San Francisco 49ers: Top 8 Concerns Heading into the Playoffs
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There were plenty of lofty expectations surrounding the San Francisco 49ers as they headed into the 2012 season.
One season removed from Jim Harbaugh's first year as the 49ers head coach and a surprising run that led them to the NFC championship game, many experts and fans felt that this year would be the season that would finally lead to San Francisco contending for another Super Bowl.
Like any championship team, the 49ers have had their fair share of ups and downs including poor performances against their division rival St. Louis Rams as well as being totally dominated by another division foe, the Seattle Seahawks, in Week 16.
Despite a "Jekyll and Hyde" feeling with this club, San Francisco once again claimed the NFC West Division crown and has secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC, the same position the 49ers were one year ago, where they will face the NFC Wild Card Game winner on January 12th.
Nonetheless, there are multiple concerns with the 49ers as they try once more to recapture playoff success, and those concerns are going to receive very close attention by any potential opponent San Francisco may face in the postseason.
The Lack of Justin Smith Makes a Huge Difference on the Defensive Line
Defensive End Justin Smith was again inactive in Week 17 against Arizona, creating a huge hole in what once was a dominant defensive line.
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San Francisco's rush defense ranked first in the NFL heading into Week 17, allowing an average of 86.7 yards per game over the past two seasons. Against the Arizona Cardinals meager rushing attack, the 49ers gave up only 55 yards but allowed 176 the week prior against Seattle.
Needless to say, Justin Smith's presence on the defensive line is critical, especially at stopping the run.
Perhaps even more significant—linebacker Aldon Smith's play has dropped off somewhat due to Justin's absence. Aldon has failed to record a sack over the past three games despite his near record-setting surge to start the season.
Justin Smith is hopeful to return for the first round of the playoffs, yet whether or not he is able to contribute at the level of play he is accustomed to remains in doubt.
The 49ers Have Lost Almost All Confidence in David Akers
Kicker David Akers' struggles have continued during the second half of the season as he missed two field goals in Week 17.
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Usually, key issues surrounding a playoff team's chances do not revolve around a kicker. Yet with David Akers, the struggles he has experienced in 2012 have become an "elephant in the room" in San Francisco.
One season removed from his record-setting year, Akers has fallen on dire times in 2012. He is experiencing his worst professional season, making only 69 percent of his field-goal attempts this year (cbssports.com).
Two overtime misses in both matchups facing the division rival Rams undoubtedly cost San Francisco two wins and Akers' struggles continued.
He missed two more field goals against the Cardinals in Week 17, and the boo-birds in Candlestick Park were heard loud and clear.
Regardless, no team heading into the playoffs can afford to have its kicker struggling as much as Akers and lose key points against high-caliber teams.
One can expect Akers to have a very, very short leash.
Can Colin Kaepernick Become a Playoff-Caliber Quarterback?
The maturation of Colin Kaepernick will reveal itself in full form as the 49ers enter the playoffs.
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The controversial switch between quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick has already generated a lot of buzz and questions surrounding the 49ers camp. Kaepernick has shown his dynamic play-making abilities as well as receiving the confidence in many of his teammates.
Yet Kaepernick's toughest tests are yet to come.
Kaepernick has already competed against some of the NFL's best, including signature wins against the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots in Weeks 11 and 15 respectively. However, there have been moments when Kaepernick has demonstrated that lack of experience that his predecessor certainly possessed (sfexaminer.com).
Kaepernick struggled against the Rams in Week 13 and looked even less impressive the following week against the Miami Dolphins. Despite throwing for 244 yards against the Seahawks in Week 16, he was only able to complete 19 passes out of 36 attempts, good for a mere 53 percent.
The 49ers will rely heavily upon Kaepernick to steer the 49ers offense during the postseason, yet San Francisco expects to meet much tougher opposition than either the Rams or the Dolphins. Stingier defenses will do their best to take advantage of Kaepernick's inexperience, and the young quarterback will have to show that he is capable of making the necessary adjustments.
Where, Oh Where Has Vernon Davis Gone?
Tight End Vernon Davis has been almost completely absent from the 49ers passing game in recent weeks.
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When opponents size up the 49ers' offensive game plan, they unquestionably look to stop tight end Vernon Davis.
His sheer size and speed have been creating mismatches on the field since he was first drafted in 2006. 2012 looked to be another stellar year for the dynamic tight end who remains one of the best in the game.
Yet Davis has been surprisingly absent from the 49ers offense over the past few weeks.
His last big performance came in Week 11 against the Chicago Bears in which he caught six passes totaling 83 yards. Davis has caught six total passes in the six games since (cbssports.com).
Davis is still a key part of the 49ers offensive line and is tremendous in the run block. Yet Davis' game exceeds that, and his skills are critical to a dynamic passing attack.
Given the lack of depth among the 49ers receiving core, utilizing Davis and his talents should be considered a must heading into the playoffs.
The 49ers Have Only One "Go To" Wide Receiver
Despite WR Michael Crabtree's emergence as a top receiving target, the remaining 49er receivers have almost vanished.
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One of the key areas San Francisco was looking to bolster heading into 2012 was its receiving core. The offseason acquisitions of wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, along with drafting A.J. Jenkins, were expected to help a weakness that plagued the 49ers' previous season.
