With almost a quarter of the 2012 regular season in the books, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the team San Francisco is fielding this year.
The 49ers (2-1) have toppled two NFC titans in the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. However, they fell victim to a trap game on the road in Minnesota against the Vikings. As the season progresses, the perception of the Niners will remain that they are a force to be reckoned with—one loss isn't going to change that.
On paper, San Francisco has one of the better teams in the league, and it shows on game day. This is a team that can beat you in a lot of different ways, which consistently makes them a threat. When discussing the more balanced and fundamentally sound teams in the league, the first two commonly mentioned are the Houston Texans and the 49ers.
The Niners are one of the more resilient teams, who match up well against just about anyone. With all their strengths, they still do have some apparent weaknesses. There are elements that are going to help San Francisco win games and some that could cost them.
For more on the 49ers strengths and weaknesses, proceed through the following slides as we identity and discuss both.
One of the premier strengths for San Francisco is that they have outstanding depth on offense and defense.
To highlight only a few areas, they are strongest at running back, wide receiver and cornerback. The depth along the defensive line is also emerging. The performances of players like Kendall Hunter, Mario Manningham, Ricky Jean-Francois and Chris Culliver goes to show the level of talent San Francisco has beyond their starters.
The quality of depth is so great that San Francisco's first two picks in the 2012 NFL Draft are yet to be active for a game this season. The same cannot be said for other NFL powerhouses like New England and Green Bay, who are relying heavily on their rookies.
When the 49ers offensive coaching staff is gelling and calling creative, timely plays, they have one of the most interesting and fun-to-watch offenses in the league. This unit can be proficient and spread the ball around, making it extremely difficult for defenses.
However, they can occasionally get stuck in a rut. It's probably because they are very detail-oriented and likely drew up a specific plan of which they planned to execute, no matter what. Then when things don't pan out offensively, they still don't make the necessary adjustments.
While it could be interpreted that the 49ers wanted to maintain balance in their loss to Minnesota in Week 3, they never made offensive corrections.
The Niners did not test the Vikings' secondary all day—it just didn't seem to be in their game plan. Considering they were playing from behind the entire game, it was curious to see the lack of urgency by the personnel and coaches.
The players were not huddling on the sideline, chatting or trying to figure things out. They sat quietly on the bench, side-by-side, looking dumbfounded.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff did not feel the need to get their 6'4" Hall of Fame jump-ball receiver on the field. Randy Moss remained limited, only taking the field seven times in the second half.
They continued to call back-to-back runs, which had not worked well all day, and failed to spread the Vikings defense until late, when everyone had mentally checked out of the game.
The 49ers first loss of the season was largely due to the coaching staff's stubborn play-calling.
Despite their Week 3 loss, the 49ers have not changed. They are still one of the more fundamentally sound teams in the league.
The Niners put an emphasis on blocking and tackling—simple in nature, yes, but hallmarks in the NFL often forgotten by many.
The 49ers are about doing a lot of little things very well, and they show that with their throwback approach to the game. When a play is called, there is the belief that it's going to work because of San Francisco's ability to execute in all phases.
On offense, defense and special teams, the 49ers pride themselves on beating their opponent to the punch and following through on their assignments.
This mentality has been adopted by each individual, and collectively, it gives San Francisco a chance to win each game, one down at a time.
San Francisco made moves this offseason to become a more well-rounded offense. That meant upgrading the passing attack.
The team signed receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and drafted A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick in the NFL draft.
Still, there have not been any drastic improvements when it comes to San Francisco going downfield on teams.
So far this year, both Manningham and, particularly, Moss have been limited. Even though Moss has still shown he can stretch the field and dictate coverages, he's only participated in a small fraction of the Niners' offensive snaps. Meanwhile, San Francisco's first-rounder has yet to even suit up for a game.
From what we can gather in 2012, their best deep threat is still Vernon Davis.
The San Francisco 49ers have assembled one of the league's more outstanding coaching staffs.
From Jim Harbaugh down, there is proven experience and over-qualification across the board. In the near future, the 49ers will become a team that faces the annual challenge of protecting their coaches from poaching.
