San Francisco 49ers: Seven Crucial Points To Make The Playoffs

Dan MoriCorrespondent ISeptember 3, 2010

San Francisco 49ers: Seven Crucial Points To Make The Playoffs

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    Patrick Willis Leads The San Francisco 49er Defense
    Patrick Willis Leads The San Francisco 49er DefenseJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The preseason games are finally over for the San Francisco 49ers and their fans.  After an undefeated preseason, which basically means nothing, now we turn our attention to the 2010 regular season and the goal of making the playoffs.

    Head coach Mike Singletary hopes to improve on the 8-8 record from last season and guide the 49ers to the playoffs.  We must go all the way back to the 2002 season for the last playoff appearance by the Niners. 

    In a year when the NFC West seems totally up for grabs, many are picking the 49ers to storm to the top.  Here are seven crucial points that must be addressed successfully for the Niners to reach the playoffs.

7. Improved Special Teams Play

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    Joe Nedney tacks on another three points.
    Joe Nedney tacks on another three points.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers will be playing a lot of close games this season.  The Niners do not have the type of high scoring offensive mentality that will enable them to blow teams out.  With a propensity for close games, special teams play often is the difference between winning and losing.

    The 49ers have an excellent field goal kicker in Joe Nedney.  In his five previous seasons with the 49ers, Nedney has converted 118 out of 136 field goal attempts, a stellar 86.7%.  Nedney is very reliable and simply needs to continue what he's been doing to help the 49ers.

    Punter, Andy Lee, is Pro Bowl caliber with a strong leg, as his 47.6 yard average last year shows.  He is also quite adept at pinning the opposition deep in their own territory.  In 2009, Lee had thirty punts inside the twenty yard line of the opponent.

    New special teams coach Kurt Schottenheimer has over thirty years of coaching experience.  He is charged with improving the coverage units and the return game.  If he's successful, this area of weakness can become an area of strength for the 49ers.

    I fully believe that the coverage teams will be stronger than last year.  The 2010 roster is much more athletic than in prior seasons.  The added speed and athleticism will be a major asset on the coverage units.

    A major flaw in 2009 was in the return game.  Ted Ginn Jr. is expected to provide speed and experience returning kickoffs.  If Ginn does not handle the job well, the Niners have other potential alternatives in Delanie Walker, Kyle Williams, Dominique Zeigler and Phillip Adams. 

    Punt returns were dreadful last year.  It was so bad that on many occasions, the punt return man was told to simply fair catch the ball.  They did not even want to attempt a return for fear of muffing the catch or fumbling the football. 

    The 49ers have shown promise in this area already.  Kyle Williams, a seventh round draft selection, looked very good against the Colts.  Phillip Adams also excelled in the preseason game against the Raiders, returning one punt for a touchdown.

    This article is written before the final 53 man roster is set, so there could still be some changes in the return game.  Nevertheless, the 49er special teams should be much improved over last year.  This will be a tremendous benefit in their quest for the playoffs.

6. Handling The Rigorous Travel Requirements

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    The 49ers Play A Home Game In London, England
    The 49ers Play A Home Game In London, EnglandPaul Gilham/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers have the most rigorous travel requirements of any team in the NFL.  Playing on the west coast always results in a high amount of travel mileage for any west coast team.

    Adding to this is the fact that the 49ers play their eighth game of the season against the Denver Broncos, at Wembley Stadium, in England.  This is also considered a home game for the Niners, so they are essentially losing one home contest.

    The 49ers will travel a total of 35,219 miles this year, over 10,000 miles more than their nearest competitor, the Seattle Seahawks.  How the team handles this much travel will be a key factor in their success.

    In 2009, the 49ers were only 2-6 on the road.  In 2010, with basically nine travel games, the 49ers must improve on their winning percentage in these travel games.  If the 49ers can learn to win on the road more consistently, they will have the inside track to the playoffs.  

    I believe the 49ers can count on veteran leadership from Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Takeo Spikes, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and yes, Alex Smith, to help lead them to victory when away from home.  The mindset of the team this year is stronger and more confident, which is needed to play well on the road.

5. Good Game Management And Decision Making By Mike Singletary

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    Mike Singletary On The Sidelines
    Mike Singletary On The SidelinesScott Boehm/Getty Images

    Mike Singletary may be the best head coach in the NFL at assessing the heart and desire of a player. He is a no nonsense leader who demands hard work, loyalty and a passion for the game. Singletary is a master motivator and typically gets his players to give their all for him and the team.

