The return of wide receiver Mario Manningham (No. 82) could help open the 49ers' passing options. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
A lot has been going right for the 49ers after a rough start.
Since losing consecutive games to the Seahawks and Colts in September, the Niners have reeled off five straight victories to get to 6-2 at their bye week and remain just a game behind Seattle in the NFC West.
During the winning streak, the offense has been re-charged with a run-first mentality, and the defense – despite the absence of top pass rusher Aldon Smith and nagging injuries to defensive linemen Glenn Dorsey and Ray McDonald – has seemed to improve each week.
Now it appears the 49ers may get even stronger over the second half of the season.
When San Francisco – which has a bye this week – returns to the field on Nov. 10 against the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park, wide receiver Mario Manningham will likely be in the starting lineup opposite Anquan Boldin, giving quarterback Colin Kaepernick a pair of proven, veteran receivers for the first time this year.
In addition, more reinforcements may be on their way.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, the team’s top receiver who was injured this spring, is due to return in November, cornerback Eric Wright could also be active for the game against the Panthers and a pair of rookies, defensive lineman Tank Carradine and linebacker Nick Moody, are also practicing again and could be activated in time to play the next game. Rookie wideout Quinton Patton, who was injured in his first game after finally winning a spot in the lineup, will also be back over the final eight games.
It’s the return of Manningham, however, that could be the biggest boost.
Without a bonafide second wideout, the 49ers’ passing game has been handcuffed. Opposing defenses can put extra focus on Boldin – who has 38 catches for 551 yards and two TDs – knowing that the rest of the wideout group (Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin and Marlon Moore) have been unable to consistently get open. Those three have combined for just 15 catches, with Williams collecting 11 of them.
Manningham is in his third week of practice with the first team after coming off the injured list. Last season, in his first with the 49ers after playing four seasons with the Giants, he caught 42 passes in 12 games and was a solid complement to Crabtree.
His return could help open up a passing game that has been very good when Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis have been able to get open, but otherwise ineffective.
Manningham had big seasons with the Giants in 2009 and 2010, when he caught a combined 117 passes for 1,766 yards and 14 TDs.
How excited are the 49ers at the prospect of Manningham’s return?
Last week, during a practice leading up to their game against the Jaguars in London, a touchdown catch by Manningham set off a full-team celebration, with players rushing to congratulate him.
“We all had a celebration on the field welcoming him back,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman told ESPN.com. “Everybody just went nuts welcoming him back.”
Over the next few weeks, there could be a few more enthusiastic welcomes, too.