This is a little historical analysis to shed light on the problem the 49ers have right now. Their problem is no Justin Smith. Without Justin Smith their defense doesn’t seem to be a big deal. In fact, it seems to be a liability. Harbaugh may be responsible for his team losing Smith and here’s how.

Before the New England game, Harbaugh activated Scott Tolzien. It was a strange call. It meant he had three quarterbacks but he didn’t need three QBs. He needed extra defensive linemen. Why? Because the Patriots run a million offensive plays and they run them fast, and D linemen get gassed fast. Harbaugh should have known that. The Niners went up big in the first half. He could have rested Justin Smith, but he couldn’t really rest Smith a lot because he had few defensive linemen — but he did have that extra QB.

Smith got hurt in the third quarter and the defense has not been the same. If Harbaugh had more depth on the D Line it’s possible Smith doesn’t get hurt and the defense doesn’t fold. I’m surprised Harbaugh made such a basic strategic blunder.

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  1. htwaits

    “Gobble, gobble, turkey, gobble talk.”

    Recover completely and have a Happy New Year.

    December 26th, 2012 4:18 pm

  2. Chris On Fire

    Nitpicking. Could you go down the list of every injury on every team on Monday morning and attribute it to the coach’s pre-game 46-man roster decisions? That would be a crazy exercise to do wouldn’t it?

    December 26th, 2012 4:21 pm

  3. RC

    christ, I mean really Lowell, give it a rest

    December 26th, 2012 4:36 pm

  4. Rap49er

    Smith got hurt in the second quarter when the Niners controlled the game and time of possession. I fail to see the connection. Maybe if he didn’t play at all, he would never get hurt.

    December 26th, 2012 4:39 pm

  5. Seth

    Wasn’t Kaep a little dinged up for that game?

    December 26th, 2012 4:53 pm

  6. Jumbo Shrimp

    I might have won the SuperLotto if I had gone to the liquor store 5 minutes later.

    December 26th, 2012 4:59 pm

  7. Jonny Thunder

    Keep the heat on, Lowell. I am not a fan of the slow mo debacle that is now unfolding in SF and i am especially not a fan of the way Harb and Kap refuse meaningful communication after a bad showing. bad sportsmanship.

    December 26th, 2012 5:48 pm

  8. Neal


    You love kicking a man when he is down, we all know that you don’t like the guy and now you are becoming quite petty. Second year winning the division after 8 or 9 lousy years. He put in Tolzein, he should be fired for that, oh yea they won the game, that does not matter. Who could of predicted that game? Tolzein decision is bigger then the big win.

    December 26th, 2012 5:53 pm

  9. Neal

    I read your paragraph again, and see what you were saying with Smith, the game was close and don’t think rest was a option for him.

    December 26th, 2012 6:17 pm

  10. Jack Hammer

    This is nothing more than grasping at straws for a negative piece. Ativating Tolzien did nothing to deplete the depth of their D line. They had the same guys they have had all year. The only other guy they could have activated was Ian Williams, but he doesn’t play the same position.

    December 26th, 2012 9:36 pm

  11. CohnZohn

    Jack Hammer, I neither was grasping at straws nor trying to be negative in this post. I was merely stating the facts. If stating the facts is being negative, I plead guilty. Ian Williams does play the same position as Justin Smith in the sub packages. Also, the 49ers had an extra spot on the 53-man roster they could have used for a D-lineman. Clearly they should have. In future, please get your facts right before you ascribe motives to me.

    December 26th, 2012 10:28 pm

  12. Jim

    “In future, please get your facts right before you ascribe motives to me.”

    Hi Lowell,
    Couldn’t Harbaugh or Smith or Kaepernick be thinking the same thing about you?

    I enjoy reading your articles and blogs, but it’s interesting that you appear sensitive to some of the comments, when you appear to be doing the same thing to the people you write about.

    December 27th, 2012 7:24 am

  13. Jonathan Larsen

    No, you were not merely stating facts. You did state some facts, and from there, you drew a conclusion–that Smith may have been hurt because a qb and not defensive lineman was activated for the game. While you are be correct in your factual statement, your conclusion does not necessarily follow from the facts. Indeed, many above have set forth several counter-examples to invalidate your argument. I won’t ascribe motives to your reason for posting this argument, but will provide an opinion–your post is the winner of the 2012 worse of the Cohn Zohn blog posts–blog owner division.