    There is no doubt about his strengths as a head coach.  He is a leader of men.  However, there are questions about his strategic game management skills.

    In 2009, there were far too many instances of questionable strategic decision making, for it to be a mere coincidence.  Singletary must make decisive and correct decisions, because the 49ers can ill afford to lose any games they should win.

    The most glaring area of uncertainty seemed to revolve around clock management and the use of his timeouts.  There were times when he used timeouts early and on defense.  I have no problem with that, if the coach genuinely thinks he needs to rally his defense for a big stop.  However, this approach sometimes left his team short on time outs in key situations, later in the game.

    Similarly there were instances when Singletary did not call his timeouts quickly enough, especially towards the end of the half.  The timeout just wasted away, unused, and the Niners lost a scoring opportunity.

    Another area of indecisiveness seemed to revolve around when to go for it on fourth down, as opposed to punting or trying a field goal.  There seemed to be a lot of confusion when the 49ers tried to go for fourth down conversions.  A more experienced Alex Smith should help in this regard.

    The final area of concern I have is when Singletary accepts or declines a penalty.  A prime example of this happened in the preseason game against the Vikings.  It was second down, ten yards to go and the Niners stopped Minnesota for no gain on a running play.

    The Vikings were called for holding.  The decision was whether to give Minnesota a third and ten or a second and twenty. Singletary chose to decline the penalty bringing up a third down and ten yards to go.  I believe a second and twenty is much more difficult to convert than a third and ten. 

    The Vikings converted the third and ten for a first down and kept their drive alive.  Hindsight is always 20-20, but whether it worked out or not, I felt it was a bad decision when he made it.

    These kinds of strategic, game management issues can win or lose games.  With the Niners likely to play a lot of close games this season, coach Mike Singletary must make the right decisions to give his team the best chance to win.

4. A Consistently Strong Pass Rush

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    Justin Smith and Patrick Willis Combine For A Sack
    Justin Smith and Patrick Willis Combine For A SackJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The strength of the San Francisco 49ers defense is their ability to stop the run.  The Niners were the sixth ranked team against the run in 2009.

    The defense against the pass was not nearly as effective.  The 49er defense ranked only 21st against the pass.  The two main factors when it comes to strong pass defense, are a strong pass rush and good secondary coverage by your defensive backs.

    The 49ers accounted for 44 sacks in 2009, which was tied for third in the league.  While this is a very impressive statistic, there were some games when the Niners did not apply the kind of pressure needed to take the onus off the secondary. The Niners will need to keep that pressure coming on a consistent basis in order to improve their pass defense.

    The sack totals were a balanced team effort, as no player had double digit sack numbers.  Manny Lawson led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks.  Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks chipped in with six each.

    The strength of the 49er defense is their linebacking corps.  Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will utilize those linebackers and incorporate a variety of blitz packages to pressure the opposing quarterback.

    No defensive secondary is good enough to defend effectively for five or six seconds.  The offenses are too sophisticated, the receivers too good and the quarterbacks too accurate. 

    The best way to help your secondary is with a strong pass rush.  The 49ers have the personnel and the aggressive, blitzing schemes in place to create turnovers and improve their pass defense dramatically.  

3. Making Plays In The Defensive Backfield

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    Improved Secondary Play A Key For The 49ers
    Improved Secondary Play A Key For The 49ersDavid Paul Morris/Getty Images

    The defensive backfield may be the weak link of the 49er defense.  Shawntae Spencer is the top corner and a solid player.  Opposite Spencer is Nate Clements, who missed much of last season due to injury.  Entering his tenth NFL season, Clements needs to return to top form in order for the defensive secondary to excel.

    Dashon Goldson gives the 49ers a fast, hard hitting play maker at one of the safety positions.  Veteran Michael Lewis starts at the other safety spot and is better against the run, than the pass.

    The nickel and dime packages are prevalent in today's pass happy NFL.  The 49ers have talent for these positions, but the players are either young or have been inconsistent.  Reggie Smith, Tarell Brown and Taylor Mays are in the running for these spots. 

    Karl Paymah likely played his way out of the mix with a poor game against San Diego.  Rookie Phillip Adams will play mostly special teams, at least at first.

