Head Coach Jim Harbaugh looks to win his first Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers have a window of opportunity to win the Super Bowl. The team is filled with young veterans at a time when there is no truly dominant team in the league.
That window of opportunity came one year earlier than expected as the 49ers made it all the way to the NFC championship game last season. They were a couple of botched punt plays away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
The 2012 team has the talent to make it all the way. But let's take a look at five critical areas that must get better if the 49ers are to get there.
Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks
The San Francisco 49ers have 23 sacks. With Aldon Smith leading the league with 15, that means the rest of the defense has combined for just eight.
Outside of Smith, no 49er defensive lineman even has one sack. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks is second on the team with four.
When opposing offenses contain Smith, the rest of the 49er defense needs to find a way to get to the quarterback. Getting pressure on the opposing quarterback is the best pass defense.
No matter how good the defensive back, they can't stay with the outstanding wide receivers in the NFL forever. When the 49ers' pass rush is not getting to the quarterback, it puts the secondary in a vulnerable position.
Colin Kaepernick had a good first start against the Bears
The San Francisco 49ers have been above average in the passing game with Alex Smith at quarterback. His strengths are his command of the offense and ball security.
Smith has completed 70 percent of his 217 pass attempts for 1,731 yards. This is an average of 7.98 yards per attempt. Smith also has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-5.
The knock on Smith is that he does not throw the deep ball well and sometimes is too conservative, checking down too quickly to a safety outlet. Smith does not typically turn the ball over, but he also does not throw the ball down the field as much as he should.
Colin Kaepernick displayed a strong arm and made several excellent throws Monday night against the Bears. The deep corner route and deep out patterns Kaepernick threw were right on the money. These were throws that Smith would never have attempted.
For the season, Kaepernick is 32-of-49 for 449 yards and two touchdowns. His 65.3 completion percentage is very good, although below that of Smith. Kaepernick's 9.16 yards per pass attempt is more than a yard more than Smith's, which shows his willingness to throw the ball down the field.
Kaepernick is tantalizing the 49ers' fanbase with his athletic ability. In addition to having a stronger arm, Kaepernick is a very dangerous runner. The key question is whether Kaepernick can build on his performance against the Bears, as opposing defenses gain more film on him.
One of the concerns with Kaepernick is also his ball security. He has had a tendency to throw interceptions, as he would lock onto a receiver and try to force the ball through traffic. Kaepernick also must be careful to protect the ball and avoid fumbling when he runs.
With Smith still not getting a full week of practice, due to concussion symptoms, Kaepernick will get his second start Sunday against the Saints. If he does well, the 49ers will have a real quarterback controversy.
The 49ers bolstered their firepower this offseason, adding quality talent and depth at the skill positions. The offensive weapons are there with Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. In addition, Kyle Williams and Delanie Walker have made big plays.
If the 49ers are to win the Super Bowl, no matter who plays quarterback, the passing game must be more consistent. If they can do this and complement an outstanding running game, this could be the 49ers' year.
David Akers has missed some big kicks this year
The San Francisco 49ers' special teams were a big strength last season. This year, they have been merely adequate.
Kicker David Akers has been inconsistent. After converting 44-of-52 field-goal attempts in 2011, both NFL records, Akers has made only 18-of-24. That's a success rate of 75 percent, below his 84.6 percent rate of a year ago. He will need to regain his form for the 49ers to have the best chance of success.
The 49ers' coverage teams have struggled as well, allowing big returns, including two or three that were nullified by penalties.
Special teams coach Brad Seely is without two stellar performers from 2011, Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones. Costanzo was the leader of the coverage units, and the 49ers have yet to find his replacement.
Allowing a big return is a momentum-changer. If the 49ers do not shore up this area, it will come back to haunt them.
The 49ers' offensive line has been inconsistent in pass protection
The 49ers' offensive line is one of the best run-blocking units in the NFL. Its strength and power opens running lanes for Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The 49ers lead the league in rushing, averaging 165.3 yards per game.
However, the 49ers' line has, at times, been vulnerable to a strong pass rush. The 49ers have allowed 31 sacks, eight more than the defense has gotten. Some of these can be attributed to the quarterback holding the ball too long, but to attribute the problem to that alone would be hiding from the problem.
Four of the five members of the 49ers' offensive line started in 2011, with the only newcomer being Alex Boone at right guard. This is a big, strong group that sometimes can be vulnerable to speed rushers or stunts.
If the offensive line can consistently give the quarterback time to throw, whether it be Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers will improve their productivity in the passing game.
Carlos Rogers is beaten for a touchdown
Good pass defense is the result of a strong pass rush and good coverage from the secondary and linebackers. I have already discussed how the 49ers' pass rush needs to be more consistent. That alone would hide some of the flaws in the 49ers' pass defense.
The 49ers' linebacker corps is the strength of the team. Inside backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are strong and fast, two of the best in the league. Along with Ahman Brooks, they do a good job in pass coverage.
The question is in the 49ers' defensive secondary, particularly Carlos Rogers. He and Dashon Goldson were tied for the team lead with six interceptions last year. However, in 2012, Rogers has yet to get a pick.
The real issue, however, is that Rogers has had major problems and the 49ers have been slow to adjust. He struggles against the quicker, more elusive receivers, which was evident against the Giants and Rams.
In the 2011 NFC title game, Victor Cruz torched Rogers for 10 catches and 142 yards. Then, when the two teams met earlier this year, Cruz again was a key force in the New York offense, with six receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown.
The 49ers' game against the Rams also showed how a team with a quick, shifty receiver can victimize Rogers. Danny Amendola, who is a good receiver but not in the same class of Cruz, lit up the 49ers with 11 catches for 102 yards. Most of those receptions were against Rogers.
Amendola also had another huge play against Rogers called back in overtime, due to a penalty. Had the flag not been thrown, the Rams would have won the game.
When teams play a three-receiver set, Rogers is on the slot receiver. The 49ers like him there because he is a good tackler and experienced in traffic. However, this often matches him up against the opponent's quickest receiver.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio may need to switch nickel back Chris Culliver inside and move Rogers to the outside against this formation. The 49ers can't continue to allow players like Cruz or Amendola to have big games.
The other members of the 49ers' defensive backfield—Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner and Goldson— have been solid. The weak link has been Rogers, who had a Pro Bowl year in 2011.
If the 49ers are to have the best chance of winning the Super Bowl, the secondary must be more consistent. That is particularly true of Rogers.
Frank Gore is an elite running back and having a great season
The 49ers are 7-2-1. If the season ended today, they would have the second seed in the NFC playoffs. Although the top seed would be nice, the second seed is also important because the top two teams do not need to play that extra Wild-Card game.
This is the year for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, so they must do everything possible to bring home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Frank Gore is still on the top of his game. But at age 29 and in his eighth NFL season, he can't go on forever. In addition, Justin Smith, the team leader on the defensive line, is 33 years old and in his 12th NFL season. Like Gore, he can't play at this high level forever.
With no dominant team in the league, the time is now for the 49ers to seize their opportunity.