NFC West: Ted Ginn Jr.

Free-agency review: Cardinals

March, 18, 2014
Most significant signing: Arizona vastly upgraded its offensive line when it signed left tackle Jared Veldheer. He gives the Cardinals an anchor on the left side, a position that hasn’t been solidified -- nor sturdy -- for the past 10 years. At 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, Veldheer changed the complexion of how Arizona’s offense can work. The Cards now have an answer for the tough defensive ends and outside linebackers in the NFC West, putting one a few steps closer to becoming a playoff team.

Most significant loss: Without a doubt, Arizona’s biggest loss is inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. He provided a bridge between the secondary and defensive line, and was able to cross it seamlessly and often. Dansby’s loss will impact the defense because of his ability to go sideline to sideline. He had a career season in 2013 after shedding weight. Dansby was also the conductor of the defense and was held in high regard throughout the locker room.

Biggest surprise: The one name that’s stood out from the Cardinals’ haul thus far is Ted Ginn Jr. The speedy receiver is a perfect fit for Bruce Arians’ offense but his addition wasn’t expected. Like Veldheer’s signing, the idea of signing Ginn became a reality when the Carolina Panthers didn’t make a strong push to re-sign him. By landing Ginn, Arizona has a dual-purpose player -- Ginn can assume the kick returner role, while being a solid backup for Patrick Peterson on punt returns -- and will be Arizona’s third receiver, the one whose speed can take the top off defenses.

What’s next? The Cardinals solved a lot of their problems that plagued them throughout 2013, but there are still some areas left to be fixed. Arizona will target a right tackle, safety, cornerback and tight end during the second wave of free agency as well as in the draft. Of those, the Cards will most likely aim for a safety and tight end in the draft while trying to snag another offensive lineman or two and a cornerback in free agency. With that being said, the draft could yield a talented corner who would come at a cheaper price than some of the veterans on the team. General manager Steve Keim will still approach the second wave of free agency like he did the first: looking for instant-impact players. However the second wave may yield more veterans, who Arizona has utilized in the past, as well as a slew of backups.

Mailbag: Overreaction on A.J. Jenkins

August, 13, 2013
Brad from Visalia, Calif., thinks his fellow San Francisco 49ers fans need to calm down regarding receiver A.J. Jenkins.

"In the age of instant analysis and gratification, seemingly everyone thinks the 49ers should cut A.J. Jenkins," Brad writes to the NFC West mailbag. "While I admit the situation is far from ideal given his lack of production, it seems to me that people need to take a deep breath and just let the guy develop."

Wait, you mean 35 regular-season snaps and 16 regular-season pass routes aren't enough to fully analyze a first-round NFL draft choice? I'm with you on this one, Brad. Jenkins hasn't done much to this point, but it's not like the 49ers have a long list of promising young wideouts commanding roster spots.

We should expect Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton to stick on the 53-man roster. We know Michael Crabtree will remain on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Mario Manningham could remain on that list as well. Neither would count against the 53-man roster while on PUP. That would leave room on the roster for Jenkins and one or two others. Players such as Marlon Moore, Ricardo Lockette, Kassim Osgood, Austin Collie and Chad Hall would presumably be factoring for those spots based on a factors including special-teams value.

Jenkins and five other 49ers wideouts logged snaps on offense but not on special teams during the 49ers' exhibition opener. Osgood played nine special-teams snaps in that game. Hall and Lockette played three special-teams snaps apiece. If Osgood earns a roster spot, special-teams contributions will factor disproportionately.

The 49ers presumably are not going to base a Jenkins decision on his relevance as a gunner or coverage player. They drafted Jenkins to play offense. They must consider what he has shown on the practice field (not much so far), their reasons for drafting him (potential), their available alternatives (also undefined) and salary commitments (guaranteed money through 2014).

Three exhibition games remain for the 49ers. Jenkins could conceivably play his way out of a roster spot over that span. I don't think he's done that to this point. The 49ers could use Jenkins, but they don't necessarily have to make a final decision on him after just 35 regular-season snaps. They appear better off with what he might one day offer rather than what they know they could have instead.

