49er linebacker Patrick Willis
Included among the many reasons for the unexpected success of the resurgent San Francisco 49ers are such obvious points as the dominant play of the defensive front four, the speed of Patrick Willis and the other 49er linebackers, Alex Smith's careful management of the offense and avoidance of turnovers, the superb special teams play and kicking game, etc.
In addition to these reasons, however, there are at least a few contributing factors that have not been as widely discussed, but which have made and may continue to make a positive difference. Four of these are discussed below.
Forcing a fumble against the Cleveland Browns
There has been much discussion of the sensational turnover ratio—33 take-aways against five turnovers— put up by the 49ers during the 2011 regular season. That ratio, tied with the 2010 New England Patriots for second-best in history, certainly has much to do with the team's success this year.
What hasn't been as widely acknowledged, however, is how astounding it is that this ratio has been achieved by perhaps the most sure-tackling defense in the NFL. Often, when tacklers focus on stripping the football, they fail to wrap up as quickly or effectively as they ordinarily would, which can lead to missed tackles.
The 49ers, however, manage to dislodge the football while still making a very high percentage of clean, fast tackles. This rare talent was on prominent display in Saturday's division championship game against the New Orleans Saints, in which the 49ers forced three fumbles while missing only a very few tackles.
Anthony Davis in pass protection
In the preseason and the first few regular season games, as sacks of Alex Smith proliferated and the running game didn't do much, the 49er fanbase vented online, castigating the O-line in general and Anthony Davis in particular as inadequate. The crescendo of criticism ultimately grew so insistent that Joe Staley, the line's leader, had to speak up, declaring memorably in Week 4 that the line "didn't suck."
Now, as the 14-3 49ers prepare to face the Giants in the conference championship game, it has become apparent that Staley was right, that the line doesn't suck, and that the much-maligned Davis has become a solid NFL tackle.
While still prone to the occasional mistake in pass protection—he is after all only 22 years old with much still to learn—Davis has shown vast improvement in handling power rushers, and is steadily improving against speed rushers as well.
In addition, Davis, huge at 6'5" and 323 pounds, has been instrumental in the rushing game, helping the 49ers to feature the No. 8 rushing attack in football. He has exactly the right level of "mean streak" you want in a tackle, a characteristic suggested by his memorable Twitter profile: "I'm from NJ..I went to Rutgers University..I’m a SF 49er.. I kick ass for a living..."
49er Head Coach Jim Harbaugh
All last season, and early this season, the 49ers were plagued by poor clock management, and more specifically, by a seeming inability to get plays in to Alex Smith on a timely basis. This resulted in delay of game penalties or, in order to avoid such penalties, wasted timeouts.
While this situation wasn't terribly surprising given the fact that the 49er coaching staff, like the players, didn't have the benefit of a full preseason to get their timing down, the delays and occasional penalties made matters harder for an offensive unit that struggles to score points in the best of circumstances.
Over the last half of the season, however, the 49ers appear to have addressed this problem and, for the most part, resolved it. As a result, there have been fewer delay penalties over the last eight games, and fewer forced timeouts.
While the problem hasn't been resolved completely—as demonstrated by the delay of game penalty called on the 49ers on a key 3rd-and-3 situation in the second half of the divisional playoff game against the Saints—it has improved, and that has at least in part contributed to a more efficient functioning of the 49ers offense.
Jim Harbaugh making a point with the officials
While turnovers are perhaps the principal means by which NFL teams beat themselves, there are many other methods as well, penalties among them. In this regard, the 49ers have not compiled a sterling record, as they commit an average of 6.8 penalties per game, ranking them 25th in the NFL.
While that doesn't come close to the level of misconduct achieved by the miscreant Oakland Raiders—an astounding 10.2 penalties per game, last in the league—it isn't exactly what the coaches want to see, and that at times has stifled promising offensive drives.
There is some reason for optimism, however, particularly in the context of the upcoming conference championship game against the New York Giants. For one thing, over the last three games, the 49ers have committed fewer penalties, averaging 4.7 per game, 12th in the NFL.
Moreover, while the 49ers have been positively felonious on the road, committing an average of 8.0 penalties a game—30th in the league—they have committed an average of only 5.8 penalties per game at home, good for 15th in the league. Not great, but better.
If the 49ers can continue recent trends and also continue to minimize their penalties at home, that will be still one more tangible benefit of the home-field advantage they will enjoy against the Giants.