As the 49ers prepare for their date with the Bengals Sunday in Cincinnati, there are some bits of good news.
Receiver Michael Crabtree should be back in the lineup. Quarterback Alex Smith’s concussion hasn’t kept him out of practice, and he’ll play, too. Plus, the Niners’ defense against the run ranks No. 1 in the NFL, which means San Francisco is well positioned to stuff Cedric Benson and Co. on the ground.
But, there’s also this: Wide receiver Braylon Edwards is out, the Niners still haven’t been able to establish their own running game and their pass defense ranks 25th in the NFL.
It’s that matchup --the 49ers secondary vs. rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and a group of young, talented receivers – that may be a large factor in whether the 49ers improve to 2-1 or drop to 1-2.
In two games, Dalton ranks No. 8 in the NFL in passer rating (105.7) and has exciting rookie receiver A.J. Green (11 catches in two games), plus wideouts Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell and tight end Jermaine Gresham as capable targets.
The 49ers, meanwhile, were picked apart by Dallas’ Tony Romo last week, a signal that San Francisco’s secondary, while reworked in the offseason, may still be vulnerable.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch reports that last season, the 49ers were 1-6 and outscored 177-93 in games against quarterbacks ranked in the top half of the league’s QB ratings. Against S.F., those QBs had an exceptional combined rating of 107.5.
Now, here comes Dalton, a former TCU star who has been a quick study after winning the job left open with the holdout of incumbent Carson Palmer.
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio this week said his team’s secondary just wasn’t as good as it needed to be against Dallas.
“For the most part it was they threw and caught it better than we defended it,” Fangio told reporters, adding “there were a lot of breakdowns.”
Against Cincinnati – which oddsmakers have made a 3-point favorite -- there will be some changes in the secondary. Veteran Dashon Goldson, out with an injury, will make his season debut at safety and cornerback Shawntae Spencer is also expected to see much more playing time after being limited the first two games with a hamstring problem.
Part of the solution Sunday may be in the 49ers establishing their own running game, controlling the ball more effectively and keeping Dalton and his receivers off the field.
So far, however, Frank Gore has just 106 yards rushing in two games and is averaging only 2.5 yards per carry. Gore says it’s imperative the 49ers start running the ball well.
“When the time comes to get those first downs, we have to get them,” Gore says.