San Francisco 49ers: 5 Weaknesses Team Must Work on with Eye Toward Super Bowl
Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers weren't expecting it to be easy.
Six weeks into the 2012 NFL season, though, the Red and Gold find themselves in need of a little more housekeeping than they may have originally planned.
Let's be clear that, as owners of a 4-2 record and a share of the division lead with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, the Niners are in prime position to achieve their main regular season goal: win the NFC West.
The ultimate objective, however, is to hoist a sixth Lombardi Trophy. There's ample talent in the Bay Area to accomplish that feat and let's just say only a small portion of it resides in Oakland.
Unless Harbaugh and his squad are duping us all into tempering expectations by flopping when we least expect it, there are still a few corrections that need to be made in the Golden City.
Let's focus on five weaknesses the 49ers must work on with Super Bowl aspirations in mind.
Inconsistent Commitment to the Run Game
How good are the 49ers starting five offensive linemen in the run game?
If you ask the guys at Pro Football Focus, pretty damn good.
In fact, so good that PFF has graded each of the 49ers five starters in the top five of their respective positions in run-blocking. PFF's unique grading scale assesses players on their performance during every single snap they take and in every facet of the game.
They keep the statistical element out of the equation, but the numbers make a strong case for just how unstoppable the 49ers run game is, too.
In San Francisco's four wins, the offense has averaged 223 rushing yards per game. In their two losses? A meager 84.5 YPG. Only, it's not because opponents are thwarting the Niners ground game. That's not it at all.
It's simply not being utilized enough.
Gore had zero carries in the second half. Zero.
In the 24-13 Week 3 loss to Minnesota, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called 38 pass plays as opposed to just 20 rushes—16 of them going to either Gore or Hunter. 10 of the 13 plays in the first quarter were designed pass plays against the Vikings and 13 of the 22 first-quarter snaps against the Giants were passes as well.
Now, it is understandable to endorse the idea that starting out with a pass-heavy game plan could surprise an opponent that is coming in with full intentions of stopping the 49ers' potent rushing attack at all costs.
And it's not as if the offense wasn't moving the ball early in their two losses. Each of the 49ers first two drives against the Giants were 12 plays, totaling 120 yards. Against Minnesota, the offense piled up 31 plays and 121 yards on drives one through three.
But each instance produced just three points. So, that alone is one concern. Efficiency is key, and the Niners have been the exactly the opposite of efficient in their two losses.
But the real issue lies not with the intent to take to the air early in games, rather a failure to adjust once opponents pick up on what these intentions are that is concerning.
The good news, however, is that Harbaugh and his staff are insanely dedicated to their craft and should realize that opponents are wising up to their willingness to stray from their strength in an attempt to catch them off guard.
Learning that lesson before the stakes grow any higher is crucial.
Despite shying away from their talented ball-carriers on occasion, the 49ers still lead the NFL in rushing yards (1,061) and yards per attempt (6.0) through six games. Whether or not the opposing defense knows it's coming, it works.
Please, use it.
Special Teams Coverage
I'm not going to spend nearly as much time addressing this topic as the last, but it seems there's a general agreement that the 49ers' special teams units are not performing anywhere near the high level of play we've come to expect.
It's clear that letting special teams' ace Blake Costanzo leave via free agency has had a negative impact. Costanzo's absence and its effect on the 49ers special teams coverage has been discussed (h/t Kevin Lynch of SF Gate) in recent days.
San Francisco is allowing 33.1 yards per return on kickoffs—the second-worst total in the NFL. Punts? 17.1 yards allowed per return, which qualifies as the third-worst total in all of football.
Veteran special teams' stud Rock Cartwright was brought into training camp this summer, perhaps to potentially replace the energetic and extremely effective Costanzo. But the 49ers ultimately opted to leave him off the 53-man roster and employ a group of inexperienced youngsters to handle these duties, while filling reserve roles at their natural positions.
But for whatever the reason, Brad Seely's boys just aren't getting the job done consistently.