For the first half of the season, the moves seemed to be a tremendous asset. Alex Smith developed an early chemistry with Manningham that freed up the incumbent starter Michael Crabtree for more opportunities.
Even Moss was able to work his way into the game plan from time to time.
However, injuries and lack of production have crippled this one-time strength.
Manningham suffered a season-ending injury against Seattle in Week 16 when he tore his ACL and PCL ligaments (sacbee.com). Kyle Williams also suffered a torn ACL a month earlier.
With that stated, San Francisco has only one viable wideout in Crabtree.
Crabtree leads the 49ers offense with 1,105 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The next active receiver, Moss, has amassed only 434 yards and three touchdowns (cbssports.com).
Rookie A.J. Jenkins has yet to record a single reception.
Unless San Francisco can open up the passing game and get production out of its reserve wide receivers, they can expect other teams' defensive backfields to lock onto Crabtree and do their best to shut him down.
The 49ers Defense Needs to Return to Its Early-Season Form
The 49ers defense, a staple of their expected success, will need to step it up in postseason play.
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In the current era of high scoring, pass-first offenses, the 49ers have made a name out of relying on one of the best defenses in the league. That defense helped them get to within one win of the Super Bowl last season, and it has also been key to their 2012 success.
Yet in recent weeks, opposition has been able to find numerous holes in San Francisco's defense.
It is fair to state that even the best defenses will have poor games from time to time, and the 49ers have had their share of those.
Yet San Francisco's trouncing at the hands of the Seahawks in Week 16 may have opened up the window for other teams to see just how to beat this 49ers defense.
Opposing quarterbacks have found a weakness in cornerback Carlos Rogers and have begun slotting their No. 1 receivers against him. Cornerback Chris Culliver has done a much better job this season and should be starting over Rogers (profootballfocus.com).
The 49ers front seven still remains one of the best in the league, but during the first half of last Sunday's game against Arizona, the defense looked baffled and lost as Arizona took a 6-0 lead.
True, the 49ers defense had held the Cardinals to two field goals by that point, but given Arizona's offensive line struggles, San Francisco's defense should have been swarming like angry bees.
They were not.
True, the lack of Justin Smith has hurt the defense and his return shall hopefully help, that is if he is able to return. Either way, the defense needs to be sharp and stiff if they hope to advance through the playoffs.
San Francisco Will Need to Rely Upon the Running Game
As the 49ers receiving core dwindles, San Francisco will have to rely more upon Frank Gore and the running game.
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In many ways, the 2012 49ers are the antithesis of many current NFL elite franchises. In the age of pass-first offenses, San Francisco has instead relied heavily upon the running game to spur its offense and then put faith in its defense to limit opponents.
Relying on the running game will be even more critical in the postseason.
As the 49ers have lost a number of their key wide receivers over the season, running back Frank Gore, along with newly emerged LaMichael James, will be expected to carry a heavier load in the playoffs.
Gore has already shown his capabilities and longevity during his record-setting tenure as a 49er. Last week against Arizona, he surpassed former 49er greats Joe Perry and Roger Craig with his 51st rushing touchdown. While he netted only 68 yards during the game, he carried the ball 20 times, forcing Arizona to respect the run (cbssports.com).
On the other hand, Gore only had six carries in the Week 16 loss against Seattle. True, San Francisco was playing from behind the entire game, but the 49ers' one-dimensional play did not bode well and San Francisco's passing attack was not up to the challenge.
With that being stated, the 49ers will have to establish the run early in each playoff game if they hope to generate any sort of offensive rhythm. Opposing defenses respect Gore's ability and are beginning to recognize James as a threat as well. If they fail to do so, San Francisco will most likely be headed toward another disappointing playoff exit.
In simple terms, San Francisco may very well "live by the run and die by the run."
Can the 49ers Overcome the Lack of Momentum Going into the Postseason?
Head Coach Jim Harbaugh needs to find a way to reinvigorate the 49ers after their less-than-stellar playoff push at the end of the regular season.
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Winning the last regular-season game of the year is usually a great way to create momentum for any playoff-bound team.
Yet the 49ers' Week 17 win against the Cardinals was anything but stellar.
Following their crushing loss to the Seahawks the week before, San Francisco looked to make a statement against one of the league's worst teams before heading into the postseason.
Yet the 49ers looked flat for the first half of the game and appeared to be playing sloppy and uninspired football against what should have been an easy matchup.
Injuries, penalties and poor execution at times have plagued the 49ers down the stretch, creating a different feel about this San Francisco squad than what was felt last year as San Francisco dropped two games during December.
As CSN Bay Area Insider Ray Ratto wrote, "They are not going into this postseason with the same gleeful trouble-free stride with which they entered last year’s playoffs (csnbayarea.com)."
In addition, out of the potential teams San Francisco may face in the postseason, only the Atlanta Falcons lost two games in December. Both Seattle and the Washington Redskins went undefeated, and the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers lost one game each.
Without a doubt, there is going to be a lot of momentum on the other side of the ball, regardless of which team the 49ers face. Halting their opponent's momentum and kick-starting their own will be just as critical, if not more so, than any singular aspect of the 49ers game plan.