AFC South: San Francisco 49ers

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blaine Gabbert never became the franchise quarterback former Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Gene Smith envisioned when he traded two picks to get him in the first round of the 2011 draft. The Jaguars finally gave up on Gabbert last Tuesday when current GM David Caldwell traded Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a possible conditional pick in 2015.

ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the trade:

DiRocco: Blaine Gabbert clearly wasn't in the Jaguars' plans any longer and I, like most people, expected the team to release him at some point -- though I thought he'd at least go to training camp. But GM David Caldwell was somehow able to work out a trade with 49ers GM Trent Baalke to send Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick and a conditional pick in 2015.

What does Baalke like about Gabbert and why did he swing that trade?

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesUnder the guidance of coach Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are hoping that Blaine Gabbert can finally flourish.
Williamson: The 49ers had 12 draft picks and they have a stacked roster, thus, low-round draft picks don’t mean much to them. Baalke and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh (who loves taking fliers in young quarterbacks) were both at Gabbert’s pro day three years ago and they had him visit prior to the draft. The 49ers have a need for a backup and always kept Gabbert in mind. I know it may have come as a surprise to folks in Jacksonville that the Jaguars got anything more than a loaf of San Francisco sourdough bread from the 49ers, but they actually do see value in Gabbert.

Mike, what do you think the 49ers are actually getting in Gabbert?

DiRocco: They're getting exactly what you want physically in a quarterback: a big (6-foot-4, 235 pounds), athletic, strong-armed player. That has never been his issue. It's what happens mentally that has held him back. He's somewhat skittish in the pocket and he makes too many questionable decisions on where to throw the ball. It's disconcerting because he's a pretty good practice player, but it doesn't transfer to game day.

There seems to be the thought that if anyone can fix him, it's Jim Harbaugh. But how much time can he devote to Gabbert while still working with Colin Kaepernick?

Williamson: You make a good point. Kaepernick is still not a finished product. But Harbaugh loves tinkering with quarterbacks. Gabbert’s time will be in the offseason, training camp and in the preseason. He needs to take advantage of working with the Quarterback Whisperer. Colt McCoy said last year he learned more about quarterbacking in his one season in San Francisco than in his entire playing career. So this is an opportunity for Gabbert; Harbaugh and his staff are top notch.

Mike, do you think Gabbert can put the misery of the past three years behind him and take advantage of this opportunity?

DiRocco: I think he will definitely benefit from the fresh start, but I don't know if he can overcome his mental issues. I don't buy the argument that he panics and is afraid to get hit. I think he was hurt by being forced to play before he was ready, plus he didn't exactly have a lot of weapons in the passing game. Not many quarterbacks are going to flourish under those conditions. If he's willing to start over from ground zero and approaches this with an open mind, I think he can make strides. He's still only 24 years old.

Bill, it may be too early to tell, but do you think the 49ers view Gabbert as a potential long-term backup or is this just them kicking the tires to see if he's a viable option?

Williamson: I think it’s a total kick-the-tires expedition. Again, it’s a low risk at a low cost. He’ll be the backup this year and they will see what he can do. If he’s terrible, they will move on. If they fix him, perhaps they will try to flip him and make a nice draft-pick profit. Basically, this is a guy who previously intrigued them and they are confident they can make him better. If it doesn’t work, well, at least Baalke and Harbaugh will know they tried.
Willis/ShortsGetty Images, USA Today SportsPatrick Willis' 49ers meet Cecil Shorts' Jaguars in the second NFL game in London this season.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The San Francisco 49ers have righted the ship after a shaky start. The Jacksonville Jaguars are still sinking.

The teams going in opposite directions will meet Sunday in London's Wembley Stadium in the second of two NFL games being played in the United Kingdom this season.

The 49ers (5-2) have won four games in a row -- and scored at least 31 points in each of those games -- since starting the season 1-2. The Jaguars are 0-7 and are the first team since the 1984 Houston Oilers to lose their first seven games by double digits.

