, the team's regular starter, who completed 25 of 27 passes for 4 touchdowns over his last game and a half before leaving last week's Rams contest with a concussion. Smith was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week in his last full game, so how can this be? Firstly, Coach Harbaugh did him no favors by not stating unequivocally that Smith would be the starter when healthy. That's the protocol in coachspeak, but as we know, Harbaugh doesn't play by everyone else's rules and perhaps he's trying to keep the Niners' week 12 opponents, the New Orleans Saints guessing. Secondly, Kaepernick made some throws that Alex Smith has never made since coming to town in 2005. Kyle Williams, with a step on nickelback Kelvin Hayden and running a deep corner route, received a perfectly thrown ball that travelled 40 yards in the air (by my calculations) hitting him perfectly in stride. Vernon Davis also benefitted from the more vertical passing attack, catching passes of 22 and 32 yards among his 6 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. The final touchdown of the game for the 49ers was a beautiful pass to Michael Crabtree after he'd broken free in end zone. Kaepernick moved out of the pocket to create time and put the ball where only he could catch it. It's a play that more often than not results in a sack and a field goal with Alex Smith under center.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense was just as dominant, albeit against a less formidable foe. The Bears, without Jay Cutler at quarterback, were unable to get anything happening against the 49ers. Matt Forte rushed for 63 yards on 21 carries and Jason Campbell made everyone painfully aware of why he never caught on in Washington or Oakland. Campbell was under constant duress playing behind the worst offensive line in the league when it comes to protecting the quarterback. The 49ers finished with 6 sacks on the night and seemed to hit Campbell, get in his face, or knock him down on every attempt, pressuring him to throw two interceptions. Aldon Smith finished with an otherworldly 5.5 sacks, moving him into the league lead with 15 and putting him on pace for what would be a record 24 sacks. One might have to add an asterisk to the record book, since over a fifth of them will have come at the expense of the Bears' beleaguered O-line.
What does this all mean? Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke's first draft class, the 2011 haul, is showing itself to be a franchise turning cache of talent. The top two picks for the 49ers were Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick. Further down the list we have Chris Culliver, an integral part of the pass defense as the nickelback and Kendall Hunter, primary backup in the running game. Hunter, averaging over 5 yards per carry on the year, had a perfectly drawn up 14-yard run to score the 49ers' second touchdown. I like how Hunter cradled the ball with both hands while crossing the goal line with Bears' safety Chris Conte on his back. Good situational football against a Bears defense known for stripping the ball. By not attempting to stretch the ball out, he risked not scoring, but the 49ers would still have had the ball at the 1-yard line, first-and-goal. The right move from a well-coached team.
With the 2011 draft paying dividends in a major way, it gives Harbaugh and Baalke more benefit of the doubt in regards to their 2012 class which has hardly sniffed the field this season. Weapons A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James were brought in for a reason. I'm guessing it has something to do with Colin Kaepernick keeping plays alive and finding either of those two open for big gains once coverage breaks down. The touchdown to Crabtree comes to mind. We learned a lot about the 2012 49ers in this game, but we also got a good glimpse at what to expect in the future.