Think of it another way. If every current 49ers wide receiver beyond Boldin were suddenly available to sign at low cost, which ones would the other 31 teams scramble to sign first? I have to think Jenkins would rank at or near the top of the list as a young player with potential who hasn't played enough for analysts to judge accurately.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC West team?


Offense: Top running backs
Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams have combined for one ruptured patella tendon (Williams), one torn ACL (Mendenhall) and one shoulder surgery (Williams) during the past two seasons. Williams has played five games in two seasons. Mendenhall missed 10 games last season (one to suspension) after returning from his knee injury. So while new quarterback Carson Palmer rightly commands much of the attention heading into camp, the running backs deserve our attention as well.

Defense: Coaching change
The coaching change from Ken Whisenhunt to Bruce Arians cost the Cardinals their defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, just as the defense was gaining momentum. Arizona ranked third behind Chicago and Denver in defensive EPA last season. New coordinator Todd Bowles comes to Arizona after a difficult 2012 season with Philadelphia. Can the Cardinals sustain their recent defensive success under new leadership?

Wild card: Kitchens' health
Quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens underwent emergency heart surgery in early June after experiencing chest pain during practice. Last we heard, Kitchens was recuperating and expected to return sometime during camp, perhaps on a limited basis at first. Kitchens' health is a leading issue for the Cardinals even though the team has enough depth on its coaching staff to cover for him.


Offense: Second-year second-rounders
Two second-round picks from 2012 will help determine the Rams' trajectory on offense. Receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead each started one game as a rookie. Quick played 174 snaps and caught 11 passes, two for touchdowns. Pead played 39 snaps and had 10 carries. It's time for both to become meaningful contributors. They should have increased opportunities after St. Louis parted with veterans at their positions.

Defense: Rookie safety T.J. McDonald
The Rams will want to get McDonald up to speed quickly. They did sign veteran Matt Giordano for insurance, but McDonald, a third-round choice from USC, is the player they envision in the lineup. Coach Jeff Fisher has experience putting rookie safeties into the lineup right away. Tank Williams started all 16 games as a rookie under Fisher with Tennessee in 2002. Michael Griffin started 10 games as a rookie under Fisher with the Titans in 2007. Williams was a second-round choice. Griffin was a first-rounder.

Wild card: O-line health
The Rams are young just about everywhere except along their offensive line. That's OK as long as those veterans avoid some of the injury troubles they've suffered in recent seasons. Left tackle Jake Long has had two arm surgeries the past two seasons. Right guard Harvey Dahl is coming off a torn biceps. Center Scott Wells has had two surgeries on his right knee, plus a broken foot, in the past year and a half. Tackle Rodger Saffold has had a torn pectoral and a neck injury since late in the 2011 season. The group should be healthy going into camp. Will the good health last?


Offense: Developing wideouts
Eight wide receivers have played in games for the 49ers during two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. The list -- Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr., Josh Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Brett Swain -- includes zero players the team drafted and developed under Harbaugh. The team will be looking to develop young wideouts A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette while Crabtree and Manningham recover from serious injuries. Jenkins and Patton were draft choices under Harbaugh. Lockette was signed last season.

Defense: Roles on the D-line
General manager Trent Baalke has suggested the team could stand to expand its rotation on the defensive line. How will that play out once the 49ers are on the field and the coaching staff takes over? What role will newcomer Glenn Dorsey play to that end? Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald could benefit from a little more rest now and then. They rank among the NFL leaders in total regular-season and postseason snaps played in the past couple of seasons. Smith, in particular, is hugely important to the defense's success.

Wild card: Eric Mangini
The coaching staff will have a different feel with Mangini as the new senior offensive consultant. Harbaugh has kept together his staff for two seasons, an upset for a team that has enjoyed so much success on the scoreboard and in scheming. We easily could have credited Harbaugh for staying the course in the name of continuity. Adding a coach with Mangini's profile shakes things up. It'll be interesting to see how Mangini assimilates.


Offense: James Carpenter
Carpenter's health is a key variable for the future of the offensive line. Coach Pete Carroll has indicated Carpenter should be available for the start of training camp after missing nine games last season and seven as a rookie. Drafted to play right tackle, Carpenter's future is at guard if he can get healthy, stay healthy and regain quickness. Having Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and Pro Bowl center Max Unger flanking a healthy Carpenter would give Seattle a line more like the one Carroll envisioned.

