The 49ers relied on an elite defense, a game managing (for the most part) quarterback and the leg of David Akers to carry them to one step shy of the Super Bowl.
This season, Harbaugh has set about improving the aspects of his team which caused them to fall short in the NFC Championship to the New York Giants. For various reasons, I believe that Jim Harbaugh is a very observant coach and this offseason so far has only given me another reason to believe that.
Harbaugh, in my estimation, has looked at how the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last year, beating his side on the way, and taken the best aspects of their success to implement into and improve his offense.
By that, I don't mean find a Manning to lead the team, although that would help and he also is trying to. By that, I mean looking at what ultimately made the difference for the Giants during their Super Bowl run.
The Giants relied on two very integral aspects on defense and offense.
Defensively, the 49ers already have what the Giants have, a ferocious pass rush. While Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Co. may not be as good as Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Chris Canty, they are definitely not far behind.
It is on the offensive side of the ball where Harbaugh has had to make changes.
Last year, the 49ers offense relied on a systematic offense which afforded their quarterback the comfort and safety to run a simple offense. Vernon Davis was the team's most explosive option playing the tight end position while Harbaugh regularly settled for field goals opposed to trying to put the ball in the end zone.
Unlike the 49ers, the New York Giants were one of the most aggressive offenses in the NFL as they specialized in throwing the ball vertically down the field.
While Victor Cruz received a lot of praise for his performances in the slot last year, it was Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham's efforts to stretch defenses that afforded Cruz the space to work in and ultimately made the difference in the playoffs.
Nicks, with his speed and size, consistently cut of chunks of yardage throughout the playoffs with three 100 yard games in four outings. In the Super Bowl, Nicks had 100 yards, but was forced to do so with 10 receptions because of the double teams he received.
The Patriots, like the 49ers, forced Manning to throw to Nicks underneath because he entered their games after averaging over 20 yards per reception in the first two playoff games. Those two games amounted to nearly 300 yards receiving.
The problem defenses had in facing the Giants, which they didn't have when they faced the 49ers, was the multitude of weapons that could beat you with one play. While Cruz was better at chipping away at defenses consistently, the team's other starter on the outside also looked to use a cleaver rather than bread knife.
Mario Manningham, the Giants other starter on the outside, had an injury hit season last year but finished it in a flurry. Manningham's two huge receptions in the Super Bowl, one going for 38 yards, showed off just how explosive he could be.
Bill Belichick wanted to force the ball to go towards Manningham because of the talent of Cruz and Nicks, but the reality is, Belichick didn't do that because he believed Manningham was a poor receiver. He did it because he had no choice but to pick his poison.
While Harbaugh is trying to diversify his offense, and attain a more aggressive approach similar to the way the Giants play the game, he was fortunate that Manningham became a free agent this off-season.
The 49ers got their man by signing Manningham this past week, but they also made another notable signing by bringing in Randy Moss.
With Moss, Manningham, Kyle Williams and to an extent Michael Crabtree, the 49ers receiving corp will now threaten defenses deep on multiple levels. A combination of Moss and Manningham on the outside, with tight end Vernon Davis and Williams/Crabtree inside, the 49ers offense should be looking for more than field goals next year.
One thing is for certain, if the 49ers bring in Peyton Manning, they may have one more thing in common with the Giants by this time next year...
That time I'm definitely not talking about the names of their quarterbacks.
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