    The talent in the secondary is there, but they will need to prove it when the games are on the line.  The Niners' defensive backs have a tendency to play a bit too soft, allowing receivers to catch the ball in front of them for easy completions and first downs. 

    Getting off the field when they have the chance is critical for the Niner defense.  The defensive backfield should be helped by a strong pass rush, but they also must do a decent job in coverage to allow that pass rush the time to get to the quarterback.

    Turnovers were a big part of the 49er defense in 2009.  The ball hawks in this group definitely have the ability to get interceptions.  The defensive line and linebackers are solid, if the secondary steps up, this will be a top tier defense.

2. The Offensive Line Jells And Is The Foundation For The Offense

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    Anthony Davis Is Rapidly Improving At Right Tackle
    Anthony Davis Is Rapidly Improving At Right TackleEzra Shaw/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers saw a need to bolster the offensive line this off season.  They wanted to get stronger and more physical.  By drafting tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati in the first round, the Niners certainly weren't messing around.

    Davis and Iupati have stepped into starting roles on the offensive line.  Their development and the cohesiveness of that line are vital for the success of the offense.

    The injury to center Eric Heitmann further complicated the picture along the line.  David Baas has stepped in at center and done a credible job.  He has been solid with the offensive line calls, which was a big question mark.

    The 49ers dodged a bullet when left tackle Joe Staley's knee injury, sustained against Oakland in the third preseason game, proved to be relatively minor.  Third year lineman, Chilo Rachal, handles the other guard spot.

    Head coach Mike Singletary has praised offensive line coaches Mike Solari and Ray Brown for bringing this group together.  They have shown outstanding improvement throughout training camp.  They have improved every week and are playing well together.

    This offensive line will be responsible for opening running lanes for Frank Gore.  He looks poised to have a big year and it will be up to the O-Line to pave the way. 

    Alex Smith will also need good protection in order to invigorate the passing game.  All eyes will be on Smith, but his success will be largely dependent on the play of his line. 

    If the offensive line continues to jell, this unit will be the foundation for the 49er offense to be very good.

1. Alex Smith Proves To Be The Leader The 49ers Need

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    The Time Is Now For Alex Smith
    The Time Is Now For Alex SmithJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    No player in recent history has endured more scrutiny and criticism for the San Francisco 49ers than Alex Smith.  A number one overall draft pick in 2005, Smith has underachieved and stumbled throughout his career.

    Going into the 2010 season, this is the first time Smith has had an offensive coordinator for more than one year.  Head coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye have both raved about Smith's command of the offense and the leadership he is showing.

    Alex Smith's teammates have also noticed a positive difference.  To a man, they're saying that Smith is showing confidence never before seen, and is now comfortable taking a leadership position.

    Alex Smith seems to have finally grown into the role the 49ers envisioned when they drafted him.  All signs are pointing to Smith having a big year.  However, he must prove it on the field when the games are on the line.

    The 49ers have surrounded Smith with playmakers. Never before has Smith started a season armed with the offensive weapons he has now.  With Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, the Niners have three of the top offensive threats in the league.

    The 49ers will go as far as Alex Smith takes them.  There are no more excuses.

    With their strong defense, the good news for the 49ers is they probably don't need Smith to be great, in order to win games.  He will need to take care of the ball, minimize turnovers and manage the game effectively. These are all things Smith should be able to do.

    I fully expect Alex Smith to have a solid, if not breakout, year.  If he plays well, Smith will quiet his critics and the 49ers should win their division.

My 2010 Prediction For The San Francisco 49ers

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    The Lombardi Trophy
    The Lombardi TrophyJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    I fully expect the San Francisco 49ers to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.  The personnel is far better than it's been in many years.  In addition, the Niners have quality depth which will be important over a grueling sixteen game season.

    The goal of any franchise is to win the Super Bowl and hoist the Lombardi Trophy.  The 49ers, under coaches Bill Walsh and George Seifert, won five Super Bowls in the 80's and 90's. 

    Although I do not think the 49ers have the talent or experience to win a Super Bowl this year, they will at least be in the discussion.  Making the playoffs this season will be a tremendous validation of Mike Singletary's philosophy.  A playoff appearance provides the entire organization with confirmation that the 49ers are on the right track.