Defense: Cliff Avril's transition
Seattle will be looking to see how pass-rushing defensive ends Avril and Bruce Irvin fit at linebacker as the coaching staff promotes versatility through the front seven. Avril is particularly important in the short term because Irvin faces a four-game suspension to open the season while starting defensive end Chris Clemons continues to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered during the wild-card round last season. Carroll has hinted that Clemons could return in time for the season, but that's a best-case scenario.

Wild card: Keep it clean
All NFL players must submit to testing for performance-enhancing drugs when they report for training camp. That's significant for the Seahawks after Irvin became the fifth Seattle player since 2011 to incur a PED-related suspension. What are the chances another player tests positive?
A reach into the NFC West mailbag on this Memorial Day weekend brings us back to the No. 1 topic around here for the past week: receiver Michael Crabtree's recently torn Achilles' tendon and its impact on the San Francisco 49ers' offense.

"One thing I noticed when watching Colin Kaepernick last year was that he seemed to either throw to Crabtree, throw to Vernon Davis or run," Jakob from San Francisco writes. "Could you expand your analysis to see if I'm right? Especially on third down?"

You're right about Crabtree on third down. However, the story was quite different for Davis.

The chart below ranks 49ers players by third-down target rate from Week 11, when Kaepernick made his starting debut, through the Super Bowl. Crabtree leads the way with 26 targets in 64 third-down routes, good for a 40.6 percent target rate. Davis ranked eighth -- last -- with six third-down targets on 61 routes.

Here are the target rates for 49ers players on first and second downs over the same time period (minimum 15 pass routes): Crabtree 37.5, Mario Manningham 32.4, Randy Moss 25.9, Delanie Walker 22.2, Davis 21.6, LaMichael James 20.7, Ted Ginn Jr. 20.0, Garrett Celek 20.0, Bruce Miller 9.4 and Frank Gore 6.8.

The 49ers will need other wide receivers to emerge while Crabtree recovers from surgery. And while Davis will be needed for blocking, the numbers suggest he needs to become a bigger part of the receiving game -- whether or not Crabtree is available.
Carson Palmer is the 27th veteran player NFC West teams have acquired since 2010.

The Seattle Seahawks have acquired 13 of them, including current contributors Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald.

Palmer, acquired by the Arizona Cardinals from the Oakland Raiders on Tuesday, joins Vonnie Holliday, Kevin Kolb and Kerry Rhodes as veteran acquisitions for the Arizona Cardinals over the past three seasons.

The chart lists all 27 for NFC West teams. Shading identifies players still on the acquiring teams' rosters.

Updated snapshot for NFC West UFAs

March, 22, 2013
Ten days into the signing period for unrestricted free agents, I've updated our chart to reflect recent deals involving Rich Ohrnberger, Ted Ginn Jr. and Robert Turner.

The St. Louis Rams have had six of their UFAs sign elsewhere. That figure is highest in the division. The San Francisco 49ers are next with five, followed by the Arizona Cardinals (four) and Seattle Seahawks (one).

Some of these signings will factor into the equation for 2014 compensatory draft choices.

Two of the 45 players listed in the chart -- Arizona's Rashad Johnson and St. Louis' William Hayes -- have re-signed with their 2013 teams. That speaks to the types of veteran players teams allow to reach the market. For the most part, they are expendable ones (as determined by the teams, at least).
PHOENIX -- The Seattle Seahawks and especially the San Francisco 49ers added to their 2013 NFL draft hauls Monday when the NFL awarded compensatory selections to offset net losses in free agency last year.

The 49ers received the 131st overall pick, a fourth-rounder, plus the 246th and 252nd choices, both in the seventh round. The Seahawks received the 241st and 242nd overall choices, also in the seventh round.

Teams cannot trade compensatory picks.

"Under the rules for compensatory draft selections, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks," the NFL announced. "Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula."

The 49ers received compensatory choices because free-agent losses Blake Costanzo, Josh Morgan and Madieu Williams outweighed free-agent addition Mario Manningham according to the formula. The Seahawks received picks because free-agent losses Atari Bigby, John Carlson, David Hawthorne and Charlie Whitehurst outweighed free-agent additions Matt Flynn and Jason Jones. Update: The NFL clarified that Adam Snyder, who signed with Arizona from San Francisco, factored into the equation awarding the 49ers three comp picks.

