San Francisco 49ers Blueprint for Winning the Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers surprised the NFL last year when they went 13-3 in the regular season and came within a couple of botched punts from going to the Super Bowl. Head coach Jim Harbaugh will not allow the 49ers to rest on their laurels and he has the team poised for another excellent season.
2012 will be a lot tougher than 2011, however. The 49ers play a much more difficult schedule and will face the top quarterbacks in the league this season. The 49ers will be tasked with finding a way to slow down the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tom Brady.
In addition, the 49ers will no longer be able to sneak up on teams like they did last year. The league is fully aware that the 49ers are a team to be reckoned with. The task will be much tougher in 2012, but that's not to say it can't be done.
Let's look at ten key areas and things that must go right for the 49ers to reach their goal of a world championship.
10. The 49ers Must Stay Relatively Healthy
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers stayed remarkably healthy. The only major injury was to wide receiver Joshua Morgan, who was forced to miss the entire season after getting injured in the fifth game of the year.
Both lines stayed healthy and although there were a few nicks here and there, the 49ers were able to avoid long-term injuries to their key players. The odds of this happening again are slim.
If the 49ers hope to achieve maximum success, they must avoid the injury bug as much as possible. Unfortunately, they have already been severely bitten; linebacker Parys Haralson is out for the season after tearing a muscle in his arm.
Linebacker Darius Fleming, the 49ers' fifth-round draft pick, tore his ACL in minicamp back in May and his season is also in jeopardy.
The 49ers also missed pass-rushing specialist and linebacker Aldon Smith for the final three preseason games due to injury. Smith is expected to start against Green Bay, but we won't know about his effectiveness or stamina until he gets in there.
The 49ers were so worried about their thin outside linebacker corps that they signed veteran linebacker Clark Haggans off the waiver wire, after they had trimmed their roster down to the 53-man limit.
Injuries to a club's top players can derail even the best of teams. The 49ers are no exception and must stay healthy in order to make a real run at the Super Bowl.
9. The 49ers' Passing Attack Must Improve
The San Francisco 49ers made several moves to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason. Tight end Vernon Davis is one of the best in the league, but the wide receivers sorely under-performed in 2011.
Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn return and will be joined by three newcomers. Randy Moss heads the list as the future Hall of Famer who will start opposite Crabtree. Moss gives the 49ers a deep threat that can stretch the field and open up the underneath routes for Davis, Crabtree and others.
Mario Manningham was signed as a free agent after helping to lead the New York Giants to a win over the 49ers in the NFC title game. Manningham was also a key contributor to the Giants' Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.
The 49ers also selected wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first-round pick in the most recent NFL draft. Jenkins has shown some positive flashes and had his best game in the 49ers' final preseason game against the San Diego Chargers.
The 49er receivers were held to just one catch for three yards in the NFC Championship game. They were unable to get open against the Giants' tough press coverage. General manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh have vowed not to let that sort of thing happen again.
By bringing in Moss, Manningham and Jenkins, the 49ers have dramatically strengthened an area of weakness. This will give quarterback Alex Smith several other options as opposed to just focusing on Davis and Crabtree.
I believe the key to the 49ers improving their aerial attack is the offensive line. This unit is very strong in run-blocking but has had some issues protecting the quarterback.
In order for Smith to be successful, the offensive line must give him time to throw. Smith has worked diligently on improving his throwing mechanics this offseason and his accuracy is much improved. If the line protects him, I have no doubt that the 49ers' passing attack will be much improved.
The 49ers will undoubtedly want to unleash their new-look offense and increased firepower in the passing game.
8. Continue to Win the Turnover Battle
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers were an amazing plus-28 in the turnover battle. This led the league and was a big reason the 49ers went 13-3 during the regular season.
Offensively, quarterback Alex Smith threw 17 touchdown passes against only five interceptions. In addition, the 49ers held onto the ball and did not give it away very often, until the fateful NFC title game.
The 49ers' defense was extremely adept at stripping opposing players of the ball and very opportunistic in recovering those fumbles. In addition, the 49ers' defensive secondary was aided by a strong pass rush and did a great job with takeaways. Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers each snared six interceptions for the 49ers.
The 49ers will again need to have a solid plus-figure in turnover margin this coming season. It will be very tough to achieve a plus-28, but if they can at least be around plus-16 that would still provide a much-needed boost.
7. Outstanding Special Teams Play
The San Francisco 49ers' special teams play in 2011 was outstanding. Special teams coach Brad Seely put together excellent coverage units and this helped the 49ers generally win the battle for field position.
