Last season the San Francisco 49ers went into the playoffs with just a couple worries. They were extremely limited at the wide receiver position and didn't have experience playing in the postseason.
This season has seen a bit more turmoil around 4949 Centennial Blvd. in Santa Clara. After staying healthy for the most part last year and throughout the first half of 2012, San Francisco has been bitten by the injury bug a great deal recently.
It lost both Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter for the season on the very same play against the St. Louis Rams in Week 13 in what was a freak injury for both. Mario Manningham then went down with a terrible knee injury against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16.
While those three injuries aren't huge in the grand scheme of things, the shoulder injury to All-Pro defensive lineman Justin Smith is a bit more troublesome. He has not played a snap after hurting that shoulder against the New England Patriots in Week 15 and is questionable for the divisional round of the playoffs.
All-everything linebacker Aldon Smith has not recorded a sack since his brother in namesake alone went down against New England after recording 19.5 in the first 13 games of the year. He has seemed disinterested at times and plain exhausted other times.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh had the following to say about Smith's lack of performance over the last few weeks.
We've always said, it's a team defense kind of thing....I think Aldon (Smith) will benefit from some of the rest that he'll have an opportunity to take, rest his mind, rest his body. I think watching the tape, he's someone that can use it, that needs it.
Harbaugh could be on to something there. Smith's snap total has more than doubled from last season, which could be a primary reason that he has struggled of late.
With that in mind, it is also important to note that the elder Smith takes up double teams on a consistent basis and opens up lanes for outside pass rushers. I don't think it is a coincidence that Aldon has struggled with the veteran out of the lineup.
Like most defenses, San Francisco will struggle in the playoffs if it is unable to generate a consistent pass rush. Just imagine Aaron Rodgers being given an ample amount of time to find Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb for the Green Bay Packers. That is a recipe for disaster this time of the year. Heck, the 49ers won't be taking on Brian Hoyer in the second season.
Of course this could all become moot if Justin Smith returns from his injury in just over a week. At this point it's probably a safe bet that he will "cowboy up" and be ready for the game. I just don't envision Smith missing a game as important as a divisional round matchup with either the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins or Green Bay.
San Francisco won't be afforded the same good news when it comes to the wide receiver position. With both Williams and Manningham out for the season, it has done everything possible to get others involved in the passing game.
It hasn't worked a great deal.
A.J. Jenkins failed to catch a single pass in the regular season and only suited up for three games. Ted Ginn played just a handful of snaps during that span and has recorded two reception all season. Those two players will be San Francisco's No. 3 and No. 4 wide receivers in the playoffs.
The good news is that Michael Crabtree was one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL during the final half of the season. He recorded 46 receptions for 665 yards and six touchdowns in the final eight games.
For his part, Randy Moss has also been successful when targeted. He has multiple catches in each of the last five games and has caught 67 percent of the passes that Colin Kaepernick has thrown to him.
In addition, Delanie Walker has taken over as a de facto No. 3 wide receiver since Manningham went down. He has also been targeted a lot since Kaepernick took over as the starter in Week 11.
As I indicated in an earlier article, San Francisco's success in the passing game might come down to Vernon Davis actually receiving the necessary targets to be a consistent performer at tight end. For some reason he doesn't seem to be on the same page as Kaepernick. Davis has tallied just six catches in his last seven games.
One of the primary issues San Francisco is going to have to deal with come game time next weekend is its kicker situation. David Akers ranks second to last among regular kickers in overall field-goal percentage and is just 47 percent outside of 40 yards. That's not going to get it done in the playoffs.
San Francisco did go out there and sign Billy Cundiff to compete with Akers, but he has had struggles recently as well. The veteran kicker connected on just 7-of-12 attempts for the Washington Redskins earlier in the year and whiffed on a short field-goal attempt late in the Baltimore Ravens AFC Championship Game loss to the New England Patriots last January.
I really hate to say it, but special teams could be a deciding factor for the 49ers once again this season. They need to find someone, anyone, that can actually put the ball through the uprights at a reasonable clip.
Do you have faith in either Akers or Cundiff at this point?
To be fair, the last few Super Bowl Champions have had major issues going into the playoffs. The 2011 New York Giants had to win their final game in order to even get into the postseason. The year before, Green Bay had to win all three of its playoff games on the road in order to get to hoist the Lombardi in in Dallas.
Meanwhile, some of the teams that seemed to have it the best entering the playoffs in each of the last two seasons got a rude awakening when January rolled around.
The Atlanta Falcons finished 13-3 and with the No. 1 seed in the NFC only to fall to Green Bay in their first playoff game. New England finished 14-2 with a point differential of plus-215 only to fall to the New York Jets in the divisional round.
Last season was no different. Green Bay finished the regular year 15-1 only to lose to a 9-7 New York Giants team at home in its first playoff game.
It is all about dealing with controversy, both on and off the field, then coming through when it counts the most. If you believe San Francisco has the mindset to do it, you should be confident in its ability to overcome perceived weaknesses.
At the very least, it has another week to set a scheme, plan for a specific team and overcome a couple other issues. You can bet Harbaugh will have his team ready come game time next Saturday night. Excuses aren't worth a damn in the NFL and he knows that.
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