I've put together lists below showing all unrestricted free agents added, lost and re-signed by NFC West teams last offseason.

Update: I've also made available for download an Excel file with tentative 2013 draft order, reflecting comp picks and known trades. This is unofficial. The league has not yet released the official order; additional trades could affect it.

The 49ers have a league-high 14 picks, including two picks in each of the second through fifth rounds. They're in prime position to stock their roster for the future.

By my accounting, the Cardinals hold the 7th, 38th, 69th, 103rd, 140th, 174th and 176th picks. The 49ers hold the 31st, 34th, 61st, 74th, 93rd, 128th, 131st, 157th, 164th, 180th, 227th, 237th, 246th and 252nd choices. The Seahawks hold the 56th, 87th, 123rd, 138th, 158th, 194th, 220th, 231st, 241st and 242nd choices. The Rams hold the 16th, 22nd, 46th, 78th, 113th, 149th, 184th and 222nd picks.

Update: The Seahawks sent the 214th choice, acquired from Buffalo in the Tarvaris Jackson trade, to Minnesota as part of the Percy Harvin trade.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed: D'Anthony Batiste, Mike Leach, Early Doucet, Jay Feely, Dave Zastudil
Added: Adam Snyder, William Gay, James Sanders, Quentin Groves
Lost: Richard Marshall, Sean Considine, Deuce Lutui

San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed: Tavares Gooden, Carlos Rogers, Alex Smith, Ted Ginn Jr.
Added: Mario Manningham, Rock Cartwright, Josh Johnson
Lost: Josh Morgan, Adam Snyder, Blake Costanzo, Reggie Smith, Madieu Williams, Chilo Rachal

Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed: Heath Farwell, Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan, Michael Robinson, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy
Added: Matt Flynn, Jason Jones, Deuce Lutui, Barrett Ruud
Lost: John Carlson, Atari Bigby, Charlie Whitehurst, Tony Hargrove, David Hawthorne

St. Louis Rams

Re-signed: Kellen Clemens
Added: Cortland Finnegan, Kendall Langford, Scott Wells, Quinn Ojinnaka, Steve Smith, Robert Turner, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, William Hayes, Trevor Laws, Mario Haggan, Barry Richardson
Lost: Brandon Lloyd, Chris Chamberlain, Donnie Jones, Jacob Bell, Bryan Kehl, Gary Gibson

NEW ORLEANS --'s Dan Graziano had some fun asking San Francisco 49ers players to name the best athletes on the team.

Aldon Smith went with ... Aldon Smith.

That came as no surprise to me. In an effort to loosen up Smith during Super Bowl media day, I had independently asked him to organize an imaginary track meet featuring the 49ers' fastest players. Smith played along.

"How many lanes are there, five?" he asked.

As many as he wanted, I replied.

"I'm in lane one, Ted Ginn is in lane two, LaMichael James is in lane three," Smith said.

Helpful as ever, I suggested quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has three runs of at least 50 yards this season, tied for second-most in the NFL.

"Colin is not in the race," Smith said, before reconsidering. "He might be in lane four. Lane five might be Vernon Davis."

And the winner would be?

"Ted Ginn is probably finishing first," Smith said.

Ginn would definitely finish first, in my view. This fun little exercise highlights one area where I think the 49ers have an advantage over the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII: team speed.

Ravens receiver Torrey Smith could be an equalizer for Baltimore, however.
Tucker/AkersUSA TODAY SportsRavens rookie kicker Justin Tucker, No. 9, has outperformed 49ers veteran David Akers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Field goal tries have decided two of the 11 most recent Super Bowls and four of them overall.

San Francisco 49ers fans could do without such a finish in Super Bowl XLVII after their team's kicker, David Akers, missed 10 of his 19 tries from at least 40 yards this season.

Not that the 49ers' opponent in this Super Bowl has sailed through the playoffs on the strength of its special teams. The Baltimore Ravens have their own issues in that area.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley have covered most of the other angles heading into this game. Can they pull off an item dedicated solely to special teams or will this one bounce off the upright? You decide.

