Now, I'm not normally a person who likes to use the "must-win" term liberally, but in the Niners case this weekend vs. the Falcons, another loss, and a drop to 0-4 would undoubtedly shatter their confidence and likely any shot at the playoffs in this year.
Now, teams have come back from 0-4 and made the playoffs before, and in a wide open and weaker division like the NFC West, it wouldn't be impossible. It's just that for all those expectations the Niners had coming in, an 0-4 start could signal an all-out failed season in some players eyes, especially with all this coaching/leadership (or lack thereof) turmoil going around. Still though, the Niners have a lot of talent on their football team, and they have noticeably more talent than any other team in this division, but they are just playing horribly right now, with no confidence and zero execution. It's not going to be an easy task in Atlanta either. The Falcons have a power running game, the one style of running game which can at times be effective vs. a typically stout Niner run D. They also have a passing game to go with it, and when they're both clicking together, they can be very hard to contain. I think the big key for the Niners will be to lock-down on Roddy White and not allow those big passing plays. They allowed Matt Cassell, who has really been a short-range, dink-and-dunk kind of passer through much of his time in KC to throw 2 long touchdown passes, and 3 total last Sunday. In fact, Cassell played better vs. the 49ers than Drew Brees' did the previous Monday night. If they allow Matt Ryan time and Falcon receivers space to do that this weekend, Atlanta will cash in on 'em (they've scored 68 points in last 2 games).
Offensively, it would really be nice to see them get something going early. They need to take a 7-10 point lead early and cash in on red-zone opportunities in order to allow their defense to relax a bit. They keep getting behind early and it's opening up all sorts of options for opposing offenses. Frank Gore and the run game should be something new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson should be focusing on. Atlanta allowed Tim Hightower to go for 115 yards on just 11 carries after Rashard Mendenhall collected 120 yards against them in week 1. I'd also like to see the Niners take some shots down field. I know Alex Smith has been pretty inconsistent so far, but I think he just needs a few big plays in order to give him a confidence boost. With Ted Ginn Jr. hurting, it kind of diminishes the Niners deep passing attack, but they can still send Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker (both TE's have basically the speed of a receiver) deep down the middle vs. linebackers and safeties. They need to work on exploiting other teams weaknesses, rather than just always sticking with their scripted game plan, and that's the biggest change I'm hoping for with Johnson taking over the play-calling.
Raiders Surprising: I don't think anyone really saw this coming, but it's the Silver and Black that are looking like the more steady of the two Bay Area football teams. Granted, they're still just 1-2, they were a Sebastien Janikowski field-goal away from being 2-1 and have responded very well after their opening week blowout loss in Tennessee. The defense has been pretty solid, especially that pass defense everyone knew would be, but it's the offense that has been gaining the headlines. Bruce Gradkowski has quietly taken Jason Campbell's starting QB job and the Raiders are getting the best QB play they've gotten since Rich Gannon was under center 10 years ago. Louis Murphy has really emerged as one of the better young receivers in the league and is Gradkowski's top target, but it's been Darren McFadden who's opened up the Raider offense. D-Mac is amongst the NFL rushing leaders after 3 weeks, and is very much looking like the #4 overall pick he was in '08. He's also contributed in the passing game as well, hauling in 10 passes for 80 yards and a score.
BASJ NOTES: We wanted to remind all readers here at BASJ check out The Giants Baseball Blog for San Francisco Giants playoff coverage, as well as The Warriors Rundown for Golden State Warriors training camp coverage. We've been mostly dedicated to Raiders and 49ers here at BASJ, as we normally are during football season, but we will have a post-season A's Review, as well as some more Stanford and Cal football talk in the upcoming posts, so definitely stay tuned for that!