Perhaps 2011 set the bar too high to be reached the following season. The 49ers never allowed a kick return of longer than 39 yards or a punt return over 24 yards all season. After six games in 2012, they've already conceded a 75-yard punt return for a TD (one that almost let the Packers back into the game) and a 66-yard return of an Andy Lee punt that resulted in a broken thumb for the Niners All-Pro punter when he dove to bring down the returner himself.
There have also been several other sizable returns, but most were voided by holding or block-in-the-back infractions. Nonetheless, the overall play has been extremely inconsistent.
Containing Superior Pass Rushers
The 49ers have allowed 18 sacks through six games in 2012, which is a hair higher per game (3) than the amount allowed (2.75) in 2011.
Six of those 18 sacks came against the Giants, with right tackle Anthony Davis having his worst game of the season. Davis was at fault on three of those QB take-downs after not allowing a single sack in any of the 49ers' first five games.
San Francisco hasn't struggled against opponents with an inferior pass rush, but it does seem to be much less effective against defensive fronts that feature players who excel in disrupting plays the backfield. Guys like Clay Matthews, Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul, who have a combined 5.5 sacks in their three games against the 49ers.
Obviously, that's expected to some extent. The previously mentioned stars are All-Pro-caliber players because they can consistently beat even the most highly skilled opponents.
Depth up front is another potential issue, particularly at the tackle position. Joe Staley's concussion on Sunday forced right guard Alex Boone back to his natural position because there are no other true tackles on the roster to fill the void. This forced veteran pickup Leonard Davis into a full-time role at guard, which seemed to hurt the cohesion of the O-line immensely. Big Leonard allowed a sack and committed a penalty in just 25 snaps against the Giants.
Each of the 49ers' three NFC West opponents have been getting after the quarterback with regularity, and San Francisco still has to play each of them twice. Staying true to the run game would help in this regard as well, so opponents can't simply pin their ears back and swarm Alex Smith banking on him dropping back to throw.
The key contributor to each of the 49ers losses?
Turnovers. Dirty, rotten turnovers. If you're forcing too little of them and allowing too many, you'll never survive.
In the 49ers four victories, they've turned the ball over twice. In their losses? A total of six. Nobody in their right mind was expecting San Francisco to replicate a season in which they suffered just 10 giveaways in 16 games, but eight of them in six games with three in each loss?
It's fairly easy to recognize the correlation of turnovers to wins and losses.
The three interceptions against the Giants in Week 6 were inexcusable. Alex Smith's performance was a costly one, but the coaching didn't place him in the greatest position to succeed, either.
No, that doesn't mean I don't think he can be trusted in getting the ball downfield. But it must be understood that there's a time and place to open up the offense. Going away from your biggest strength too often will make you just as predictable as going too often with your biggest strength.
On the other hand, San Francisco's defense could use some of the magic that carried them to 38 takeaways in 2011. Part of this can be blamed on a seemingly ineffective pass rush, but we've seen some talented offensive coordinators who've often used a quick-passing attack to nullify any pressure.
I expect an increase in takeaways in divisional play, given the state of the offenses around the NFC West. Arizona's O-line is as pathetic as any in the NFL and neither the St. Louis Rams nor the Seahawks are doing much damage on offense, aside from Russell Wilson's fourth-quarter comeback over the New England Patriots last week.
The San Francisco 49ers understand what they have to do to win. This franchise has experienced an unimaginable amount of success in just over a year under Harbaugh's lead.
That said, every season is a work in progress, no matter if you're the 6-0 Atlanta Falcons, the 4-2 Niners or the 1-4 Oakland Raiders.
The 49ers faithful has seen what this squad is capable of when they're at their best, and the coaches and players fully understand what it takes to repeat that success.
The Niners just have to continue to come back with a focused approach week after week and everything else will fall into place. Don't overlook a seemingly punch-less team like the Vikings and don't psyche yourself out against stiff competition like the Giants.
Enter each game with a consistent approach, trust your strengths and remain humble.
Super Bowl XLVII is practically right around the corner.
Any other issues you feel the 49ers need to improve? Let us know in the comments below.
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