Sando: Ravens fans probably don't want to hear about Akers' struggles. They're still recovering from Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the playoffs last season. But as I've watched the 49ers and Ravens advance through the playoffs, special-teams issues have been impossible to overlook. Here we have the Ravens, led by a former special-teams coach, allowing 104-yard and 90-yard returns for touchdowns in a close game at Denver. And here we have the 49ers, with big bucks invested in special-teams coach Brad Seely, hoping against hope that Akers can make routine field goals. Are we overreacting here, Jamison?

Hensley: Not an overreaction at all, Mike. It's kind of been a curse with Ravens head coaches. Brian Billick could never get the offense on track when he was in Baltimore after coordinating the highest-scoring offense at the time in Minnesota. The same goes for Harbaugh, who has to be irritated by the critical breakdowns on special teams after spending most of his NFL career coordinating that area of the game. It was worse for the Ravens last season, when they allowed three touchdowns on special teams.

Sando: I remember one of them well. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs and the New York Jets’ Joe McKnight also did the return-game scoring honors against the Ravens last season. It was the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday with that 104-yard kickoff return and 90-yard punt return this postseason.

Hensley: John Harbaugh thought the problem was fixed. The Ravens didn't allow a special-teams touchdown in the regular season and didn't allow even one yard on a return of any kind in the wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis. But lapses on special teams nearly cost the Ravens in the AFC division playoff game, where they gave up those touchdowns to Holliday. The Ravens still express confidence in their coverage teams and they have veteran experience there with Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo. Still, those errors have to be in the back of the Ravens' minds.

Sando: The 49ers have had their own special-teams adventures, of course. We all remember Kyle Williams’ miscues dooming San Francisco to defeat in the NFC Championship Game one year ago. You might also recall Ted Ginn Jr. struggling to field the ball in the rain against New England this season. Ginn was a consistent threat in 2011, but not so much this season. He did have a 20-yard punt return against Atlanta in the NFC title game this year. Ginn has six career return touchdowns, three apiece on punts and kickoffs. He is a player to watch on special teams in this matchup. Playing the game indoors removes weather as a concern -- big for returners.

Hensley: The Ravens actually had Ginn in for a visit this offseason because they were looking to upgrade at returner. They finally decided he was too much of a risk considering his injury history. Baltimore was lucky in landing Jacoby Jones. A week after the Texans released Jones, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. He has been an electric returner for the Ravens, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl this season that he didn't make. Jones is the only player in NFL history with two kickoff returns of at least 105 yards in a career. And he did it in one season. The other big pickup made by the Ravens this offseason was kicker Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie who beat out Cundiff this summer.

Sando: Ah, yes, Cundiff. The 49ers signed him to compete with Akers before the playoffs got going. That is how desperate they had become after Akers made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. Akers, Cundiff and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby were the only qualifying kickers making less than 70 percent of their field goal tries during the regular season. Counting the playoffs, Akers has made only 9 of 19 tries from 40-plus yards. He bounced one off the upright against Atlanta, making that game the 49ers’ first under Jim Harbaugh without at least one made field goal.

Hensley: While the decision to go with Tucker over Cundiff proved to be the right one, it was still a gutsy call by Harbaugh back in the end of August. The Ravens went from Cundiff, a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010, to Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of Texas. They went from Cundiff, who had converted 89.9 percent of his kicks inside the 50 over the past two years (53-of-59) and led the NFL in touchbacks, to Tucker, who had never kicked in a regular-season game.

Sando: How the mighty have fallen. Akers set an NFL record for made field goals in 2011. He and Cundiff were both Pro Bowlers recently.

Hensley: Tucker has surpassed expectations. He connected on 90.9 percent of his field goals (30-of-33) in the regular season, which was the second-best mark by a rookie kicker in NFL history. Tucker also has been clutch with three game winners, including a 47-yarder to win the AFC divisional playoff game in double overtime. Another strength of the Ravens is at punter, and the 49ers can say the same thing.