    December 27th, 2012 8:45 am

  14. Jack Hammer

    Mr Cohn,

    You are correct. I should have chosen my words more carefully with the first sentence, my apologies. In their base defense Williams is a nose tackle not a defensive end, he would be replacing Sopoaga. In their 4 down lineman packages, you are correct in that they could possibly use him as an interior player, but they typically take the nose tackle out in those situations and utilize their DE’s on the inside.

    While I understand your take on this, I disagree. Even if they had activated Williams, that would not have prevented Smith from being injured. You have the fortune to watch this team from a much closer vantage point than myself, and I am sure you recognize that they rarely substitute the defensive lineman. There is little to no rotation there, so even with an extra player activated they most likely would not have seen the field.

    December 27th, 2012 9:02 am

  15. Dennis

    Are you suggesting that if they activated Ian Williams instead of Tolzien, Justin Smith would not have gotten hurt? Are you saying they should have started Ian Williams instead of Smith so Smith wouldn’t get hurt in the biggest game of the year? I am not sure where the facts are on that. I must be reading this wrong. This does not make any sense on any level.

    December 27th, 2012 9:06 am

  16. Dennis

    Oh, and in case you missed it Smith rested the entire second half. How did that work? And on top of that Ricky, his replacement, got a timely sack towards the end of the game after tiring him self out for a half.

    December 27th, 2012 9:09 am

  17. CohnZohn

    Jack Hammer, Thanks for your updated reply. I hope you are enjoying the book and best to you for the New Year.

    December 27th, 2012 9:11 am

  18. CohnZohn

    Hey, Jonathan Larsen, at least my post won some kind of award. Thank you.

    December 27th, 2012 9:13 am

  19. Jack Hammer

    The book is fabulous. I was fortunate to have season tickets to both the 49ers and Stanford with my brother during that period of time. It brings back a lot of great memories, and the behind the scenes stuff with Walsh and the staff is super.

    December 27th, 2012 9:37 am

  20. CohnZohn

    Thanks, Jack Hammer, I’m glad you find the book worthwhile. Gosh, that was 20 years ago.

    December 27th, 2012 9:50 am

  21. Mark M

    Talk about outlandish speculation. Francios was there as his backup. I hope none of this makes it to print.

    If there is a point to be made here, it’s that their first two picks in the draft went almost to waste. James may make further impact this season so we’ll see if he can be taken out of this discussion. But by focusing so much on offense in this draft, and by those players being almost completely useless this year, they failed to address the depth issue with this defensive front seven. That IS the strength of the team and their drop off in play has coincided with 6 bad quarters of play towards the end of the season. The drop off from J Smith to….anybody else on the roster….is quite large.

    The tolzein move surprises me, but exactly what “stud” from the practice squad was going to come in and make a difference against Tom Brady? What a bizarre correlation.

    December 27th, 2012 10:09 am

  22. Fansince 77


    Harbaugh gets paid 5 million dollars a year and it’s his job as coach to know and manage all these details. Why was Jenkins not activated against Jenkins. Yeah, why activate Tolzien? If Ck gets hurt, Harbaugh doesn’t want Smith to play because he might have the hot hand?

    We were so fast to annoint Harbaugh as a great coach. This year all his moves have been questionable.

    While the Niners are play-off bound, they also have a talented roster, except for WR and QB it seems.

    December 27th, 2012 10:22 am

  23. CohnZohn

    Mark M, The Tolzien move was useless. An additional D Lineman would have given them depth against the rapid fire New England offense.

    December 27th, 2012 10:39 am

  24. Mark M

    Agree about Tolzein. But exactly who was going to join the rotation and play against Brady?

    December 27th, 2012 10:48 am

  25. Dennis

    “Mark M, The Tolzien move was useless. An additional D Lineman would have given them depth against the rapid fire New England offense”

    That makes sense and I can agree with it. However, you called it a “costly mistake” and I am trying to figure out what the cost was. They won the game. Justin got hurt, but that was in the second quarter and not because he was tired. So why was this a “costly mistake”?

    December 27th, 2012 11:09 am

  26. CohnZohn

    Dennis, Justin Smith got hurt in the third quarter. I’m saying Harbaugh could have spelled him, should have earlier. It was a mistake. Who’s to say if it led directly to the injury? But the injury is costly. Dennis, are you going to debate this forever?

