5 Mistakes Jim Harbaugh Must Avoid in Year Two
The San Francisco 49ers surprised the football world in 2011, finishing the season with a 13-3 record and advancing to the NFC championship game. The 49ers ultimately lost that game to the New York Giants, but they served notice that they will be a team to be reckoned with in 2012.
Head coached Jim Harbaugh led a miraculous transformation of the 49ers from a perennial loser to a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The job will be much tougher in 2012, however.
The 49ers will no longer be under-the-radar and able to sneak up on people. They are now the hunted and will get the complete focus and attention of their opponents.
The 49ers had one of the easiest schedules in the league last year. In 2012, they will have one of the toughest, as they will face many of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning.
The 49ers return their entire starting defense, which was second in the league in fewest points allowed. In addition, the 49ers made several offseason moves in the draft and via free agency to bolster their offense.
The job for Harbaugh and his coaching staff will be quite different in 2012. Let's take a look at five key mistakes Harbaugh must avoid in order to reach their goals this season.
5) Do Not Over Utilize The Front Seven On Defense
The San Francisco 49ers had the second rated defense in terms of fewest points allowed in the NFL last season. The 49ers allowed 229 points, an average of 14.3 points per game. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers were better, allowing 227 points, 14.2 points per game.
The 49ers' defense against the run was the top rated defense in the league. They allowed only 77.3 yards per game on the ground, over 15 yards lower than Baltimore, the next closest team.
In 2011, outside of Aldon Smith who frequently played in place of Parys Haralson, the 49ers played their starters on defense almost exclusively. Defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga started and played in 15 games. Defensive end Justin Smith started and played in every game.
The starting three defensive linemen also played almost every defensive snap. The 49ers were fortunate to not incur any serious injuries along the defensive line, but it's hard to believe they can dodge the injury bug again.
Linebacker Patrick Willis missed three games due to an ankle injury, but outside of that, the linebacker corps was also very healthy. Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman will start in their customary positions. The only major change to the 49ers' defense will be Aldon Smith starting ahead of Haralson.
The 49ers' front seven was outstanding last year. However, they are shooting for the playoffs and a Super Bowl run, so it will be critical for the front seven to be healthy, come playoff time.
In order to keep the defensive linemen and linebackers fresh, I believe that the 49ers must use their reserves a little bit more in 2012. Added rest for the starters will benefit them in the long run and it will give Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio a greater chance to develop the reserves.
Harbaugh must resist the temptation to over-utilize his defensive starters. When the 49ers get a decent lead in the second half, it would be wise to allow some of the backups to have more playing time. This will benefit the team in many ways.
4) Under No Circumstances Should Kyle Williams Be Returning Punts
Kyle Williams committed two costly turnovers in the NFC championship game against New York. Both of Williams' gaffes came when he was trying to return a punt.
However, more than just those two mistakes is the fact that there were several other near misses earlier in the season. Williams took unnecessary chances and also almost let the ball hit him on other occasions.
Under no circumstances should Jim Harbaugh put Kyle Williams back to return punts.
3) Keep Frank Gore Fresh for the Playoffs
Frank Gore is and has been the leader of the 49ers' offense. He will be entering his eighth NFL season and is 29 years old.
Gore likes to be the focal point of the offense and feels he can carry the ball as often as the team needs him to. His prior two head coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary literally rode Gore into the ground. He sustained a season-ending injury in 2010, in the 11th game of the year.
In 2011, Gore had a tremendous rebound of a season. He rushed for 1,211 yards on 282 carries, a 4.3 average. Gore would carry the ball on every down if he felt that would help the team.
The 49ers added Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James to their stable of running backs this past offseason. Kendall Hunter, who backed up Gore last season is also back.
Harbaugh will want to employ all of his new assets, so the likelihood of Gore carrying the ball as much as in years past is very remote. It will be up to Harbaugh to make Gore understand that this is best for the team.
The 49ers need a healthy and happy Frank Gore for the post season. By easing up on his workload, it will give Gore the best chance to remain fresh and healthy for the playoffs.
San Francisco 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh instilled a positive and productive work ethic into his team last year. He must maintain the 49ers' work ethic, focus and resolve, in order for the 49ers to be contenders once again.
Complacency is the one devil that has derailed many top teams. The 49ers must avoid complacency and continue to improve throughout the season.
Harbaugh is a driven individual and sometimes his zeal can get him into trouble with the officials. He will need to keep things fresh, yet productive, in order to get the most out of his players.
1) Do Not Place Too Many Expectations On Alex Smith
Alex Smith had a break-out season under head coach Jim Harbaugh. The 49ers then went out and acquired several new offensive players via free agency and the draft. These include Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs, A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James.
The 49ers' offense promises to be much more explosive this year. The key for Harbaugh and his staff will be not to put too much of a burden on Alex Smith to carry the team.
Smith was very successful in 2011, as he completed a career high 61.3 percent of his passes. Smith also threw for a career high of 3,144 yards. His 17 touchdown passes against only five interceptions was outstanding.
The key for Harbaugh and the 49ers will be Smith's continued growth and development. One thing Harbaugh must be careful of is putting the onus to win games on the shoulders of Alex Smith. It remains to be seen if Smith can respond positively to that pressure on a consistent basis.
The 49ers have an excellent defense and a good running game. Although they will definitely open it up more on offense in 2012, Harbaugh will not want to lose the identity he has cultivated in this team.
I look for Smith to continue in his development and by the end of the season, he should be much more confident of his role as a game-changer and play-maker.
The Goal Is A Super Bowl For The 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are unlikely to win 13 games this year, as their schedule is much tougher. However, they are the best team in the NFC West and should be able to win their division and advance to the playoffs.
The home field advantage the 49ers enjoyed in the 2011 playoffs will be much tougher to come by. Nevertheless, the 2012 version of the 49ers should be a more solid team than last year.
The 49ers' advancement throughout the playoffs could come down to the leg of David Akers. If that's the case, it bodes very well for Harbaugh and his team.
The 49ers are poised to get to the Super Bowl. Anything less will be a disappointment.