Sando: I think Andy Lee is the best punter in the NFL. And while there’s no truth to the adage that special teams comprise one-third of the game, there’s no question field position can matter a great deal in a game between evenly matched opponents. So can last-second field goals. And if this game comes down to one of those, the Ravens have to like their chances.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 28, Falcons 24

January, 20, 2013

ATLANTA -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: The 49ers are heading to a Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. They will seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they face the winner of the Baltimore-New England game in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will lead them there, further validating coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to make Kaepernick the starter over Alex Smith.

What I liked: The 49ers' defense recovered from a brutal start to make key second-half plays, none bigger than the fourth-down pass breakup NaVorro Bowman made on a pass to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining. That play turned over possession on downs and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.

Kaepernick and the offense also recovered from a rough start. The offense reduced a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 late in the first half. Vernon Davis had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the 49ers fought back. Rookie running back LaMichael James also looked good on a 15-yard option run. The trend continued in the third quarter as the 49ers moved 82 yards in seven plays to set up Frank Gore's 5-yard touchdown run.

The offense did its part, but the 49ers would not have won this game without the defense finally finding its bearings.

Chris Culliver's interception of Ryan with 7:38 left in the third quarter was exactly what the 49ers needed. Atlanta led 24-21 and the teams were trading touchdowns to that point. The 49ers' defense had not made a big play all game.

The 49ers' Aldon Smith, though ineffective as a pass-rusher for most of the game, pounced on the football when Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap. Ryan took his eyes off the ball as the 49ers appeared to show blitz. The recovery by Smith gave the 49ers' defense turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions.

Gore's second touchdown, this one a 9-yarder, gave the 49ers their first lead at 28-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bruce Miller's block was key on the play. The 49ers won at the line of scrimmage on that drive.

What I didn't like: The 49ers took a penalty for delay of game following a timeout as they were trying to run out the clock. That contributed to San Francisco facing a third-and-15 play and having to punt with 13 seconds left. The Falcons had no timeouts at that point, so a comeback victory for Atlanta was not likely. But the lost field position gave the Falcons a better chance.

The 49ers' defense appeared in over its head for much of the game. An early busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to get deep for a 46-yard touchdown, only the third time all season the 49ers have allowed a catch of 40-plus yards. They gave up another big-gainer when free safety Dashon Goldson went for an interception and couldn't quite make the play. San Francisco could not get pressure with four- or even five-man pressures. That was critical.

And when the defense finally produced turnovers on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the second half, the 49ers got no points either time. David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced backward, falling short. That kept the Falcons in the lead 24-21 and returned possession to them. Receiver Michael Crabtree then lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to prevent the 49rs from getting points off the second turnover.

Rookie watch: The 49ers got good contributions from James, their 2012 second-round choice. First-rounder A.J. Jenkins remained in the shadows. The team kept Jenkins on the sideline when it went to its three-receiver offense on a critical third down in the third quarter. Chad Hall, who had not caught a pass in an NFL game since he was with Philadelphia in 2011, was the third receiver on that play.

Crabtree's up-and-down day: Harbaugh made headlines before the season when he said Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Crabtree lived up to the talk by snatching the ball away from Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, then sprinting away for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. Crabtree lost a fumble at the 1 on the next play, however, and the Falcons recovered.

Better returns: The 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game one year ago thanks largely to Kyle Williams' muffed punts in the late going. Ted Ginn Jr. had some shaky moments fielding returns this season, but his 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter set up the San Francisco offense at the Atlanta 38.

Failed challenge: The 49ers failed in challenging Harry Douglas' 22-yard reception with 3:53 remaining. The ruling cost the 49ers field position and their first timeout of the second half while San Francisco was protecting a 28-24 lead.

What's next: The 49ers face Baltimore or New England in the Super Bowl.

Manningham out: Assessing 49ers' targets

December, 25, 2012
The San Francisco 49ers ran out of depth at wide receiver in the playoffs last season.

They responded by signing Mario Manningham in free agency and using a first-round draft choice for A.J. Jenkins.

Depth is becoming a concern again despite those measures.

The season-ending knee injury Manningham suffered against Seattle on Sunday night will cost the 49ers their most targeted wide receiver other than Michael Crabtree.

The chart ranks 49ers players by most pass targets. Shading identifies injured players. Tight end Vernon Davis suffered a concussion against the Seahawks. His availability in the short term remains unclear. Wide receiver Kyle Williams is on injured reserve.