A couple of personnel moves surprised me, as the 49ers cut Rock Cartwright and traded Colin Jones, two top special teams performers. I expected Cartwright to take a leadership role on special teams, much like Blake Costanzo did in 2011. It will be up to Seely to find suitable replacements for the coverage groups.
Ted Ginn did a good job on both kickoff and punt returns, but problems did arise when he was out due to injury. Ginn is on the roster to start 2012, but again, he has been bothered by nagging injuries. It remains to be seen if he will be able to play against the Packers in the opener.
If Ginn cannot go, Kyle Williams or LaMichael James will be his likely replacement. Both have been shaky in terms of hanging on to the football. The 49ers can ill-afford to turn the ball over on special teams.
Place kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee are two of the best in the league at their craft. Both earned First Team All-Pro honors this past season.
Akers set NFL records for most field goals and most points in a single season. Lee had the highest punting average in the league last year, also.
Special teams was an area where the 49ers usually gained a clear advantage against their opponents last season. They will need to do this again in 2012.
6. The Running Game Must Continue to Be Productive
Jim Harbaugh has the reputation as a master of the passing game, which is somewhat true, but where he really excels is in building a strong ground attack. Harbaugh knows that a big key to winning games is to have a strong running game, especially in the fourth quarter.
Harbaugh has always built strong offensive lines, whether that be with the University of San Diego, Stanford, or now with the 49ers. The 49ers' line is big and physical, ideally suited to powerful run-blocking.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will want to try out their new and improved passing game. However, they must not stray too far from what they do best and that's run the football. I envision a well-balanced offensive attack, utilizing a good combination of runs and passes to get the job done.
Running back Frank Gore enters his eighth NFL campaign. He rushed for 1,211 yards on 282 carries last year or 4.3 yards per carry. Gore will be shooting for his sixth 1,000-yard season in 2012.
The 49ers have also bolstered their stable of running backs which will take some of the load off of Gore. The hope is that Gore will be fresher come playoff time if he's not overworked during the regular season.
Kendall Hunter rushed for 473 yards on 112 carries in 2011 and looked very good in the preseason. I expect him to have a bigger role this year. Anthony Dixon also returns to a very crowded backfield.
The 49ers brought in Brandon Jacobs for short-yardage carries and drafted LaMichael James with their second-round pick. James is extremely explosive and a threat to go all the way whenever he touches the ball. I look for both Hunter and James to make an impact out of the backfield and in the passing game, as well.
Good health, especially for Gore and Hunter, is essential for the 49ers' to maintain a top-tier rushing attack. Unlike the pass-blocking, which can sometimes be questionable, the 49ers' offensive line is very good at run-blocking.
5. The Red-Zone Offense Must Improve
The flipside of David Akers setting an all-time NFL record for field goals in 2011 is that the 49ers did not score enough touchdowns. A big reason for this were their struggles inside the red zone. The 49ers' red-zone efficiency ranked 30th out of 32 teams last year.
In tighter quarters, the defense is packed in and closer to the line of scrimmage, which makes running the ball more difficult. The 49er receivers also had a great deal of trouble getting open with the limited space they had to maneuver.
I look for the 49ers to improve their red-zone productivity dramatically in 2012. They will have a lot more diversity on their offense, as Randy Moss will be a big threat, especially on fade routes. No longer will defenses be able to key on Vernon Davis, as Moss, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree can all make plays.
The addition of Brandon Jacobs will help on short-yardage runs. I also believe that Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James will be utilized effectively, which will give the 49ers more speed and elusiveness to score touchdowns.
The 49ers would like nothing more than to greatly reduce the number of David Akers field goals and increase his number of extra points.
4. The 49ers Defense Must Play Up to the Level They Established in 2011
The San Francisco 49ers had the second-ranked defense in terms of points allowed in 2011. The gave up just 229 points last year, an average of only 14.3 per game. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers were better with an average of 14.2.
The 49ers will be hard pressed to accomplish this low scoring average again in 2012, as they will face some of the top quarterbacks and scoring offenses in the NFL. The 49ers will face a very stern test on opening night, when they travel to Green Bay to play the Packers and their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In addition, the 49ers must play Matthew Stafford and the Lions, Drew Brees and the Saints, Eli Manning and the Giants and Tom Brady and the Patriots. All of these teams have prestigious passing offenses and can put up points in a hurry.
The 49ers defense was number one against the run last year, allowing an average of only 77.2 yards per game on the ground. I fully expect them to continue to be very strong against the run.
