The San Francisco 49ers made key free agency acquisitions and added some hot rookie talent during the offseason.
Now here's the question: Given the tougher 2012 schedule, can they repeat the stellar 13-3 record of 2011?
In the 2011 season, several key statistics showed some weaknesses in the 49ers' game performance. The two most notable were a low third down completion rate and a low red zone touchdown percentage. Another worrisome stat was a single completed pass to a wide receiver in the last, losing postseason game.
The 49ers added two quality receivers through free agency and a fast, sure-handed receiver from the draft. They also added a physical running back via free agency and two smaller, quicker backs from the draft.
Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A. J. Jenkins will add third down and short yardage receiving threats to take some of the pressure off of both quarterback Alex Smith and receiver Michael Crabtree. This should reduce the coverage on Crabtree and free up the rest of the receivers.
During the playoff games, Crabtree and Vernon Davis were double-covered much of the time. Crabtree was not very productive because of it although he did post one touchdown catch. Davis, one of the best active tight ends in the NFL, became the sole target for those difficult, clutch plays necessary to win the first postseason game against the Saints.
The 49ers came tantalizingly close to winning the NFC Championship—and going to the Super Bowl—in spite of these flaws.
Adding these new players to the Crabtree and Davis combo puts the number of true offensive threats at five, and considering much of the criticism of Alex Smith is because of his lack of targets, it will be interesting to see how he responds with so many competent options on board.
Smith demonstrated the ability to throw the long ball, something he has often been criticized for. But his long passes to both Davis and Ted Ginn Jr. showed his arm is functional for long as well as short passes. Consider his improvement in technique from offseason coaching and his skill should not be in question in 2012.
Add to the mix free agent running back Brandon Jacobs, a rusher with about 40 pounds on Frank Gore who can be used for the short third down plays that were rarely made during 2011. With good hands, he also is a passing threat so he will stretch defenses to prevent the wide receivers from being double-teamed.
He also provides a strong blocker to increase protection of the quarterback.
His addition makes the backfield that also includes Gore, LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter a versatile group to bedevil opposing defenses. The 49ers will have the pounding, grinding, power running game that coach John Harbaugh covets and one that former coach Mike Singletary only dreamed about.
The three games the 49ers lost during the regular season were by three, 10 and four points. By increasing third down percentage only a bit, more red zone opportunities will be available.
Defenses facing the 49ers cannot plan on covering only a couple of running backs and a couple of receiving threats. The additions to both will radically increase the planning and study time needed and make the possibility of mistakes greater.
The 49ers can then capitalize on the opposing defenses' mistakes.
Someone is going to get open, and someone is going to break a long run.
We can only guess what will happen if the red zone touchdown percentage increases significantly, which seems probable with the new talent. The schedule pits the 49ers against winning teams more often in 2012 so predicting would be guesswork anyway.
But by substituting some touchdowns for field goals made during 2011, one can guess the 49ers will have a higher average score per game than during 2011.
In 2011, the 49ers defense held high-quality teams to much lower scores than they were used to getting against other teams, something that made for their success. It would not take much of a scoring increase to make some of these games into runaway routs.
Forty-four field goals were made in 2011, an incredibly high number when balanced against touchdowns. An increase in the touchdown percentage inside the red zone would significantly improve the 49ers chances of winning games.
Predicting is always nothing more than guesses, sometimes a bit more educated than at other times. But even a jaded fan can assume that the 49ers will improve upon their 2011 season in 2012 given all the salient factors:
Stable coaching, stable personnel, experience with the playbook, a real preseason developmental period, Alex Smiths’ technical improvements, additional receiving targets, more rushing talent and deeper backups for both defense and offense will surely help San Francisco in 2012.
And this does not even touch the psychological factor of opponents facing one of the toughest defenses in the NFL.
It all makes my spine tingle. It looks like 2012 will be a great year.