After an impressive 2011 season that ended one game short of the Super Bowl and an offseason that included key free-agent signings at multiple positions, it's only fair to assume the arrow is pointing up for the San Francisco 49ers.
On defense, Vic Fangio will get all 11 starters back. The only starter from last year who won't be starting is Parys Haralson. He will be replaced by the outstanding edge-rusher Aldon Smith. Smith is coming off an incredible rookie campaign that saw him tally 14 sacks.
Offensively, expect the approach to be similar, but not quite the same. Look for the 49ers to utilize their offseason additions. Randy Moss will try and give quarterback Alex Smith a consistent vertical threat, while rookie A.J. Jenkins might be best suited for the slot wide receiver job because of his good route running and ability to find the weak spot in opposing defenses zones.
San Francisco's margin of victory over the Vikings on Saturday night was a lot wider than the score indicated.
1. Chris Owusu Has a Shot
It's not logical to think the 49ers will keep more than six wide receivers on their active roster once the regular season starts, so it poses the question: Who will the six be?
One would think Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins are locks to make the final roster. Will either Kyle Williams or Tedd Ginn get the axe in favor of an undrafted player out of Stanford?
Hard to imagine, but after Owusu's first preseason performance, it might be hard to keep him off the final 53. Coming out of college, he was always known as a speed guy that can make things happen when he gets the ball in his hands.
Take a look at this 14-yard catch and run where his quickness is on full display. He caught the ball away from his body and turned up field to pick up 10 additional yards after the catch.
Leading the team in receptions and reception yards in your first live game is a nice way to see a bump in reps and playing time the following week.
2. The Run Game Is Even Better Than Last Year
With the additions of Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, the 49ers rushing attack has turned into a four-headed monster.
Averaging 127.8 yards rushing per game last season was good enough for eighth-best in the NFL. There's no reason why that number won't jump even higher in 2012. Those two backs alone should be able to grind out at least an extra 15 yards a game, which would then put them in the top five based on last year's numbers.
Every running back that touched the ball in Saturday night's game had at least one double-digit run. Jacobs has undoubtedly taken over as the short-yardage back. All of his carries came when the offense needed two yards or less to pick up the first down.
Even though Frank Gore had the night off, the backfield exploded for 160 yards rushing on 32 carries. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how carries will be distributed once Gore enters back into the lineup.
3. Coaches Weren't Pleased With the First-Team Defense
The Vikings managed only six points from their first-team offense, yet that was six points too many, according to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
He was mostly disappointed by the unacceptable busted coverage on Stephen Burton's 52-yard haul, but the poor tackling on Toby Gerhart was a little concerning as well. On Gerhart's 16-yard toss off right tackle, I counted three missed tackles on that play alone.
Here's what Fangio had to say about the first-team defense's play:
"I just think we got a little full of ourselves."
In terms of what happened on the busted coverage, it appeared as if Carlos Rodgers was expecting help over the top from safety Dashon Goldson. At the end of the play, you can see Rodgers turn his head and say something to Goldson as he walks by.
However, there is very little reason to worry about the 49ers' first-team defense. The biggest concern should be the health of outside linebacker Aldon Smith.
4. The Second-Team Defense Picked Up the Slack
The second-team defense appeared to have every thing in order, as Minnesota failed to put any points on the board once they entered the game.
Eric Bakhtiari and Perrish Cox were two players who jumped out at me. Bkhtiari had the most impressive stat line, as he finished the game with two sacks and two quarterback hits. If backup quarterback Joe Webb wasn't so slippery, he might have even notched one more sack.
Perrish Cox showed really nice athleticism on his pick at the end of the fourth quarter. The ball was poorly thrown by McLeod Bethel-Thompson, but Cox made a nice break on the ball and laid out to secure the interception.
To go along with his interception, he added four tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass deflection.
If Bakhtiari keeps impressing, he could move ahead of Cam Johnson for the backup left outside linebacker position. Not to mention he plays special teams and always seems to be around the ball when he is on the field in any capacity.
5. Scott Tolzien's the No. 3 Quarterback
Tolzien's consistent play all throughout the third quarter and into the fourth probably earned him another week as the third quarterback. And it doesn't seem as if Josh Johnson is hot on his trail either.
Johnson had this to say in response of Tolzien entering the game before him and the unofficial depth chart pecking order:
Since I’ve gotten here, it’s pretty much been that order. All I really care about is the opportunity to go out and compete and show what I can do. Whatever happens is going to happen. It’s out of my control … All I want to do is go out there, lead the offense, put good things on tape and let the chips fall where they fall. That’s the NFL.
Tolzien was 10-of-13 for for 84 yards with one interception. On the interception, the pass-rush was in his face, and it appeared as if his arm was hit, which caused the pass to wobble in the air and eventually land in Solomon Elimimian's hands.
San Francisco plays Houston Saturday night, so it will be interesting to see if Johnson's reps increase or dwindle to almost nothing.