Since nobody is questioning Mike Singletary’s ability to construct a physical defense, I am going to concentrate on the 49ers' issues on the offensive side of the ball. When Singletary talks about what kind of team he wants the 49ers to be he talks about being "Physical with an F." But what exactly does that mean? When you break it down it's simple. It means when you need two yards, to sustain a drive or score a touchdown, you have the ability to win the physical battles up front and get those two yards whenever you need them. Period.
This defines who wins and loses in the NFL. Imposing your will on your opponent. This is what we want to do and you can’t stop us. The 49ers have been dreadful at this for a long time. When Singletary took over for Nolan, the team was ranked 29th in the league in 3rd down efficiency. They finished 22nd. As good as Frank Gore is, their offense as a whole has failed miserably in crucial short yardage situations for many years now. Insert jokes about short yardage failures vs. Arizona here (not to mention clock management!). If Singletary can change one thing on their offense, this is it.
The first change Singletary made after becoming head coach was to get rid of offensive line coach George Warhop and replace him with Chris Foerster. The second was to plug rookie Chilo Rachal into the starting lineup at RG. Rachal played in the last eight games, started the last six, and firmly entrenched himself as the starter for this season. When Singletary talks about Rachal he talks about him being extremely physical and having a mean streak. He believes Rachal has the extra level of nasty he can go to when he needs to lead the way for that crucial 3rd and short conversion. Singletary wants to duplicate this level of nasty in every player on every blocking assignment—especially on those crucial short yardage plays.
The results were a mixed bag. Statistically speaking, when Singletary took over, the 49ers were ranked 24th in the league in yards per game (21st in rushing, 18th in passing). They finished the season ranked 23rd ( 27th in rushing, 13th in passing). They ranked dead last in sacks allowed and 28th in percentage of passes that were intercepted (they were 32nd when Singletary took over). Through the first eight games the 49ers allowed 4.25 sacks per game and improved to just over 2.5 sacks allowed per game over the last eight. But the improvement was due to a lot of factors. Better protection, better decisions by Shaun Hill who by then had become the starting QB, and an easier schedule were a few of them.
Don’t get bogged down in the statistics though, what all these numbers add up to, or rather don’t add up to, are playoff caliber offensive football.
That is what the statistics say. The eyeball test says the offensive line played more effectively and efficiently after Singletary took the reigns. The 49ers did a better job in the second half of the season putting together sustained offensive drives that produced points at crucial times in a game. They were no offensive juggernaut by any means, but they gave Hill the time to make good decisions and for the offense to execute better in all phases.
Physical with an F. The ability to impose your will on your opponent.
What have the 49ers done to address this? Have they done enough? That remains to be seen, but it is hard to make an argument that they have. They added 10 year veteran Marvel Smith, a Pro Bowler in 2005, to plug the offensive line’s biggest hole at RT. They say he is healthy but the fact is, Smith has not played a full season since 2006 (he played 12 games in 2007 and five in 2008). If he goes down, Barry Sims, Adam Snyder and undrafted free agent Alex Boone are his potential replacements. Sims and Snyder were not able to get the job done at this position last season and Boone has been a LT in college and has to play well enough to make the team.
Their success at becoming more physical on offense is going to depend greatly on the coaching staff’s ability to get more production out of a veteran unit that has consistently failed to meet expectations. If anybody can do this it is Singletary. His strong point is getting the most out of his players. I want to like this offensive line. It is full of high draft picks which makes you want to say this is going to be the year it all comes together. But the truth is, this unit has not showed an ability to dominate the way Singletary needs it to. The 49ers are banking greatly on their coaches being able to find something in this unit that no coaches have been able to find so far. That extra nasty gear. Am I missing something? I just don’t see why I should believe they have made enough changes yet to become the dominant upfront unit Singletary is looking for.
There is one area of being physical on offense that the 49ers do rank among the best in the NFL. The physical ability of the 49ers skill position players is excellent. The addition of a more physical second running back in third round draft pick Glen Coffee will help them to run the ball with more efficiency between the tackles. The 49ers TEs and WRs are among the best blockers at those positions in the league which helps for longer runs, bigger plays after a catch and in the case of Vernon Davis, it is almost like having an extra pro bowl caliber lineman at the line of scrimmage when they feel the need. Having better blockers at the TE and WR positions will help the 49ers to be more physical than their opponents at every position. And that is what winning football teams can do—whenever they want.
Unless you can’t. And that is where the defense comes in. Physical with an F. To win in the NFL you have to be able to impose your will on the defensive side of the ball as well. This is what Singletary understands best and his affect has already been seen. The following is where the 49ers ranked in the league in key defensive categories when Singletary took over and where they finished the season.
Opp. yards Opp rush yds Pts 1st downs 3rd down 4th down
per game per game per Gm allowed efficiency efficiency
_________ __________ ______ _______ _______ _______
Week 7 23rd 23rd 28th 24th 22nd 24th
Final 13th 13th 23rd 12th 12th 24th
At the beginning of the year, starting with the first game against Arizona, the 49ers showed they did not have what it takes up front to stop a team from running the ball down their throats when it needed to. They gave up excruciating drives. The defense couldn’t get off the field and that meant the 49ers couldn’t win games—an all too common theme during the Nolan era. Over the second half of the season the 49ers defense played arguably as well as any in the league especially against the run. They suddenly became stout against the run by winning their battles at the line of scrimmage which allowed the entire defense to make plays.
The 49ers have been quieter on the defensive side of the ball in the off season. That is an indication of how much they like the way this unit came together last year. The most significant moves they have made were to add depth to almost every unit on this side of the ball.
They plan to give the more physical Dashon Goldson every chance to win the starting free safety spot which will add a hard hitter in their secondary that has been missing. They now have the type of depth on defense that teams need to absorb injuries and still remain competitive which is part of playing more physically as well. Look for the 49ers to have a deeper rotation of players that get meaningful playing time than most of their opponents which will allow the defense to leave it all on the field and not worry as much about tiring late in games.