The 49ers' front seven, anchored by defensive end Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman should continue to be stout against the run. Where the 49ers have shown some signs of vulnerability is in the passing game.
The 49ers have cornerbacks Carlos Rogers—who was torched by Victor Cruz in the first half of the NFC title game—and a vastly improved Tarell Brown. Backing them up are nickelback Chris Culliver and dimeback Perrish Cox. Cox steps in ahead of Tremaine Brock, which should be a big improvement.
The safeties are Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Both are solid players, but there is very little experience backing up these two. Both rookie Trenton Robinson and C.J. Spillman, who was mostly a special teams player, are unproven. This could be a problem if anything should happen to Goldson or Whitner.
A big help to the 49ers' defense could be their offense. If Alex Smith and company are more productive, can sustain more drives and score more points, that would be a huge benefit to the 49ers' defense, by keeping them off the field and making opposing offenses more one dimensional.
3. Aldon Smith and the 49ers Must Pressure the Passer
I believe the biggest key for the 49ers' success on defense in 2011 was their improved pass rush. Aldon Smith was the 49ers' first-round draft pick and played primarily in pass-rushing situations. He accumulated 14 sacks, only half-a-sack away from the NFL rookie record of 14.5.
Smith's constant pressure on the opposing quarterback also led to him being double-teamed quite frequently. This enabled defensive end Justin Smith to also be a force as a pass-rusher. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also used a wide array of blitz packages when he deemed necessary.
A strong pass rush is essential to good pass coverage. The 49ers' defensive secondary was helped tremendously by their strong pass rush last year. Aldon Smith missed all but a few plays in the first preseason game, so it remains to be seen how effective he can be against the Packers.
Smith also replaces Parys Haralson as a starter, so his stamina will be tested, especially late in games. It was much easier for Smith to remain fresh last year with Haralson playing in the 49ers' base defense and Smith entering on passing downs.
It may take Smith some time to get his feet under him and his stamina built up which could give Aaron Rodgers the time necessary to pick apart the 49ers' secondary. A strong pass rush is the best defense against the high-profile passing offenses the 49ers will face many times this year.
2. Oustanding Coaching Is a Big Asset for the 49ers
San Francisco 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh has assembled an outstanding staff around him. Harbaugh is a master offensive strategist and also an excellent motivator. He gets his team to buy in to what he and the other coaches are preaching and his players play for him.
Harbaugh is also smart enough to focus on his strengths, which are on offense and motivating his team. He allows defensive coordinator Vic Fangio complete reign over the defensive side of the football. Fangio is an excellent teacher and tactician, who puts together the defensive game plans.
Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator and works closely with Harbaugh designing the offensive game plans. He has several very strong coaches working with him, including running backs coach Tom Rathman and offensive line coach Mike Solari.
In addition to Fangio, veteran coach Ed Donatell handles the defensive secondary and Jim Tomsula the defensive line. Brad Seely is the special teams coordinator and excellent in that capacity. He is also the assistant head coach for the 49ers.
Several 49er players have gone on record praising the coaching staff for how they have helped them become better players. If a player believes in what a coach is telling them and puts it into action, once they have success, they believe even more. The current coaching staff rivals those of Bill Walsh.
The 49ers' coaches are also very adept at making in-game adjustments. In addition, the 49ers almost always gain the upper hand after half time, as their coaches know how to tweak things to give them the greatest advantage.
When a player believes in his coaching staff, he will run through a wall for them. Harbaugh has the 49ers believing.
1. Alex Smith Must Step Forward and Lead the 49ers to the Championship
Make no mistake, the most important key to the 49ers' success is Alex Smith. In 2011, his first year working with Jim Harbaugh, Smith had his best year as a pro. He had career-highs in completion percentage (61.3) and yards (3,144).
Smith also did not make any costly mistakes to lose games. Instead, he was very protective of the football and focused on not committing turnovers. Smith threw 17 touchdown passes against only five interceptions.
It will be up to Smith to take the next positive step in his growth as an NFL quarterback. To his credit, he worked hard in the offseason with Tom House, a former pitcher in baseball. Together they worked on throwing mechanics which helped Smith improve his accuracy.
The Window of Opportunity Is Wide Open for the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have their work cut out for them. Their race to win the division will be much tougher, but I have seen all of the 49ers' flaws and they are as ready as there ever would be.
If the 49ers can handle the hype and stay focused, there is no reason why they cannot be in the Super Bowl and win it.
This promises to be a great season. It's good to be a 49ers fan again.