Both coordinators are superb communicators and play-callers. There is a wealth of knowledge between Greg Roman and Vic Fangio. They are behind the scenes pulling the strings on one of the league's most balanced and efficient teams.
Further down the pipeline, San Francisco has some excellent position coaches in guys like Tom Rathman, Ed Donatell, Jim Leavitt and Jim Tomsula. Not to mention special teams coordinator Brad Seely.
Alex Smith has been sacked 10 times in three games, which is currently the sixth most in the NFL. Smith is one of five quarterbacks to have already been sacked in the double digits.
San Francisco's blindside protector is coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2012, but has had some tough matchups early that have gotten the better of him. Joe Staley has had to face Clay Matthews, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jared Allen in three-straight weeks.
Granted, these were difficult matchups, but the 49ers offensive line as a whole needs to do a better job in protection.
In three games, Alex Smith has thrown five touchdowns to one interception, completing 69.6 percent of his passes. Over that time, he's also boasted a 100-plus passer rating and looked like a top 10 quarterback in his first two matchups.
The 49ers quarterback seems to have picked up where he left off in 2011. With Smith's carryover, the added weapons and continuity, the 49ers offense was set to make a jump this season.
In Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers put together five-straight scoring drives at one point. With offensive balance, the 49ers can manipulate defenses and control the tempo. In their first two games, San Francisco looked much improved on that side of the ball.
In Minnesota, the Niners new-look offense stalled. I'm prepared to chalk it up to growing pains and believe the balanced, efficient unit the 49ers put on display in the first two weeks is closer to the finished product we're likely to see.
It's curious; the 49ers don't wilt when they face the top-tier offenses, going four-of-four against New Orleans, Green Bay and Detroit since Week 6 of 2011.
The teams that have got the better of San Francisco have been more balanced teams that bring the threat of run. Coach Jim Harbaugh's five total losses as a pro coach have come against Dallas, Baltimore, Arizona, New York and Minnesota.
They do not all stand out as elite teams, but they are all fully capable organizations that bring tough defense, a running threat and the ability to make plays through the air. The 49ers function better against one-dimensional teams because they know what to expect, so they can simply put the clamps down.
Andy Lee and the special teams unit have been a model of consistency. It's hard to expect anything more out of them but what a great security blanket they provide for both the 49ers offense and defense. If San Francisco's offense fails to advance the football, Lee can still be counted on to put the Niners in a favorable situation when the defense takes the field.
Another special teams stud is kicker David Akers. In Week 1, Akers hit a record-setting 63-yard field goal before halftime, making him one of four kickers all time to reach the mark. His leg power and accuracy are incomparable, as he's proven to be a real asset to this organization.
The special teams storyline, however, has been the emergence of Kyle Williams.
Filling in for an injured Ted Ginn, Jr., Williams has shown off his explosiveness in the return game. He is such a quick-footed, agile player, capable of taking it the distance whenever he's got his hands on the ball. In Week 3, Williams broke out with 150-plus return yards, including a 94-yarder to start the second half.
This team has been extremely consistent winning field position. Special teams is a clear team strength.
The 49ers got off to a hot start offensively, putting up at least 27 points in each of their first two games, outscoring a pair of high-octane offenses.
San Francisco's first score of the season was, in fact, a red-zone situation. Quarterback Alex Smith took advantage of a blown coverage and found Randy Moss in the end zone.
In 2012, the team appears to have rehearsed their red-zone plays this offseason, but they suffered a setback in Week 3.
The red-zone offense looked anemic against Minnesota. At one point, Kyle Williams returned a kickoff 90-plus yards to put the 49ers inside the Vikings 10-yard line, but San Francisco had to settle for a field goal.
This year the Niners wanted to begin converting more of those three-point possessions into seven points. San Francisco does not want to keep calling David Akers onto the field, or depend on their kicker to be the team's leading scorer again. The 49ers cannot get complacent when it comes to working on their situational offense.
It would be a real shame that after an entire offseason, it was third down and red-zone situations came back to haunt San Francisco again in 2012.