While the San Francisco 49ers have answered the questions everyone had regarding their quarterback situation entering this season, the Washington Redskins remain in search of a solution to their longstanding problem at the position.
The red-hot 49ers will set their sights on their longest string of victories in 14 years when the NFC West front-runners head to FedEx Field this Sunday to take on the sagging Redskins in a showdown of teams that have delivered vastly different results in recent weeks.
San Francisco hasn't finished with a winning record or made the playoffs since 2002, but that drought appears well on its way to ending due to a soaring start under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers have ripped off six wins in their first seven contests with the fiery former quarterback in charge and opened up a commanding four-game lead in the division as the 2011 campaign nears its midway point.
One reason for San Francisco's surprising rise has been the sound play of Alex Smith under center. The much-maligned former No. 1 overall draft pick is putting together by far the best season of his often-chaotic career, ranking among the league's most efficient passers while skillfully directing that's had the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL thus far.
Smith has had plenty of support in helping the 49ers build their stellar 6-1 mark. The offense has gotten terrific production out of workhorse running back Frank Gore, while a smothering defense has yielded the fewest points and rushing yards in the league to date.
Gore has been particularly dominant over the past month, having amassed at least 125 rushing yards in each of San Francisco's last four outings. The two- time Pro Bowl selection racked up 134 yards on a career-best 31 carries in last Sunday's 20-10 triumph over Cleveland, which extended the club's current winning streak to five games.
"Frank's just got a will to keep going," said Harbaugh afterward. "He is a great competitor. Consummate team player and the guys up front feed off him, and he feeds off them. It's really each guy pushing each other higher. It's a great thing for our team."
The 49ers have already matched their entire victory total of last year's thoroughly disappointing season and will be attempting to win six in a row for the first time since a 10-game run in 1997. That was also the last time the franchise was 7-1 after eight tests.
Washington, on the other hand, is trending in a completely opposite direction. After seemingly trending upward with a 3-1 record out of the chute, the Redskins have dropped three consecutive games amidst a flurry of injuries and shoddy showings on both sides of the ball.
Instability at quarterback has played a major role in the team's slide. Early- year starter Rex Grossman was removed from his post by head coach Mike Shanahan following a horrid 9-of-22, four-interception performance in a home loss to Philadelphia in Week 6, and replacement John Beck has so far failed to provide a spark to the offense in two subsequent starts.
The Beck-led offense mustered a paltry 178 yards and 10 first downs in this past Sunday's 23-0 manhandling by Buffalo in Toronto, the first-ever shutout in Shanahan's 267 career games as an NFL head coach.
A defense that had been excellent over the first four weeks has reversed course as well, surrendering an average of 168.3 rushing yards and 406.3 total yards during the losing skid.
"We just know we better get better in a hurry, because we're going against a team that's one of the best in the NFL," Shanahan remarked. "[The 49ers] have been doing a great job of running the football and getting points. Obviously, their defense is doing a great job, too. It will be quite a challenge for us."
San Francisco has a 14-9-1 advantage in its regular-season series with Washington and ended a sequence of two straight losses in the set with a 27-24 home win the last meeting between the teams, which took place in 2008. The 49ers haven't topped the Redskins as the visitor since a 45-10 blowout on Sept. 14, 1998, however, though they've only been to FedEx Field once since that game. That occurred in 2005, with Washington routing San Francisco by a 52-17 count.
The Niners also hold a 3-1 edge on the Redskins in postseason play, having bested Washington at home in NFC Divisional Playoff tilts in 1971, 1990 and 1992. The Redskins did post a 24-21 decision over San Francisco at RFK Stadium in the 1983 NFC Championship.
Shanahan, who served as the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 1992-94 and was part of the team's win in Super Bowl XXIX that final season, owns a 3-2 lifetime record against his onetime employers, with four of those games coming during his 14-year reign as Denver's head coach from 1995-2008 and the other a victory while leading the Oakland Raiders in 1988. Harbaugh has never previously faced the Redskins or Shanahan as a head coach.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco has been running the offense through Gore (675 rushing yards, 5 TD, 12 receptions) all throughout its surge, and those plans don't figure to change this week. The standout back has averaged 131.8 rushing yards and an impressive 6.5 yards per attempt behind the team's physical front line over the last four games, while scoring four touchdowns during that stretch. He's the unquestioned focal point of an attack that's had the fewest passing attempts in the league, with Smith (1267 passing yards, 9 TD, 2 INT) holding down more of a game-manager's role in which he's thrived. The cerebral quarterback has eclipsed 200 passing yards only twice this season and hasn't hit that mark in three straight tests, but has tossed just two interceptions to date and completed a sharp 63 percent of his throws. When Smith is asked to pass, he'll be generally looking in the direction of either wide receivers Michael Crabtree (25 receptions, 1 TD) and Braylon Edwards (8 receptions) or talented tight end Vernon Davis (29 receptions, 3 TD). Edwards returned from four-game absence due to knee surgery to record four catches for 42 yards against his former Cleveland team last week, while Davis is a red-zone weapon who's hauled in 23 touchdown passes over the past three seasons.
