Looking back at the 2010 San Francisco 49ers, fans see a team that is talented but not living up to its talent. Something was wrong and it all fell flat.
No NFC West title, no winning season, more controversy surrounding quarterback Alex Smith, and more signs that disarray continues within the upper floors of team headquarters.
But change did come. Jim Harbaugh became the coach, and he has changed the staff. Trent Baalke is the general manager, and he has assumed control of the draft. There are hints through Harbaugh’s occasional public proclamations that there seems a little more stability in the organization, though we won’t know until we see the team perform on the field in real games.
That said, expectations remain high for this team. The NFC West may not be as weak as it was last year, thanks to the seemingly improving St. Louis Rams, but it is still considered the weakest sister among all eight of the NFL divisions.
Harbaugh and staff have to make some fixes that can help the team win more games in 2011. And it doesn’t take much to see where he and staff have to start. Here are seven realistic expectations for the 49ers in 2011.
The Niners have one of the best groups of front seven defensive personnel in the league. Yet they gave up nearly 22 points a game last year to rank 16th. The greatest breakdown came in the secondary, which gave up 25 TD passes last year compared to 14 in 2009.
Of course, not all things fall on defensive backs. Pass rush has a lot to do with pass coverage. Most quarterbacks don’t throw well when they are on their backs. And when pressured, their accuracy goes down, which results in more incomplete passes and more interceptions. In short, hurrying the opponent’s quarterback tends to make the defense improve in all facets.
In that light, consider the article by Kerry J. Byrne of SI.com, which states that pass rating differential is the most telling stat in determining a team’s success..
The PRD stat refers to a team’s offensive pass rating compared to its defensive efficiency in defending the pass. As examples, Byrne points out that the 2009 New Orleans Saints had an offensive pass rating of 106 and a defensive rating of 68.6. The difference was 37.4, which was the largest among all 32 teams. The Saints won the Super Bowl.
Last year, the Green Bay Packers had a 98.9 offensive rating compared to a 67.2 defensive rating. The gap of 31.7 also ranked first, and the Packers became champs. Last year, the Niners had a minus-10.6 rating, meaning that their defense was worse in pass efficiency than the offense. They finished 6-10.
“Three teams in the top seven [teams in PRD] belonged to Bill Walsh,” Byrnes writes. “This cluster of San Francisco teams proves that the great genius Walsh…was not that he popularized the West Coast offense. No, the great genius of Walsh was that he popularized the West Coast offense while creating arguably the greatest (and certainly most underappreciated) defensive dynasty in history.
“For 17 straight years, the 49ers never surrendered more than 300 points in a season and they consistently produced very low Defensive Passer Ratings, usually among the very best in the NFL.”
Improving pass defense is a team-wide effort that even carries some responsibility to the offense.
With a front seven that includes outstanding players like Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, the Niners have no excuse not to have greater success getting after the passer. Of course, part responsibility falls to the offense.
If we refer back to the previous slide, Walsh’s teams excelled against the pass. But one reason why these teams excelled is that the offense was so good. Walsh’s scripted plays and pregame analysis set up game plans that enabled his teams to take early leads, putting opponents off their game plans.
In other words, heading into the second half many times with double-digit leads, the 49ers of those years could forget about the run and play pass first.
In that vein, Baalke’s selection of Aldon Smith as the seventh player taken in the 2011 draft harks to that belief of putting the opponent’s quarterback on the ground. At the same time, it’s easier to put quarterbacks on the ground if the defense can concentrate on playing pass first.
To do that, the 49er offense has to become more effective overall.
In the same vein, it goes without saying that if the Niners are always playing from behind, their running game with Frank Gore becomes less effective. That means opponents can concentrate on rushing Smith, and thus he has had to play against an overbearing tide of pass-rush schemes.
Last year, Niner quarterbacks were sacked 44 times, just under three a game. The 49er defense recorded 36 sacks, just over two a game. At the same time, three 49er quarterbacks threw just 15 interceptions, while the SF defense intercepted the same amount of throws. The offense averaged 7.2 yards per passing attempt, which was the same figure the defense gave up.
Here is where the biggest impact of Jim Harbaugh’s coaching will be measured. First, the Niners have to have an overall better game plan than last year’s. Too many times former coach Mike Singletary and staff could not make the right adjustments and the 49ers saw close games turn into second-half blowouts.
If Harbaugh can add some creativity and innovation into the offense, which in turn gives the team a lead that amounts to more than two scores, then you’ll see defenses play it straight. And that will come out to less sacks overall and more TDs.
Here are two key realistic improvements: from 2.8 sacks allowed per game to 1.4 per game; while going form 2.2 sacks on defense to 3.3. It may not sound like much, but over the course of a season it represents a 50-percent improvement in both that will result in improved efficiency on both sides of the ball.
Byrne’s stats in the previous slides do bring arguments that the pass rating system in the NFL doesn’t give a true indication of overall effectiveness. Many critics believe that completion percentage is weighted too heavily; two dump-off passes for three yards each brings a better rating than two attempts that nets six yards on one completion.
That said, the 49ers need to have more effective passing. At the center of this is Alex Smith, and it has to be said that there are times he makes the wrong reads or he just misses open receivers. Either way, those plays are failures – and sometimes disasters that result in interceptions. Forty-Niner fans have a reason to be skeptical of Smith’s talents.
Harbaugh has said Smith is his man. And though Smith was 3-7 as a starter in 2009, he did finish with a near 60 percent completion percentage. Granted, his yards per attempt were 6.9 compared to the 8.1 of replacement Troy Smith, but Troy only completed half of his passes. In 20 attempts, their completion percentage would result in two more completions for Alex (12 of 20 compared to 10 of 20 for Troy).
Alex Smith doesn’t have to complete more passes as much as lower the interceptions by half (to under 10 at least) while upping his yards per attempt, 7.2 in 2010 to 8.2 this season. If so, that would show Harbaugh’s impact on the offense.
The numbers for Davis slipped from his standout season in 2009, when he led all tight ends in catches and TDs. He caught 56 passes in 2010, which are 3.8 per game.
By getting him the ball more this year, fans might see his average per catch in 2010 of 16.3 drop, but that’s OK. He’s the best in the game and it is reasonable to expect him to catch six passes per game, or even break 100 overall.
More catches to Davis should leave other 49ers in more 1-on-1 chances.
He was drafted as a playmaker but he hasn’t proved he can excel in that role for the 49ers. He averaged 46 yards in receiving yards per game in 2010. That number should come very close to doubling. He has the speed and the hands and the moves.
A 100 percent improvement in yards per game might be too much for us to expect, but there’s no doubt that Crabtree is capable of providing more catches and more yards.
And every time he catches the ball should be a chance to make a defender or two miss. In this vein it is reasonable to expect his TD total should rise from of six last year to 12.
Looking back to those great 49er teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s, a talent evaluator would say the defenses were effective and efficient. However, they were not the most talented. Hence, one secret of NFL success.
The old saying is that the best defense is a good offense. Walsh’s teams, as seen in Byrne’s statements above, had an offense that made the defenses look good. It’s pretty easy to play from a 10-point lead in the third quarter than a 10-point deficit.
Harbaugh and his staff have to come up with offensive game plans that Alex Smith and team can convert into points. Moreover, the team has to be able to make adjustments at halftime to not only counter the other team but anticipate where the opponent will make its adjustments.
This is where Singletary and his staff failed. Getting leads and holding them in the second half will be the biggest improvement overall. It’s a sign that Harbaugh knows what he’s doing.