The 49ers are right where most thought they would be through the first half of the regular season.At 6-2, the 49ers control the NFC West with a 1 12-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks.Now, they head into the final eight games with a reasonable chance at earning one of top two seeds in the NFC playoffs. The top two seeds get a first-round bye and a home game in the divisional round.So with an eye toward the second half of the season, we take a look back on the 49ers' first eight games:Best offensive player: Frank Gore. There is a common thread in the 49ers' losses. They simply did not give the ball enough to Gore. Even in the defeats to Minnesota and the New York Giants, Gore still averaged 4.95 yards per rushing attempt. But Gore carried only 20 times in those games. The 49ers are balancing a thin line. They want to keep Gore fresh, but they also know he is their best offensive player. He has gained 656 yards and four touchdowns. He is averaging 5.5 yards per rush. In his best season (2006, when he gained 1,695 yards), Gore averaged 5.4 yards. After just 17 receptions out of the backfield a year ago, Gore is back as a reliable option in the passing game with 16 catches for 121 yards.Best defensive player: Aldon Smith. He is no longer a pass-rush specialist, yet he is on pace to exceed his sack total from his rookie season. Smith has done a good job of setting the edge in the run game as the every-down right outside linebacker, too. Even with his additional responsibilities, Smith leads the 49ers with 7.5 sacks. He accounted for half of the team's sacks in the first half of the season. There were a lot of candidates for this first-half honor for the league's top-ranked defense -- including Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Justin Smith and Dashon Goldson -- but Aldon Smith has done more than enough while defending the run and the pass to get the nod.Best special-teams player: Andy Lee. In May, the 49ers locked up Lee with a contract extension through 2018. He continues to be one of the best in the NFL at his craft. He finished the first half strong with a 44.6 net average against Seattle, including a 66-yard blast in the final minutes to help the 49ers preserve their 13-6 victory. He had a 45.8 net average against Arizona and his directional punts were a big reason explosive return man Patrick Peterson was held to just 15 yards on four returns. Lee sustained a broken right thumb in the opener and he still managed to carry out his duty as the holder on PAT and field-goal tries, too.Best offensive play: Scoreless toward the end of the first quarter, the 49ers faced a third-and-goal at the Cardinals' 3-yard line. When quarterback Alex Smith's arm went back to throw, nobody was open. Peterson, at left cornerback, had his hands on wide receiver Michael Crabtree and there appeared to be no window through which Smith could complete the pass. But Smith threw anyway. And Crabtree went up over Peterson and pulled down the pass for a touchdown. What made this significant is that it's a pass that Crabtree has wanted Smith to throw since they became teammates in 2009. And it's the type of pass that Smith is reluctant to cut loose. The quarterback and receiver must develop chemistry to the point where the ball is put in a spot that allows the receiver to go get it. If that red-zone connection is not just a one-time deal, this connection could become significant as the season progresses.Best defensive play: It did not win a game. In fact, it really had no impact at all in the 49ers' 24-3 victory over the Cardinals. But it made quite an impact, nonetheless. Free safety Dashon Goldson came up and absolutely leveled Arizona wide receiver Early Doucet with a hit to break up a pass across the middle. It was vicious. It was brutal. Oh, yeah, and it was legal. Of all the good plays that the 49ers' defense made during the first eight games, this is the play that will be in the minds of all wide receivers who must run a pass route in that vicinity against the 49ers' defense for the rest of the season.Best special-teams play: David Akers tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal -- with a little bump from the crossbar -- on the final play of the first half in the 49ers' Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers. "I was actually speechless," said Akers, a 14-year veteran. "It was a career day to be able to do something like that."Biggest surprise: The 49ers have not generated nearly as many sacks as last season, but their pass defense is markedly better. With 15 sacks in the first half, the 49ers are on pace for 30. They had 42 sacks last season. But the pass rush is doing plenty right. After all, opposing quarterbacks do not have enough time to sit in the pocket and pick the 49ers apart down the field. Third cornerback Chris Culliver has made the biggest improvement, and starter Tarell Brown is also having a good season. Carlos Rogers has been solid, as well. As a result, the 49ers are allowing just 184.0 yards passing per game. That's an improvement of 46.9 yards per game over a year ago.Biggest disappointment: After the 49ers beat the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, some 49ers players either flat-out stated it or implied that the opposition quit. If that's the case, then the 49ers were equally guilty Oct. 14 against the New York Giants. The 49ers got shut out in the second half, and their normally stout run defense got shoved around in the fourth quarter as the Giants bullied the 49ers en route to a 26-3 victory at Candlestick Park. Entering the fourth quarter, the Giants had just 61 rushing yards on 19 attempts. In the fourth quarter (before two Eli Manning kneeldowns to run out the clock), the Giants gained 91 yards on 16 attempts.Biggest question answered: If there was any concern about how veteran wide receiver Randy Moss would assimilate into the 49ers, the answers he provided in the first half were nothing but positive. "I'm having a great time," Moss told CSNBayArea.com. And his teammates clearly are having a great time around him, too. Moss, 35, is playing about one-third of the team's offensive snaps. He is not providing a huge impact on the field with 13 catches for 235 yards and two touchdowns, but his teammates and coaches rave about his positive contributions behind the scenes. His teammates went bonkers after Moss provided 47-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against the Cardinals. "The old man can still go," Gore said.Biggest upgrade: Right guard. The 49ers have struggled to find consistent play from right guard for years. In the offseason, the club did not even attempt to re-sign Adam Snyder. Instead, they decided to move tackle Alex Boone to that position. And just like that, the 49ers went from considering right guard a liability to having a player who played at a high level. Boone has overcome a lot to get to this point. And his play has been the biggest reason the 49ers' offensive line has come together into one of the top units in the NFL.Biggest drop-off: It was predictable that the coverage units would take a hit when the club did not re-sign Blake Costanzo and then traded Colin Jones on the day of the final cuts. The 49ers surrendered big plays in punt and kickoff coverage in the first half of the season. The opposition averaged 33.1 yard per kickoff return through eight games. That's a 10-yard increase over last season. And punt returns against the 49ers went 2.7 yards longer. The 49ers did show indications in wins against Seattle and Arizona that they're regaining their 2011 form.Best newcomer: The 49ers added two ex-N.Y. Giants, running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Mario Manningham, off last year's Super Bowl champions. While Jacobs did not earn the right to get on the field for one snap in the first half of the season, Manningham is a starter. He has provided an upgrade at a position that was the weakest on the team a year ago. Manningham ranks second on the 49ers behind Michael Crabtree with 28 catches for 278 yards.Best rookie: The answer is neither first-round pick A.J. Jenkins nor second-round selection LaMichael James. Jenkins and James are not good enough to be considered among the 49ers' best 46 players to suit up for games. In fact, the only rookie who has put on a uniform for games in recent weeks is undrafted tight end Garrett Celek. Celek has caught two passes for 10 yards. His impact has been minimal, but he is the only rookie who is not a spectator on game days.Key to the second half: When the 49ers lose games, it's typically because the offense stalls on third downs and quarterback Alex Smith is not able to generate offense. Smith needs to be able to build on what he did against the Cardinals. He needs to be able to help his receivers. He has to to show a willingness to put the ball in spots when there's tight coverage against tight end Vernon Davis or Crabtree. The deeper into the season -- and postseason -- the more difficult it becomes against elite defenses. Smith had the best first half of his career. He'll need to continue to build on that for the 49ers to take that next step.
49ers mid-season report
November 5, 2012, 3:20 pm