That makes Sunday's game look like a giant mismatch, yet the Jaguars were 28-point underdogs to the Denver Broncos two weeks ago but lost by only 16 points -- and trailed by just two at halftime.

ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the matchup:

DiRocco: The 49ers used the read-option the most they have all season against Tennessee in Week 7. Will that be a bigger part of the offense again as the season progresses?

Williamson: Mike, I think it is going to be a week-to-week situation. The 49ers used the read-option seven times last week after using it a total of nine in the first six games. The 49ers saw they could exploit Tennessee's defense using it. I think we will see it again, but probably in more challenging games and only in certain situations, when the 49ers are confident it will work. We could maybe see it some in London, but I have a feeling it will be more like the first six weeks of the season.

Mike, if the 49ers do run a lot of read-option offense, do you think the Jaguars can handle it?

DiRocco: Probably not. The Jaguars are last in the NFL in rushing defense (153.3 yards per game) and have given up a league-high nine rushing touchdowns. The defense's biggest problem against the rush is that it has given up a lot of explosive plays. Jacksonville has allowed an NFL-worst 10 rushing plays of 20 or more yards. Stopping the read-option is assignment football and the Jaguars' ends have not been as disciplined as needed. For example, Oakland's Terrelle Pryor ran for 50 yards in Week 2, including a 27-yard run in which the entire defensive front bit on the inside fake.

Bill, the Jaguars have had trouble with tight ends all season and now they face Vernon Davis. Who is the last team that's shut him down how?

Williamson: Davis hurt his hamstring late in the Seattle game in Week 2. He was pretty well shut down in that game before getting hurt. He missed Week 3 against the Colts and then came back against the Rams. He's been good and he is healthy. If the Jaguars have trouble against tight ends, the 49ers will exploit it. Davis and quarterback Colin Kaepernick have a great chemistry going this season. The 49ers' coaching staff is great at exploiting weaknesses.

Mike, do you seeing this being a big problem for Jacksonville?

DiRocco: Absolutely. Tight ends have combined to catch 42 passes for 401 yards and five touchdowns against Jacksonville this season. Depending on the defense called, the Jaguars will either have a safety or linebacker on the tight end. At times, the job has fallen to middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who is very good against the run but not fast or quick enough in pass coverage. The Jaguars won't use the approach New England did against New Orleans standout Jimmy Graham -- the Patriots put their best corner, Aqib Talib, on him -- so I'd expect Davis to have chances to exploit some matchups with linebackers on Sunday.

Speaking of exploitation, the Anquan Boldin trade looked like a steal in Week 1. How is it regarded now?

Williamson: Still, unabashed thievery. Sure, Boldin had 13 catches in the first week and a combined 21 catches in the following six. But the 49ers would be in trouble without Boldin. He had three circus catches at Tennessee and he's been the team's only reliable wide receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out. The 49ers would not be 5-2 without Boldin.

Mike, do you think the Jaguars will keep him in check Sunday?

DiRocco: The Jaguars have done a solid job the past two weeks of playing umbrella coverage and making sure they don't give up deep throws. That does leave the short and intermediate routes open, though, and that's where Boldin thrives. He's a physical receiver and the Jaguars don't yet have the kind of personnel to match up with him. Coach Gus Bradley wants to build a secondary similar to the one he helped build in Seattle, which includes big, physical corners. The Jaguars still have work to do there, although rookie third-round pick Dwayne Gratz (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) is finally back from his high-ankle sprain.

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Video: Titans-49ers recap

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
8:00
AM ET

Bill Williamson and Paul Kuharsky discuss how the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans are heading in opposite directions.

Live blog: Texans at 49ers

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
6:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Houston Texans' visit to the San Francisco. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Arian Foster and Frank GoreGetty ImagesTwo of the NFL's top rushers, Arian Foster and Frank Gore, will try to carry their teams Sunday night.

