Of course, it's tough to judge how a team will perform in the regular season by simply examining preseason games, but there are some definite bright spots for the 49ers thus far. The defense is stacked with talent, special teams has a home run hitter in Alan Rossum, and the offense may be the surprise story of the NFL in 2008.
The 49ers were awful last year, so really, there is only one way to go and that's up.
The defensive line looks fast on the outside—and the addition of Justin Smith, whose motor is off the charts, will help some of the bruising and athletic linebackers like Manny Lawson and Patrick Willis fly free to the quarterback.
This is predicated on the interior linemen holding their own and stopping the run, and that should be something to watch as the season progresses. The secondary, loaded with hard-hitting veteran talent, will certainly aid in stopping the opponents ground game, but some of that age may become evident when teams look to throw the ball over the top and try to burn the 49ers downfield.
Case-in-point in Thursday's preseason contest, the Chicago Bears seemed to find open receivers deep down the sidelines and in holes across the middle of field for huge gains.
However, expect the defense to be resilient and the strength of this team. They just need to get off the field more often than last year.
And only a strong, ball-control offense can help that situation. Much has been made of the obvious quarterback controversy, and rightfully so. Even Mike Nolan still isn't sure who he'll name the starter for week one.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz did the smart thing by bringing in J.T. O'Sullivan, who knows Martz' system; yet, in doing so, he may have ultimately spelled doom for the 49ers former number one overall draft pick, Alex Smith.
Both quarterbacks showed glimpses of greatness in Thursday's game; however, O'Sullivan may well have cemented his spot as the starter--making a set of spectacular plays and throws in only one quarter of action against one of the NFL's better defensive units.
Frank Gore will run (and well)—and with Martz, he'll have to catch the ball, too (see Marshall Faulk). Vernon Davis looks like a man possessed. The offensive line is building a strong rapport and should be solid throughout the year.
The nice surprises will be at the wide-out spots, where the 49ers have struggled since losing Terrell Owens. Veteran Isaac Bruce will team nicely with ball control receiver Arnaz Battle. Burner Bryant Johnson was added as a trustworthy deep threat.
Watch for the emergence of hometown boy Jason Hill, and maybe the steal of the '08 draft, a polished receiver out of Virginia Tech, Josh Morgan.
The special teams ought to be just that. Joe Nedney is as sound a kicker as they come. Andy Lee is--and not just statistically—the best punter in the NFL (apologies to Shane Lechler). Alan Rossum is still fast and knows how to set-up a return game.
If need be, watch out for second year running back, Thomas Clayton. One important thing to watch for, however, is that Andy Lee not need to attempt as many tackles as he has in the preseason.
There's no reason to think that this team cannot compete in the weak NFC. What's more, the Western division isn't all that powerful.
Head coach Mike Nolan knows he's on the hot seat, and he has to win. And win now. The taste of what could be in 2006 was soured by the team's dismal performance in 2007.
If San Francisco can find a way to win 10 games, they should be playoff bound. And with the talent they have amassed on the field and in the coaching booth, the 49ers may be more than panning for riches in 2008, they could be looking at a veritable gold rush.
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