The San Francisco 49ers were a proficient offense in 2011, but in their transition from year one to year two under Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco will look to make the jump to becoming an explosive offense.
The offense complemented the dominant defensive effort, and together they were able to manage a plus-28 turnover ratio last year. The Niners did a host of signature things that made them an effective team, like running the ball and being fundamentally sound. San Francisco finished last season eighth in rushing and 11th in the league in scoring (380 points).
However, in overall productivity, the 49ers were the 26th-ranked offense in 2011. The unit was also notoriously poor on third down and in the red zone. With the weapons they've added this offseason, the 49ers will be looking to extend drives which means more plays.
The Ground Attack
The 49ers produced 498 total attempts on the ground in 2011, in an offense that at times struggled to stay on the field. Progress is expected of San Francisco’s total offense, so there will be more opportunities for players to get touches in 2012.
Out of the 498 attempts, a number of them were by Alex Smith (52) and Ted Ginn Jr. (8); a collective 60 carries that should shrink with more qualified runners on board in 2012.
Between the returning players and new additions, one of the questions is if there are indeed enough carries to go around. To shed some light on the subject, the 49ers’ new-look ground game could be compared to the Saints, who feature a crowded backfield. Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram all share attempts, so distribution between four running backs is possible—just not always even.
Jacobs should get the least touches but be compensated by being more important for certain situations, on third down and in the red zone. Hunter and James could look to rotate as the primary backups to lead-man Frank Gore.
(Gore’s stats in 2011: 282 attempts for 1,211 yards.)
Gore could be looking to revert back to the 2008 and 2009 version of himself, where he had 240 and 229 attempts but churned out 1,000-yard rushing campaigns with four-plus yards per carry. Predicting Gore assumes a similar workload; he should still be a productive feature back but allow for potentially 250-plus attempts to be shared between Hunter, James and Jacobs.
Ideally, James and Hunter will share the bulk of the remaining workload with Jacobs operating as a blocker and situational player.
Hunter was a productive backup in 2011 with 112 carries, registering just under 500 yards rushing as a rookie. Hunter and James could feasibly get 100 attempts each, leaving Jacobs with 50 or so essential carries where the 49ers really need that extra horsepower.
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman could very well fall in love with their split-backs formation, where they have an opportunity to get two backs on the field at once. Furthermore, they could experiment with different personnel and route combinations according to skill set.
The Passing Game
Alex Smith had 445 passing attempts in 2011, the least by any qualified quarterback (16 starts). Even with top backs like DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart operating in a run-first offense, Cam Newton was able to throw 500-plus times in his rookie season. Smith’s attempts will increase in 2012, which means more opportunities for his playmakers to get their hands on the football.
With more firepower on the outside, Smith will also be throwing against less eight-man fronts. And we were presented with evidence last year that if he has protection, Smith can make pinpoint throws. He protected the ball extremely well in 2011, and by taking what the defense gave him, he executed at the highest level of his career.
Smith, as a proficient quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over, will help this offense excel now that it has suitable playmakers in place.
The consensus is that Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree will be slotted as the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers heading into Week 1. In terms of skill set, Moss and Crabtree are the ideal one-two punch as flanker and split end receivers.
Randy Moss adds a whole new dimension—he’s going to take the top off defenses and inevitably make this a higher-scoring offense. All of the reports, via Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, say he’s rejuvenated and inspired, even reporting to 49ers training camp a day early.
Moss should wow us in 2012, especially if he serious about winning a championship before he calls it a career. The 49ers will face the league's highest-scoring offenses, and will no doubt be leaning on Moss to help them score against teams like New England, New Orleans and Green Bay.
Between five and eight touchdowns for Moss is reasonable, but he's no stranger to double-digit scores in a single season.
Michael Crabtree is also expected to take a leap as a pro, assuming the split end role and taking on lesser-skilled cornerbacks (via Will Brinson, CBSSports.com).
Crabtree appears to have the most advanced chemistry with quarterback Alex Smith, as No. 15 was the leading receiver for the 49ers in 2011. Crabtree is in a position to succeed this year and provide the 49ers with a much-needed possession receiver, while Moss stretches the field.
The 49ers are also expected to rotate a number of other receivers, including Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Jenkins. In sets featuring three-plus wide receivers, 49ers fans will be able to get a glimpse of the overall depth and athleticism of a revamped receiving corps.
The 49ers will also have the evolving dynamic between Alex Smith and Vernon Davis to build around. That has been the central focus of their passing offense, but it will finally be expanded upon with outside threats. This will ultimately make the middle of the field more vulnerable to gashes by Davis, who like Moss, has freakish athletic ability.
The unit should feel more comfortable taking shots down field and manipulating coverages with their super-athletic playmakers on offense.
The Trick Plays
The 49ers had a number of a trick plays under the new Greg Roman-run offense. The new system and style of play-calling from the staff has proven to be one of the more creative ones in the league.
One of San Francisco’s trick plays in 2011 that worked to perfection occurred in Week 17. The 49ers lined up for a field goal; David Akers took the direct snap from Brian Jennings and threw to a wide open Michael Crabtree, who had drifted to the sideline, walking in for a touchdown.
More of a special teams trick play than an offensive one, but since it involved Michael Crabtree, it's worth noting.
On offense, the 49ers executed a number of designed runs for Alex Smith—one of the more notable ones was a 28-yard touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional playoffs.
San Francisco also experimented with direct handoffs to Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams as well as Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. 49ers offensive coordinator and primary play-caller, Roman, sees worth in misdirection and outsmarting one's opponent. Trick plays are also very much about timing, of which the Niners' OC seems to have a firm grasp.
The value of the trick plays was to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers and to catch defenses off-guard.
With new players like LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Randy Moss—all of whom have unique physical abilities—the 49ers could be drawing up trick plays specifically designed to utilize their skill set. In a shortened league year, the Niners still experimented with elaborate trick plays; entering their first full offseason under Harbaugh, 49ers fans can expect to see more of the same in 2012.
San Francisco will be innovative, methodical and explosive on offense in 2012. It will be a no-nonsense, by-any-means-necessary approach to putting the football in the end zone. While they will make it fun for their guys on offense, the 49ers are serious about becoming a feared offense, instead of constantly relying on their generous defense to bail them out.
The players have bought into the idea that there is a Super Bowl-caliber team in place, and it's up to them to seize it.