The Houston Texans are not pleased with themselves, and neither is their Week 5 opponent, the San Francisco 49ers.

After starting off Week 4 the right way with a big win at St. Louis, the 49ers bitterly watched the Texans blow a huge fourth-quarter lead at home in an eventual overtime loss to Seattle, allowing the Seahawks to maintain their two-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West.

San Francisco will try not to fall further behind when it welcomes the shell-shocked Texans to Candlestick Park on Sunday night. Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and I discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: What changed for the 49ers between Weeks 3 and 4? Is it as simple as playing a weaker opponent, or did they rediscover their identity?

Williamson: Easier competition may have had something to do with it. Against Seattle and Indianapolis, the 49ers were outscored by a combined 56-10. Against the Rams, the 49ers had their way in a 35-11 victory. I truly think the 49ers’ struggles this season have been more because of themselves than their opponent. The trouble in Weeks 2 and 3 started on offense. The 49ers badly miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham; they don’t have much beyond Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who has been injured. Fortunately, the rushing game got going in Week 4. If the 49ers can keep the run game hot and if quarterback Colin Kaepernick can get the ball to Boldin and Davis, the 49ers will be fine. That will take pressure off a good defense that wasn’t the main problem against the Seahawks or the Colts.

Tania, do you believe the Texans are up to the task of staying with the 49ers, especially after the heartbreak of the Seattle loss?

Ganguli: They were angry about that loss, especially J.J. Watt, who held a menacing news conference (menacing in general, not menacing toward reporters) after the game. They have taken steps to regroup mentally, holding a players-only meeting that allowed for venting, but I think their ability to bounce back will depend on being able to fix some of the problems they had in their first game. Those problems go well beyond quarterback Matt Schaub, who made the most costly and talked-about error this past Sunday in throwing a pick-six late in the fourth quarter. The Texans gave up a crucial fumble, dropped a couple of passes and committed a 15-yard penalty that helped set up the game-winning field goal. You’re right that the Texans’ defense hasn’t been the team's biggest problem this season, but Houston has given up drives of 99 and 98 yards this season, and it would like to change that.

How has losing Aldon Smith affected San Francisco’s defense?

Williamson: It would be inaccurate and na´ve to think the 49ers don’t miss Smith. He will be away from the team for about a month as he seeks treatment for alcohol abuse. Smith had 4.5 sacks in the first three games this season, and he has an NFL-high 38 sacks since 2011. Last week, the 49ers dominated the Rams’ offense without Smith and star inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who was out with a groin injury, and recorded five sacks. Rookie Corey Lemonier and special-teamer Dan Skuta both played well in place of Smith, and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks led the way with big games. Still, Smith is such a presence. The 49ers will be hard-pressed to have sustained dominance without him.

Tania, do you think the Texans can take advantage of Smith's absence?

Ganguli: The Texans have had their own issues in the trenches lately. Left tackle Duane Brown has missed the past two games with turf toe and is still considered day-to-day. Left guard Wade Smith rotated with second-year guard Ben Jones last weekend. Coach Gary Kubiak said that was to preserve Smith for the long term; Smith had knee surgery during the preseason and returned from it after three weeks. Meanwhile, right tackle Derek Newton, another young player, has really struggled. In fact, Brown’s replacement, Ryan Harris, has played far better than Newton, Houston's regular starter on the other side. Now right guard Brandon Brooks is hurt with a toe injury that’s got his foot booted. The most consistent player, in terms of health and production, on the offensive line has been center Chris Myers, but Schaub has faced a lot of pressure this season.

Speaking of Schaub, he had a rough weekend against the best secondary in the NFL. What challenges will he face against the 49ers?

Williamson: I think Schaub’s struggles start with him, and I think the 49ers will try to pressure him quickly to see if he crumbles again. You know better than I do, but from seeing replays, Schaub looked broken after the Richard Sherman pick-six. The 49ers are well aware that Schaub has thrown interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns in the past three games, and they will be looking to add to the list. A player to watch is rookie safety Eric Reid. He has proven to be a ballhawk already. I could see him benefiting from Schaub’s issues.