Don't expect the 49ers to stray from their run-based approach in this matchup, especially when considering the way Washington has had difficulty preventing opponents from grinding out yards on the ground lately. The Redskins have allowed at least 138 rushing yards in each of their last three losses, with Buffalo's Fred Jackson accumulating 120 yards on 26 totes a week ago, and the inside linebacker tandem of veteran iron man London Fletcher (62 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT) and Rocky McIntosh (52 tackles, 1 sack) and hard-hitting strong safety LaRon Landry (29 tackles, 0.5 sacks) will have to be up to the task this week and keep Gore from going wild. The defense's strength is pressuring the quarterback, with coordinator Jim Haslett's aggressive scheme having generated 23 sacks through seven games, a number that stands near the top of the league. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks) is a pass- rushing demon who's netted 24 sacks in his 2 1/2 years as a pro, while 2011 first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan (29 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has shown great promise in that area from the opposite side and 3-4 ends Adam Carriker (11 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Stephen Bowen (19 tackles, 3.5 sacks) have been effective as well.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
To put it mildly, the Redskins are a mess on offense right now. Beck (604 passing yards, 1 TD, 3 INT) has struggled mightily in his first two starts since a brief audition as a rookie with Miami in 2007, displaying indecisiveness and accuracy that's been spotty. He's also been handcuffed by a rash of injuries at several positions, with veteran receiver Santana Moss presently sidelined with a broken hand, two-time Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley forced to injured reserve due to knee problems and a fractured finger, and the line missing its two left-side starters in tackle Trent Williams (ankle) and guard Korey Lichtensteiger (torn ACL, IR). The depleted front wall contributed to Beck being sacked a whopping 10 times by the Bills, who entered last week's bout with only four over the course of the season. The backfield suffered a big blow as well when leading rusher Tim Hightower, an asset in blitz pickup, sustained a season-ending ACL tear against the Eagles three weeks back. Though Ryan Torain (166 rushing yards, 1 TD) has experience as a lead carrier, the brittle third-year pro has managed a paltry nine yards on 10 attempts over the last two games and Washington could only record 26 rushing yards in the Buffalo loss. With Moss out, tight end Fred Davis (36 receptions, 517 yards, 2 TD) and journeyman wideout Jabar Gaffney (27 receptions, 1 TD) loom as Beck's most reliable options, while rookie running back Roy Helu (131 rushing yards, 12 receptions) has demonstrated some ability as a receiver in spot duty.
Beck's going to have to make significant strides in this start, as the Redskins will likely have a hard time getting their sluggish running game going against a rugged San Francisco defense that's limiting opponents to just 73.4 rushing yards per week and has yet to yield a touchdown on the ground this season. The 49ers also haven't permitted an individual 100-yard rusher in 29 consecutive contests, the longest active streak in the NFL. The charge is led by All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis (54 tackles, 1 sack, 7 PD) and young counterpart NaVorro Bowman (68 tackles), with sturdy lineman Justin Smith (26 tackles, 4.5 sacks) a stout anchor up front. Smith is also one of a number of capable pass-rushers on the roster that Washington's shaky line will have to deal with, a list that also includes up-and-coming rookie Aldon Smith (13 tackles, 6.5 sacks), fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (22 tackles, 4 sacks) and end Ray McDonald (13 tackles, 3 sacks). The secondary does have some soft spots, with the Niners having given up over 400 passing yards in earlier games against Dallas and Philadelphia, but has come up with some big plays as well. Cornerback Carlos Rogers (19 tackles, 9 PD), a former first- round pick of Washington whom the Redskins chose not to re-sign during the offseason following a six-year stay with the organization, leads the team with three interceptions and has emerged as a key member of a unit that's produced 16 takeaways in seven games.
KEYS TO THE GAME
There's little question that Gore is the most important player on the San Francisco offense, and when he's going well, so usually is his team. The 49ers are 17-2 whenever their running back compiles 115 rushing yards or more during his career, a number that could be easily attainable this week given Washington's recent woes in defending opposing ground attacks.
Turnovers. This area has been a big factor in San Francisco's success, with the NFC West leaders sporting a plus-10 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio on the season. Conversely, the Redskins are a poor minus-six in that department and have committed nine miscues during their current three-game losing streak. They're 3-2 this year when having two turnovers or less, however.
With the offense in disarray, Washington's going to need the defense to return to its early-year form and come through with a big effort here in order to obtain a victory. Keeping Gore in check will be first and foremost, as Alex Smith hasn't had to win games by himself save for a comeback effort he engineered against Philadelphia last month. That task becomes harder, however, if the Redskins' potent pass rush is firing on all cylinders.
With the Redskins having played so poorly over the last three weeks, it seems the only thing that may impede San Francisco from extending its winning streak is if it can't adapt to the time change from a long cross-country trip and early kickoff on the East Coast. Since the Niners have already gone into three cities (Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit) in the Eastern Time Zone and left triumphant, that doesn't appear to be an issue. San Francisco matches up extremely well here, as Washington hasn't been able to stop the run or protect the quarterback lately and will be starting a quarterback who's never won an NFL regular-season game in his career. Barring the 49ers turning in an absolute clunker, the Redskins' skid should reach four games.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Redskins 6