San Francisco 49ers' 5 Biggest Advantages over Every NFC West Team
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With a talent-laden, yet unproven roster, the San Francisco 49ers ran through their NFC West opponents in 2011.
This is not to say that road was any sort of a cakewalk; their 5-1 record certainly did not do justice to the competitiveness of all but two matchups.
However, the 49ers owned certain key advantages over the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams that will carry over in 2012. A highly-ranked run defense, pass rush and special teams, among others, comprise the strong suits for the Red and Gold.
Those favorable assets helped facilitate a winning record then, and should do so again now.
Let’s now delve into the five biggest advantages the 49ers hold over the NFC West.
Justin Smith (No. 29) showing a helpless Chester Taylor how it's done.
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We might as well begin with the most obvious, yet strongest advantage.
The 49ers in 2011 earned the mark of the NFL’s No. 1 ranked rushing defense. They held the opposition to a measly 3.5 yards per attempt, 77.3 yards per game and only three touchdowns all season.
In fact, this record-breaking unit didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher or rushing TD until Week 16. The first portion of that streak actually extended back to Week 11 of 2009.
Opponents simply couldn’t mount any sort of a rushing attack—it just wasn’t worth it.
Fans should not expect anything different in 2012; the 49ers return all 11 defensive starters.
The Arizona Cardinals ranked 24th in rushing offense last year and will not field anything substantially better this year. Beanie Wells had a fine year (1,047 yards, 10 TDs), but remains the only threat. Arizona is a team geared for the pass and will not harbor any notions of attempting to run against the 49ers’ D.
At 23rd in the league in rushing, the St. Louis Rams were hardly better. On the one hand, perennial 1,000-yard back Stephen Jackson is no easy assignment. He also received some backup in the form of the dynamic Isaiah Pead out of Cincinnati.
However, the Rams’ passing game is still a question mark with the injury-prone Sam Bradford and with first-year players forming the top-receiving threats.
Point being, St. Louis will be too one sided toward the run and thus predictable in that regard.
Seattle, meanwhile, represents the greatest threat to the 49ers’ stonewall defense. Beast Mode Marshawn Lynch was the man who broke San Francisco’s streak of preventing runners from gaining 100 yards or reaching the end zone. He’ll figure as a legitimate force once again in 2012. Fourth-round pick Robert Turbin strengthens the ‘Hawks’ rushing attack as well.
Even so, the ‘Hawks will not overcome the 49ers’ merciless rushing defense on a consistent basis.
Overall, they own a distinct advantage over its NFC West foes with their impenetrable D.
Aldon Smith (No. 99) and Dashon Goldson (No. 38) smashing QB John Skelton into the turf.
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I’ll maintain some objectivity by noting that the 49ers’ offensive line ranked 25th in their effectiveness in protecting the quarterback.
To their credit, they ranked above the remaining NFC West clubs. Only one team (Miami) failed at preventing sacks as proficiently as the ‘Hawks, Cardinals and Rams.
Each occupied the dregs of the bottom-four, allowing no fewer than 50 total sacks by opposing rushers.
The Niners in 2011 tied for seventh in the league with 42 defensive sacks. Rookie sensation Aldon Smith was a veritable wrecking ball, bull rushing his way to 14 quarterback takedowns.
San Francisco’s pass rush, though, was very well balanced. Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks each tallied seven-plus sacks and Ray McDonald had 5.5. Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Parys Haralson and Larry Grant each had two.
All of these men will showcase their skills yet again in 2011.
As for the state of the offensive lines for the Niners’ NFC West foes, all look to remain just as susceptible to the pass rush. The Seahawks did not address this need in the draft and merely added Deuce Lutui as a depth filler.
The 49ers will feast.
Arizona could potentially field a bolstered O-line with fourth-round tackle Bobbie Massie. However, he’s still an undeveloped rookie facing the task of the 49ers’ tenacious defense. Plus, the Cardinals signed former 49er Adam Snyder (76th-rated guard according to Pro Football Focus) and re-upped left tackle Levi Brown, one of the lower-ranked left tackles in the league.
Both were highly dubious moves.
The Rams were purely atrocious in pass protection last season. Let the 55 sacks allowed serve as evidence.
Veteran center Scott Wells was a phenomenal pickup, but the team did little else to rectify this glaring weakness. Bringing in right tackle Barry Richardson may actually make them worse. Sam Bradford could be in for another rough assignment.
Only the Seahawks have a sufficient running game to counteract the 49ers onslaught of pass-rushers. After a full offseason for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to diversify his playbook, expect a much more potent attack from his unit’s sack artists.
Lights-out Special Teams
In the interest of keeping things succinct, San Francisco’s special teams unit dominated the NFL last season.
K David Akers and P Andy Lee broke records in blasting footballs through the uprights and pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Akers could be counted on from any distance, while both helped their team secure some of the best starting field position and giving some of the worst to the opposition in 2011.
The Tony Montana Squad was a tenacious group in coverage as well.
An aspect of this area of the 49ers not to be forgotten is the bevy of return specialists on the roster. Ted Ginn and Co. led the team last year to a league-best kick-return average of 27.2 yards and a top-five punt return average of 12.4 yards.
