Already you can hear the grinding among the foundations of NFL teams. That’s the sound of the league grinding toward a defense-first philosophy.
Despite the 2011 NFL season being proclaimed as the Year of the Quarterback (Rodgers, Brees, Brady), of the Tight End (Gronkowski, Fernandez, Graham, et al) and even of the Big Play Receiver (Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, Andre Johnson when healthy), there has been a tectonic shift to defense.
Note that Atlanta hired a new defensive coordinator, that the new coach in Tampa Bay prefers a disciplined, defense-oriented approach, and that Indianapolis and Oakland, two offense-first franchises, have opted for defensive-minded coaches.
That may be one indirect impact the 49ers had on the NFL.
Coach Jim Harbaugh proved that a strong, consistent defense and great special teams can be enough to lift a moderately dangerous offense that cuts down on mistakes to victory. Of course, the long-term success of the Steelers and the Ravens, two defense-first teams, predates this trend.
Consider the following stats from the NFC Championship.
The 49ers converted only one of 13 first downs in the game. But in the second half, both defenses become dominant. Eli Manning in the last two quarters and overtime hit on 16-of-31 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. Alex Smith, who many consider way below Manning’s talent level, was 10-of-19 for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Defenses ruled. The two Kyle Williams turnovers ultimately were the difference.
The Niners beating an amazingly strong offense in the New Orleans Saints the previous week probably provided the impetus for NFL general managers to re-assess want they want from their teams.
And perhaps that’s why you see all these teams shift their philosophy to defense-first.
And now that the Niners, outside their NFC West opponents, have the Packers, the Vikings, Bears, Lions, Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Giants and Saints on their schedule, it goes without saying that Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will concentrate on their strengths while keeping an eye on their needs to succeed in 2012.
Here are five players that will bring about roster changes for the 2012 49ers.
It’s Rodgers, but that list also includes Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford. Three of those five in 2011 threw for more than 5,000 yards, and Rodgers came very close. That’s pretty much every “elite” QB in the NFL.
The Niners in 2011 played well against proficient pass-first teams like the Eagles, the Lions and the Saints by getting pressure from its front four and dropping seven.
But even that doesn’t work all that well at times. In light of the Niners success in 2011, opposing teams will prepare better for the defensive schemes of Vic Fangio.
But the team will have to consider securing what it has.
Seattle’s Marcus Trufant is good on press coverage. That might add a little more spice to the defense and help in Fangio’s “man-under” coverages against slot receivers like Victor Cruz, Wes Welker and Jermichael Finley.
This may seem a little much, since Peterson suffered a major knee injury late in the season. But even if Peterson doesn’t suit up for the Vikings when they come to Candlestick Park next season, the Niners will face top-notch runners in Fred Jackson, Marhsawn Lynch, Beanie Wells and Steven Jackson, all of whom finished in the top 15 in rushing yards.
The Niners defensive line seems pretty well set, but with Justin Smith approaching his mid-30s, it seems that another first-rate interior defensive lineman might be on their draft board.
Someone like Fletcher Cox of Mississippi (6’4”, 295 lbs), who runs the 40 in under five seconds, comes to mind.
That gives the Niners more flexibility in being able to rest Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and move Ray McDonald around, all in an effort to maintain their effectiveness over the long haul.
The critics haven’t hit Crabtree that hard after the loss to the Giants game. And it would be difficult to imagine him being a game-breaker against the solid Giants defense when he had no one else, other than Vernon Davis, to draw attention away from him.
Many of the Niners' big plays during the year came on short throws that went for big yards. There were relatively few deep throws down the sidelines—notwithstanding Crabtree’s catch late against Seattle in December and, in the playoffs, Davis’ fourth-quarter grab against the Saints and his first-quarter catch against the Giants.
The Niners need a sure-handed, fast and big receiver, someone who can stretch the zones from the slot position. This is the position that cries for the most attention on the 49ers offense, but here’s where Harbaugh and Baalke have to be smart.
The addition of big-name free agents like Vincent Jackson of the Chargers and DeSean Jackson of the Eagles will be tossed out there among the NFL airwaves, but I feel that the Niners will give neither a sniff.
Too selfish, too much into themselves.
Here’s where the Niners hope to land a Dwight Jones of North Carolina (pictured) or Alshon Jeffrey from South Carolina. Both are big receivers who can run. The latter is good for stretching the zones to allow single coverage for Crabtree, while the former is essential for sitting down in the intermediate range, which is Alex Smith’s best range.
Kendall Hunter filled in nicely as a change-of-pace back, but there were times when he just didn’t have the heft to cut through some narrow lanes on the perimeter. At the same time, he did fairly well in pass protection, though it’s safe to say that he’s not a full-time back.
With Gore working through ankle and knee injuries whose severity was never really revealed, as well with him coming off a hip injury in 2010, there’s much to question. The Niners are built on running and controlling the ball. Having a full-strength back, who can run in the middle but still catch, is must.
Even backup Anthony Dixon can’t do it all.
That’s why the Niners might want to look hard and long at Michael Bush, the free agent out of Oakland (pictured). He’s strong, big and can catch. He’s a faster, bigger Gore with the same level of hands. At the same time, Gore is a freak at getting under the defense for those last two, three yards that often brings a first down.
Bush would be a strong addition, if he's not too expensive.
He proved to be quite valuable on special teams, as he is one of the best at returning punts and kicks. His injury in the playoffs turned out to be critical. His punt-return and kickoff-return average totaled nearly 40 yards, by far the best in the NFL.
But he missed five games.
His asset as a receiver is his speed, and though he is said to have not the best hands, he did make a great play on a TD catch against Baltimore that was called back due to penalty.
Nonetheless, the Niners need to add more speed.
And looking back at Kyle Williams’ two critical plays versus the Giants in the NFC Championship, the first was a bonehead play; the latter was him hustling to try to make a play. Remember, he had 85 yards on three kickoff returns.
How the Niners handle this critical position remains one of the larger issues in the offseason.