Identifying San Francisco 49ers' 5 Biggest Flaws Ahead of 2014 Season
The San Francisco 49ers have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations for the 2014 season, but that doesn't mean they're flawless.
Their flaws aren't as glaring as some of the NFL's bottom-feeders, but they're issues nonetheless.
When constructing this list, I considered offseason developments—player movement, holdout talk, etc.,—and 2013 stat trends. Though it's possible the 49ers find solutions during training camp, these are the five biggest deficiencies they currently have.
Tight end depth
If Vernon Davis' holdout lasts into the regular season, this flaw could be exposed.
Of course, Vance McDonald could take a massive step in his second season. If that doesn't happen, the Niners will be left relying on Garrett Celek, which would make their aerial attack far less lethal.
Statistically, LaMichael James fared well in his first season as San Francisco's primary return man. But I still have my doubts.
Particularly when returning punts, James doesn't seem very comfortable. And if he gets cut during training camp, the Niners don't have many other options.
The 49ers haven't been as bad in the red zone as many make them out to be.
Last year, San Francisco scored a touchdown on 53 percent of its red-zone trips, good for 15th in the NFL (via TeamRankings.com). Obviously, there's room for improvement, but it's worth nothing that Seattle ranked 14th in the same category en route to winning the Super Bowl.
It's the timing of the Niners' red-zone issues that have made this a hot topic.
In Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers, needing a touchdown to take the lead with less than three minutes to go, had three chances from the 5-yard line. They failed to gain a yard.
In last season's NFC Championship Game, they drove 60 yards in seven plays to the 18-yard line. On their first play in the red zone, Colin Kaepernick threw an interception.
The two situations couldn't have been more different. In the Super Bowl, the game clock wasn't an issue. Kap didn't execute and/or the Baltimore Ravens coaches outsmarted the 49ers (depending on how you see the game).
In the NFC Championship Game, the game clock was the biggest issue. Kap tested Richard Sherman in the end zone, and the rest is history.
Bruising running back Carlos Hyde should help the Niners run the ball more effectively in the red zone. But what about the passing game?
Vernon Davis has been the most effective red-zone receiver for the 49ers in recent years. If his holdout lasts into the season, San Francisco may have bigger problems finishing drives.
Even if Davis plays in Week 1, it is ultimately up to Kaepernick to improve his decision-making and execute better in the red zone.
It's common knowledge that Jim Harbaugh loves it when his offense executes long, taxing drives. In 2013, the 49ers didn't rack up enough of those.
San Francisco was 18th in the league in percentage of drives lasting 10 plays or more, per SportingCharts.com. Of course, short drives and lack of third-down conversions go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, the 49ers were 18th in the latter category at 36.5 percent.
This is where Stevie Johnson comes in.
The former Bill led Buffalo in first-down receptions in each of the last four seasons. He's the kind of possession receiver that 49ers needed last year when opposing teams focused all their attention on Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis.
Simply put, the Johnson of old would shred one-on-one coverage on third downs.
But he's coming off a disappointing 2013 season in which he missed four games with a back injury. If Johnson is on the downside of his career, will another 49er wide receiver—Brandon Lloyd, Quinton Patton or Bruce Ellington—step up and fill the No. 3 receiver void?
It would help if Johnson returned to 2012 form, no doubt. But, as with correcting the red-zone flaw, most of the pressure is on Kaepernick to make the right decisions in order to move the chains.
The teams that are perennially at or near the top the third-down conversion category—New Orleans, Denver, New England, San Diego, Green Bay, Atlanta—are led by great pocket passers. Sure, their supporting casts have usually been strong, but the one constant has been the signal-caller.
Will Kap read defenses better in 2014? Will he stay composed in the pocket and deliver passes accurately?
If he does these things, he'll turn this flaw into a strength.
Interior Offensive Line
Mike Iupati and Alex Boone both struggled at times last year. They each finished with average overall ratings at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Iupati missed four games and was likely playing hurt for most the season, so he probably deserves a pass. Boone, though, simply didn't play up to his 2012 standards.
And now he is holding out.
The 49ers will already be relying heavily on an inexperienced center—likely Daniel Kilgore or rookie Marcus Martin—now that three-year starter Jonathan Goodwin has signed with the New Orleans Saints.
San Francisco could use Boone's experience more than ever. If his holdout lasts into the season, Joe Looney and Adam Snyder are options to fill in at right guard. But neither inspires much confidence.
Keep in mind that the 49ers' yards-per-carry average fell from 5.1 in 2012 to 4.4 in 2013. They cannot afford another drop in that category.
If San Francisco struggles to run the football in 2014, the whole offense could take a nosedive.
Stopping Marshawn Lynch
He's the only player in the NFL the 49ers consistently struggle to stop, and he just so happens to be on the team best positioned to defeat them.
His name is Marshawn Lynch, and he has the Niners' number.
In his last six games against San Francisco, Lynch has 136 carries for 600 yards. More importantly, he has eight total touchdowns in those six games.
Since the beginning of the 2011 season, the 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher just six times (playoffs included). Lynch has been the culprit on four of those occasions.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Lynch and the Seahawks aren't on the schedule until Week 13. There's a much better chance All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is recovering from torn ligaments in his knee, will be healthy by then.
Even with Bowman, the Niners have had issues with Lynch's north-south running style.
San Francisco has done a reasonable job containing Russell Wilson and Seattle's passing offense. But to beat the Seahawks in 2014, the 49ers need to keep Lynch from getting to the end zone and the century mark in yardage.
Defending No. 1 Wide Receivers
The secondary is the area that pundits attack most when talking about 49ers defensive flaws. More specifically, they attack every defensive back not named Eric Reid.
Over the last two seasons, the 49ers have defended the pass at an elite level. And they did so with Carlos Rogers getting beat consistently by slot receivers. Without him, they may be better off.
Replacing Tarell Brown won't be easy. But Tramaine Brock played well in his seven starts last year, and Chris Culliver—currently not taking part in 11-on-11 drills due to his ACL injury, via James Brady of Niners Nation—is expected to compete for the other starting spot .
And between Jimmie Ward, Chris Cook and Perrish Cox, the Niners should find a serviceable nickel corner.
To say that this unit is destined to be a glaring weakness would be rash. But the question remains: Is there a cornerback on the roster who can consistently contain elite wide receivers?
Unless one of their cornerbacks unexpectedly blossoms into a star this season, the 49ers will once again be vulnerable against top-tier wide receivers.
Stats via ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.
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