Jenkins will presumably get meaningful chances. He's had nearly a full season of practice without factoring into the offense yet.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 41, Patriots 34

December, 17, 2012

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 41-34 victory over the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Week 15:

What it means: The 49ers clinched a playoff berth by improving to 10-3-1 with a critical road victory. They can win the NFC West title by winning one of their final two games, either at Seattle or against Arizona. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an interception and had trouble with center exchanges, but his four touchdown passes played a leading role in the 49ers' victory. The 49ers' ability to strike quickly after blowing a 31-3 lead just might have saved their season.

What I liked: Kaepernick's early 24-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss gave the 49ers some margin for error on a night when wet conditions made it tougher to operate efficiently. Michael Crabtree topped 100 yards receiving. His 38-yard touchdown catch with 6:25 remaining broke a 31-31 tie and ended a streak of 28 consecutive points by the Patriots.

Kaepernick's four touchdown passes exceeded by one his total for the season before Sunday. The man he replaced, Alex Smith, never tossed more than three scoring passes in a game since San Francisco drafted him first overall in 2005. Kaepernick completed 14 of 25 passes for 216 yards with four touchdowns, one pick and a 107.7 NFL passer rating.

Defensively, Aldon Smith got pressure on Tom Brady early in the game. Ray McDonald had two sacks. He and Ricky Jean-Francois had sacks on consecutive fourth-quarter plays as the 49ers made a key stop while holding a 38-31 lead. Aldon Smith and Carlos Rogers each had an interception off Brady, who entered the game with only four all season.

Donte Whitner's big hit on Stevan Ridley forced out the football and set up Dashon Goldson's return deep into Patriots territory. Rogers played well against Patriots receiver Wes Welker, one key to building that 31-3 lead.

On special teams, Andy Lee changed field position significantly with a 64-yard punt in the fourth quarter. Rookie LaMichael James' 66-yard kickoff return following the Patriots' tying touchdown put the 49ers in position for Crabtree's go-ahead scoring reception. Lee pinned the Patriots at their 3-yard line in the final three minutes. His late punts proved critical as the 49ers scrambled to hold their lead without injured defensive end Justin Smith.

What I didn't like: The repeated problems with center exchanges had to be maddening for the 49ers. Those troubles could have cost San Francisco the victory. Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork was extremely disruptive on the interior. That was probably one reason Kaepernick and center Jonathan Goodwin had so much trouble.

Rogers' interception was terrific, but he failed to reach the end zone when Brady tackled him. That cost the 49ers points.

Kaepernick threw an interception on a first-and-5 play when he apparently did not see safety Devin McCourty closing from the back side of the play. The 49ers had driven from their own 30-yard line to the New England 33 on their first drive of the second half. They held a 17-3 lead and were in prime position to get more points. Fortunately for the 49ers, their defense produced Goldson's fumble return on the Patriots' ensuing possession.

Cornerback Chris Culliver gave up a 53-yard pass reception as the Patriots rallied in the fourth quarter.

Questions for Ginn: 49ers return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. nearly muffed a punt in the first half when he came dangerously close to touching a loose ball. He muffed a fourth-quarter punt return and was able to dive on the ball. The 49ers cannot tolerate those sorts of miscues given the similar troubles that cost them in the NFC title game last season. Perhaps the wet conditions were a factor. Whatever the case, the 49ers need Ginn to get back to his former sure-handed ways.

West takes Pats: The NFC West finished the 2012 season with a 3-1 record against the Patriots, including 2-0 at Gillette Stadium. Brady threw four touchdown passes with five picks in defeats to San Francisco, Arizona and Seattle. He attempted 65 passes Sunday and had a 68.9 NFL passer rating.

Injury concerns: Justin Smith tried to return from an elbow injury, but he lasted just one play and could not finish the game. Smith is one of the 49ers' most important players. That injury will be one to monitor closely as the 49ers prepare for Seattle.

What's next: The 49ers visit the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16.

Quick look at rule cited on 49ers-Pats punt

December, 16, 2012
Referee Ed Hochuli and crew needed an extended period to sort out what happened when the San Francisco 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. risked muffing a punt against the New England Patriots on Sunday night.

