After two straight losses, the 49ers have learned a few things.
No. 1 on the list might be that finishing strong may be much more important than getting off to a fast start.
As the 1-2 49ers get set to play the 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the Niners rank as one of the NFL’s most baffling teams. In the first half, they’ve been dominant. In the second half, they’ve been dominated.
According to ESPN.com, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick leads the NFL with a 97.8 total quarterback rating in the first quarter. But that number falls to 34.5 over the final three quarters. The 49ers are the only team in the NFL yet to score a second-half touchdown.
If the 49ers hope to avoid their first three-game losing streak since Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011, San Francisco’s offense is going to have to be much more efficient throughout the game, and the secondary is going to have to clamp down on the Eagles’ strong passing game. Eagles QB Nick Foles has had three consecutive 300-yard games, and Philly’s air attack ranks No. 2 in the NFL.
One thing the 49ers need to do Sunday to put the clamps on Foles is to put pressure on him, but so far through three games the Niners’ pass rush has been largely absent. No one has stepped up to replace suspended top pass rusher Aldon Smith. The 49ers have just four sacks in three games, with defensive end Justin Smith having three of them. Second-year outside linebacker Corey Lemonier -- expected to pick up some of that slack -- is still looking for sack No. 1.
Sunday, the Eagles might be vulnerable to pressure, however. Three of Philadelphia’s starting offensive linemen are expected to be out.
In the loss to the Cardinals last week in Arizona, the 49ers tried to put pressure on quarterback Drew Stanton by calling a lot of blitzes, but that just backfired, with Stanton connecting with his wideouts for big plays.
One of the big questions about Sunday’s game is how Kaepernick and Co. will operate on offense. After coming out with four- and five-wideout sets vs. Arizona and going to a pass-first attack, will the 49ers continue on that tack or revert more to a running, ball-control game plan with Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde? With right tackle Anthony Davis -- who has missed all three games in 2014 -- returning to practice this week, the offensive line would finally be back at full strength.
Gore, who had just six carries in the loss to Arizona, says he’s fine with whatever game plan produces a victory.
“Whatever works, I’m with it,” he told reporters. “If it’s passing, it’s passing. We pass the ball. If it’s running, we run the ball. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win and if we have to go out there and do the spread (offense) again, I’m with it.”
Though the 49ers have struggled -- on offense, defense and in the second half of games -- oddsmakers believe they’ll get back on track Sunday. The 49ers are 3½-point favorites.