This is a huge key to the game, Tania. Do you think Schaub can bounce back and be effective?

Ganguli: That will be the most important factor in this game. While I don’t blame the entire collapse on Schaub, you’re absolutely right that he looked broken after Sherman’s interception. By contrast, in Week 2, Schaub threw a late pick-six against Tennessee that put the Texans in an eight-point hole, but he recovered quickly enough to lead a game-tying drive that forced overtime. He didn’t bounce back as well against the Seahawks. He made a few nice throws, including a 17-yard pass to Andre Johnson, but overall, looked rattled. If he can’t recover, the Texans have no chance. But if he can rediscover the guy who led that comeback effort you and I watched live against San Diego in Week 1, I think the Texans are in good shape.

 

Live blog: Colts at 49ers

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Indianapolis Colts' visit to the San Francisco 49ers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Double Coverage: Colts vs 49ers

September, 20, 2013
9/20/13
12:00
PM ET

The Tree Bowl is upon us.

In one of the more intriguing matchups of Week 3, coach Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco 49ers will host quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts -- and their new running back Trent Richardson.

This is a homecoming for Luck and a reunion for both men. Luck played for Harbaugh at nearby Stanford. They were the toast of college football, and Harbaugh played it into a job with the 49ers after the 2010 season. Luck stayed on The Farm another year and had a brilliant rookie season last year.

However, there is much more than the Harbaugh-Luck angle in this game, as both 2012 playoff teams are coming off a loss in Week 2. Colts' reporter Mike Wells and I discuss the matchup in Double Coverage:

Wells: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick looked like he was more than a read-option quarterback when he threw for 412 yards in Week 1, but he was back to normal against Seattle, only throwing for 127 yards. Which game is the real Kaepernick -- the Week 1 performance or Week 2 at Seattle?

Williamson: I think he has shown the real Kaepernick is much closer to the one we saw against the Packers. The Seattle game was Kaepernick's worst in his 12 NFL starts. Kaepernick is still inexperienced and still growing. I think he will learn from the Seattle game. Plus, the Colts' defense is beatable in the air and on the ground. Kaepernick will likely bounce back. I expect to see Kaepernick have some success on the ground, similar to the success Oakland's Terrelle Pryor had against the Colts in Week 1.

Wells: Kaepernick will be a problem for the Colts. The only time the Colts had the answer for Pryor was when he decided to try to beat them with his arm instead of his feet. The Colts intercepted him twice, but I don't see them having that same kind of success against Kaepernick. He's a better runner and definitely a better passer than Pryor. You obviously cover Kaepernick on a daily basis, you know about Luck and you were in Seattle this week. Do you think the 49ers' quarterback deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Luck, Russell Wilson and RG III?

Williamson: Oh, I'm a big Luck fan. As far as I'm concerned, the question should be whether the other young quarterbacks deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Luck. Yes, he is a different quarterback than the other young stars. But this is what Luck has that will never go out of style -- he is a great pocket passer. He is a traditional star who would have been dominant in any era he played. I fancy myself as someone who stays grounded and doesn't speak bombastically about analysis. With that said, on the night Luck was drafted, I predicted his career will end with a ceremony in Canton, Ohio. I truly believe that and look forward to seeing him play in person for the first time Sunday.

Wells: Of course, this game became much more than Harbaugh and Luck when the Colts made the blockbuster deal for Richardson with Cleveland on Wednesday. Will the 49ers prepare as if they'll be facing Richardson on Sunday, or will they go in with the mindset that it'll be Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown, since Richardson will only have two practices and a walk-through to learn Indianapolis' system?