It was tough to see whether the ball struck Ginn before New England recovered. Hochuli awarded possession to the 49ers based on Rule 9, Section 2, Article 2 from the 2012 rulebook. That rule states:
" 'First touching' is when a player of the kicking team touches a scrimmage kick that is beyond the line of scrimmage before it has been touched by a player of the receiving team beyond the line. If the ball is first touched by a player of the kicking team, it remains in play.

"First touching is a violation, and the receivers shall have the option of taking possession of the ball at the spot of first touching, provided no penalty is accepted on the play, or at the spot where the ball is dead. First touching does not offset a foul by the receivers. There may be multiple 'first touch' spots, if more than one player of the kicking team touches the ball before it is touched by a player of the receiving team."

That was a confusing sequence. Thanks to K.C. Joyner for pointing the the specific part of the rulebook covering that play. The 49ers hold a 14-3 lead and are driving deep in Patriots territory.

Fantasy Watch: Receiver injuries in focus

December, 16, 2012
Receiver injuries are affecting the NFC West on the field and on fantasy football rosters.

Let's run through what we know for Week 15:
  • Arizona Cardinals: A concussion will prevent Early Doucet from playing for Arizona against the Detroit Lions. Doucet was once the Cardinals' go-to receiver on third down. The last time Doucet missed a game, in Week 12, rookie Michael Floyd played 67.5 percent of the offensive snaps, a season high at the time. Floyd played 94.4 percent the following week, when starter Andre Roberts was out. Tight end Rob Housler is questionable for the game against Detroit. That could mean additional playing time and targets for wide receivers. The problem, of course, has been getting the ball to those receivers.
  • St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola was listed as probable on the injury report, a strong indication he'll return from a foot injury. Amendola once played in a game this season when listed as doubtful. The Rams average 7.0 yards per pass attempt on third down with Amendola on the field. The figure is 6.1 yards per attempt on third down without him. If Amendola plays, there could be fewer short and intermediate opportunities for rookie Chris Givens, who has emerged as more than just a deep threat in recent weeks. Austin Pettis would probably see his playing time reduced with Amendola available. Brandon Gibson's playing time has held steady for the most part. He's coming off a strong game against Buffalo.
  • Seattle Seahawks: Coach Pete Carroll declared receiver Sidney Rice ready to play despite a foot injury. Rice practiced without limitation Friday. He's been much more durable this season than in the recent past. Third receiver Doug Baldwin played a season-high 71.4 percent of the snaps against Arizona last week. Rice and Golden Tate played less than in the recent past, but the lopsided nature of the game (58-0 final score) surely had something to do with that. Rice, Tate and Baldwin are clearly the top three receivers. Jermaine Kearse and the newly re-signed Deon Butler are the only other receivers on the 53-man roster. Ben Obomanu (injured reserve), Braylon Edwards (released) and Charly Martin (injured reserve) are out of the picture.
  • San Francisco 49ers: Mario Manningham has a shoulder injury and will not play against New England. That probably means additional snaps for second tight end Delanie Walker. Walker has set season highs for playing time in the two games Manningham missed previously. He was at 68.3 percent or higher in both. Walker has played 54.5 percent for the season. Randy Moss' snaps also figure to continue their recent rise. He played a season-high 50 percent against Miami last week. Rookie A.J. Jenkins played 13.8 percent, the first time he has played in a game this season. His playing time came at Ted Ginn Jr.'s expense. Ginn was at 8.6 percent against the Dolphins after playing a season-high 19.5 percent the previous week, San Francisco's first without Kyle Williams, who is on injured reserve.

NFC West penalty watch: Receivers clean

December, 12, 2012
San Francisco 49ers wide receivers had eight penalties last season. They have one through Week 14 this season.

The single penalty for 49ers receivers jumped out when I sorted NFC West penalties by team and position for the latest "penalty watch" item.

Officials flagged Kyle Williams for illegal formation in Week 10. That's been the only penalty against a 49ers wideout so far. The penalty count for San Francisco receivers fell this way last season: Braylon Edwards 3, Michael Crabtree 2 and one apiece for Williams, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn Jr.

The fouls included three for offensive pass interference and three for illegal blocks above the waist.

The chart includes accepted and declined penalties.