    December 27th, 2012 12:37 pm

  27. Dennis

    Lowell, I am not trying to debate you, I am trying to understand you. And I have to admit your logic on this one is a little tough to follow.

    December 27th, 2012 1:46 pm

  28. Dave T


    I agree with your assesment regarding the potential that the injury could have been avoided. The entire idea behind the New England offense and the offense typically run by Peyton Manning is designed to keep your defenders on the field and not let you make substitutes. If you think that the defenders are not tired in even the first quarter because and offense is running so many plays, you are all fooling yourselves and have clearly never played any sport. It is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic sports. If you can’t catch your breath after a full on exertion, you become oxygen depleted and therefore fatigued. Simply being able to rotate out for a play or two can greatly diminish that effect. Even that little bit of fatigue can cause you to react slower, not get your feet or hands set and yes, lead to potential injury.

    Look, Lowell is not saying that it directly led to Smith being injured. What he is saying is that it greatly increased the odds of that happening. If there had been a player that could have rotated in on occasion, it would keep all the defensive lineman more fresh and more nimble and less likely to react slowly and be caught in a position where they could be injured. Activating a third QB when that was really a necessity where a D Lineman could have had more benefit is a extremely rational argument.

    December 27th, 2012 1:58 pm

  29. CohnZohn

    Dennis, Maybe I’m having a stupid day.

    December 27th, 2012 2:11 pm

  30. CohnZohn

    Dave T, Thanks for this. You explained it much better than I could. It turns out Mrs. Cohn Zohn and I got pretty sick. I thought we had bad colds but a doctor friend said we both likely got influenza — even though we were vaccinated. I am further along than Mrs. Cohn Zohn — she’s still in bed, miserable. I’m on Comcast in a few hours.

    December 27th, 2012 2:14 pm

  31. Paul


    Always enjoy your obsevations. I believe the larger mistake took place in the middle of the season.
    Football is the ultima team sport, the gestalt was changed with the changing of the QB. Everything changed, the long sustained drives, the deliberate play calling gave the defence time to rest, allowing them to give max effort.The whole team bought into this style of play , thus the success of the last year and a half.
    Though the inellectual excersice of looking at each seperate piece is fun, it does little to understand what has happened to this team.
    Lowell , I am looking forward to an article of yours exploring this idea.

    December 27th, 2012 2:18 pm

  32. Dennis

    But a very good day none the less. We must try to always remember that it is your car we are all riding in. Thank you for driving even if sometimes we are not quite sure where we are going.

    December 27th, 2012 2:18 pm

  33. mike

    Waiting too long to substitute a player to avoid fatigue is like waiting to drink water after you already are dehydrated. It’s too late. Substitution, like drinking water before feeling thirsty, should begin before the onset of any type of fatigue. Even two plays off in the first Q or a couple of plays off in the second Q can be critical in staving off the onset of fatigue.

    Remember, NE ran over 95 plays in the game and 62 or more in the second half, with the majority of the second half being a passing game fest.

    Rushing the passer is the most fatiguing and exhausting element of playing defensive line.

    Rotating players, especially in extened drives, is important. For several snaps in the 3rd and 4th Qs, Aldon Smith did not even get into a stance nor get off of the line of scrimmage.

    Gassed?????? YES; Fatigued????????; YES; Poor substitution??????? YES!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 27th, 2012 2:59 pm

  34. CohnZohn

    Thanks, Dennis. And happy new year to you. I’m not always such a good driver, but I try.

    December 27th, 2012 8:46 pm

  35. chris

    have to disagree with Lowells criticism of Harbaugh on this one……..Smith has been a durable player so even against Brady and the Patriots, I dont fault Harbaugh taking for granted that Justin Smith would be ok in the game. Harbaugh’s still a relatively young coach in the NFL (1+ years) so you have to assume he’ll learn from his mistake of not being more careful with an older player.

    December 27th, 2012 8:47 pm

  36. Nancy R

    I agree totally with Dave T. It matters where you put your energy and focus. A third QB wasn’t needed. Having a sub for Justin Smith in an intense offensive game makes perfect sense. Not to do so makes no sense. Sounds like a no brainer to me.

    December 29th, 2012 9:41 am

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