Williamson: It definitely changed the 49ers' week. They are in a tough spot. They made their plan for the Colts and were actually executing it on the practice field for the first time when the trade went down. I don't think the 49ers totally changed their game plan because of the trade. But it altered it. Coaches suddenly had to watch film of Richardson and make adjustments. Because Richardson is a running back, I expect to see him a lot Sunday. He doesn't need a lot of time in the playbook. The Colts gave up a first-round pick for Richardson so they can win now. They will start using him when they can, and I'd think that will start Sunday. But the 49ers are good against the run. They were fourth in the NFL last season. They will attack this curveball with confidence.

Wells: Anything Richardson can give the Colts will be an upgrade over Brown, a former first-round pick who hasn't lived up to expectations. Bradshaw is still rounding into shape after not playing in the preseason, so having Richardson share some of the snaps with him will help the Colts' running game and hopefully open the passing game for Luck. The Colts are dealing with their fair share of injuries, losing starting tight end Dwayne Allen for the season. How big of a loss is nose tackle Ian Williams on defense for the 49ers?

Williamson: It hurts, but it's not devastating. Injuries happen to every team. Williams is a nice player and he was coming into his own. Free-agent pickup Glenn Dorsey was rotating with Williams. Now Dorsey is the starter. I think the 49ers will survive this injury as long as Dorsey stays healthy. There is not much depth behind him.

Wells: The Colts will test Dorsey, because Bradshaw and Richardson are both straight-ahead backs who run like they're angry at somebody. So much is being made about the Luck-Harbaugh reunion, but the real reunion is between brothers Vontae and Vernon Davis. Do you think Vernon will play with a purpose because his kid brother is on the field?

Williamson: It's really interesting, Mike. Vontae has been in the league since 2009, but this will be the brothers' first meeting. The Dolphins played the 49ers the year before they drafted Vontae, and they played the 49ers last season, shortly after dealing Vontae to the Colts. Vernon has been out of practice with a hamstring tweak. However, he has indicated he will play. I fully expect him out there. Vernon is a prime-time guy, and playing against his little brother will get his juices flowing. And of course, Harbaugh can tell Vernon all about the intensity of going against a sibling.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Peyton Manning's interview with ESPN's Trey Wingo swerved into NFC West territory about five minutes into the clip below.

The San Francisco 49ers and their fans will appreciate what Manning said when Wingo asked how tough it is for Manning to watch the Super Bowl come to his town.

"I've always said it's probably harder for the playoff teams not to be here," Manning said. "When you get really close, like San Francisco, like Baltimore. We've known we weren't coming to the Super Bowl for quite some time."

Since November, actually.

A quick look at the five most painful NFC West playoff exits, pre-Super Bowl, since divisional realignment in 2002:
  • 2011 49ers: Their 20-17 defeat to the Giants was crushing for the way it happened, with a turnover during a punt return in overtime -- and at home, which always hurts more. Missed opportunities abounded.
  • 2003 Rams: Losing in the second overtime is worse than losing in the first one. Jake Delhomme's 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith in St. Louis stunned the 12-4 Rams in the divisional round. This one would have ranked first if a Super Bowl trip had been on the line.
  • 2003 Seahawks: Seattle was looking for its first playoff victory since the 1980s. Shaun Alexander's fourth-quarter scoring run had forced overtime at Lambeau Field. Microphones memorably picked up quarterback Matt Hasselbeck saying the Seahawks would take the ball -- and score -- after winning the overtime coin toss. Al Harris' interception return for a touchdown spoiled those plans.
  • 2006 Seahawks: A 27-24 overtime defeat at Chicago in the divisional round brought a sudden end to the Seahawks' NFC title defense. Alexander rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough.
  • 2004 Seahawks: First-round defeats in back-to-back seasons extended the Seahawks' drought without a playoff victory. The Seahawks lost this one at home, 27-20, after the Rams scored the final 10 points.

Arizona's defeat at New Orleans following the 2009 season just missed the cut. The game lacked the drama generally required to inflict deep emotional wounds. It was significant, however, because Kurt Warner suffered a concussion and opted for retirement.

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