By Jerrell Richardson
Despite ending the regular season with a win, clinching the division and earning a first round bye there were some unanswered questions as the team prepared for their first home playoff game in 2013. The defense struggled with Justin Smith out of the line up, and his status was unclear for the playoffs due to his torn tricep. In addition, David Akers has appeared to lose his confidence and accuracy and the team will have to adjust their game plan if unable to rely on former Pro Bowler. Neither of these concerns will be answered overnight, but the good news is that the team is already addressing both, and will have plenty of time to evaluate both circumstances prior to making a decision that will ultimately effect the teams playoff chances.
Kicking Competition Commences
Right after the team’s regular season finale against the Cardinals, in which Akers missed two of his four attempts, Jim Harbaugh acknowledged that the team viewed this as an issue. Earlier in this week they brought in two kickers, Billy Cundiff and Justin Medlock, to put some heat on Akers, and see if they feel that they need to make a chance at the position. Cundiff impressed in his audition and was signed just this week, leading to some extra excitement in practice as everyone is keeping a close eye on the kicking competition. On Thursday the two had their first battle, which ended in a draw. Akers attempted 21 field goals, making 16 and supported the signing of Cundiff, missing 3 from within 50 yards (43, 43 and 48). Cundiff only missed 2 kicks, but then again he only attempted 12, missing from 45 and 52 yards. As Cundiff gets more practice time, and more kicks in front of the coaches, the competition will heat up and with a week to look at both kickers, don’t expect the team to rush to a decision.
Injuries hurt the 49ers down the stretch, but they received an emotional boast when Justin Smith returned to the practice field for the first time since tearing his tricep. The heart and soul of the defensive line sported a brace on his arm, but the fact that he is already participating in contact is a great sign. The tough as nails veteran has promised that he will be ready in time for the team’s first playoff game, and he looks as though he will stick to his word. There was really no question as to if he would be able to tolerate the pain enough to take the field however. The real concern is how effective can he be? By returning to practice the coaches can get a better feel for where he is at physically and if he can contribute. This situation is identical to that of the kicking competition, as the team can use several days of practice to make the best decision for the team.
On a side note, the rest of the team also is slowly getting healthy as 4 key players, Aldon Smith, Tarell Brown, Ahmad Brooks and Bruce Miller all are back to taking contact in practice, and by the time the team lines up against their opponent on January 12th, there should be no real injury concerns outside of the players already out for the season. By getting a kicker into camp so soon, they will have had plenty of time to evaluate both he and Akers and proceed with the player who will give them the best chance at advancing back to the NFC Championship Game.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. His work can be found on Examiner.com.