Ginn also ran back both types of kicks for scores. Seahawk fans might want to hide their eyes before reading that last statement.
Now the 49ers feature LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins in their repertoire—simply two additional dynamic returners.
Renowned special teams coach Brad Seely will have this group atop the NFC West—and NFL for that matter—again in 2012.
Gore rushes towards his 83-yard total on the afternoon against the 'Hawks.
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In light of all the 49ers’ offseason acquisitions, casual observers wouldn’t have any reason to believe this team ranked in the top-eight in rushing offense. They’d think just the opposite.
And they certainly wouldn’t think the team already features the league’s sixth-most productive rusher in Frank Gore, with a dynamic Kendall Hunter backing him up.
Concerning the new arrivals, signing the 6’4’’, 250-plus Brandon Jacobs brings a bruising power element to the 49ers’ inefficiency in the red zone and short-yardage situations.
Second-round home run threat LaMichael James offers otherworldly speed, vision and underrated toughness. He’ll make the 49ers’ second-worst third-down conversion percentage a thing of the past. His usefulness in creative sub-packages will serve as yet another dimension to the offense.
A powerful run-blocking group comprises the offensive line as well. The new additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham—combined with tight end Vernon Davis—will stretch the field, thereby keeping defenses honest and opening up rushing lanes underneath.
St. Louis sported the NFL’s 31st-ranked rushing defense in 2011. Its star defensive ends in Jake Long and James Hall both excelled as pass-rushers, but the former ranked dead last against the run for his position (per Pro Football Focus).
The slew of veteran acquisitions in the front seven will not improve the Rams in this department either. DE Williams Hayes, DT Kendall Langford, DT Trevor Laws and OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar are not accomplished run defenders. Only CB Cortland Finnegan and first-round pick Michael Brockers (DT) will help stifle the Niner running backs.
Last season, the 49ers racked up 164 yards on the ground in the first meeting against the Cards. Frank Gore followed that up with a 37-yard TD run and 7.1 yards per carry in the second game. Although Arizona’s defense improved mightily down the stretch, the revamped RB corps for the 49ers will exploit their tendency to give up big runs (15 TDs, 11 20-plus yard gains allowed).
It didn’t do much to help itself in the offseason.
Seattle is the one NFC West team with a fairly stout rushing D. It surrendered just 3.8 yards per carry to opposing backs, good for third-lowest in the league. Andre Branch and Brandon Mebane highlight an extremely stingy front-four. The 49ers’ front line will have its hands full, but the speed backs in Hunter and James will exploit the ‘Hawks’ linebackers until reaching the formidable secondary.
One need not look any further than Gore and Hunter's 156-yard combined output against said defense during a December win.
By and large, the 49ers will pound the rock successfully with a complementary running-back foursome, aided by a massive offensive line and wideouts who will create space.
Jim Harbaugh didn’t win 2011 NFL Coach of the Year for nothing.
He transformed a perennially losing club with a decade-long playoff absence into a 13-3 winning team that nearly made it to the Super Bowl.
Oh, and he accomplished this seemingly miraculous feat in his first year on the job—without any sort of an offseason training program or the ability to actually speak to his players.
Harbaugh convinced a first-round bust of a quarterback that he actually was a legitimate NFL-starter. He not only convinced, but comprehensively facilitated Alex Smith’s rise to a 17-TD, five-INT quarterback who lead epic comebacks under the biggest spotlight.
With the help of Vic Fangio, he realized the existing talent on defense, and with a few added pieces, molded a group into one of the league’s most preeminent, feared and technically-sound defensive units.
He also brought in Greg Roman, a coordinator that extracted enough winning production from an otherwise impotent offensive group. The 49ers No. 11 ranking in scoring but 26th in total offense helps corroborate that assertion.
Along with the aforementioned Brad Seely, this entire coaching staff (including the many special members not mentioned) will now push this 49ers team to even greater heights in 2012.
They’ll advance a new measure of creativity on all sides of the ball not seen since the days of the legendary Bill Walsh. Aerial attack, misdirection, ground-and-pound, punishing and sophisticated defense—even the special teams contingent will operate at level far behind other NFL squads.
Yes, the Cardinals’ Ken Whisenhunt is an accomplished coach with a Vince Lombardi trophy to his name as an offensive coordinator with the Steelers. Yes, the Rams brought in Jeff Fisher, a man with a Super Bowl trophy and nearly 25 years of NFL coaching experience.
But neither coach is Jim Harbaugh; neither motivates, leads or realizes the potential in players as well as the 49ers head man. Even though they have succeeded in the past, neither opposing coach inspires the love nor respect from his men like Harbaugh does with his blue-collar, players-first mentality.
Mr. Pete Carroll has known for years that he cannot defeat Jim Harbaugh, whether in the NCAA level or the pros.
Now it’s time for the man perpetually clothed in a 49ers-embroided black sweater and khaki pants to begin establishing his presence over the other NFC West coaches.
Harbaugh and Co. have the upper hand. Their counterparts will realize that soon enough.
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