It is Jim Harbaugh’s inauguration as an NFL head coach. It’s not his first taste of life in America’s favorite sport, but he will be front and center as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and that brings pressure.
Pro football is America’s sport. That means it generates the most money as an industry. It also means that it gets the most media attention and the most scrutiny. In an age in which immediacy is the lifeblood of today’s communication, we will be drawing conclusions from the first test for Harbaugh’s team.
Friday night’s preseason opener in New Orleans most likely will be a minimal unveiling of a new iteration of the 49ers. There is much to improve on from last year, but at the same time there is plenty to work with as well. A full transformation is not expected in early August—but we will be looking for signs. Here are the six major areas of improvement the 49ers should show in the preseason.
Fans who regularly watched the Niners the last two and half years saw a troubling trend. First down was either a Frank Gore run to the middle or a play-fake pass play. The latter entailed a long drop by quarterback Alex Smith, and that meant the offensive line had to hold out the defense of three-plus and even four seconds. That’s a long time.
Rookie linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati did OK, but right guard Chilo Rachal struggled in that scenario. Invariably, these plays led to minimal gains, leading to long second- and third-down calls, which in turn is why the 49ers converted on less than 38 percent of their third-down tries.
Harbaugh, it is hoped, has brought in some new formations and new plays that, for once, create easy gains. It doesn’t have to happen often, but it might seem strange to 49ers fans to see other teams run plays that create easy gains. Much of the time it’s by a scheme that takes advantage of the defense, forcing it to adjust. That never happened, it seemed, for the 49ers last year—or the year before.
Three or four times on Friday it would be nice to see holes open as planned and running backs bursting through towards the secondary. Also, here’s hoping for a couple pass plays that come off as planned, especially ones from a three-step drop. Finally, it would be nice to see a receiver break free due to confusion in the defense. It would be a sign that the opposition didn’t know what’s coming.
A coach doesn’t want to show everything in the preseason, but Niner fans are hoping for a hint of an enlightened offense.
It seems that avid 49er fans were equally divided before the draft last spring whether the team needed a first-rate cornerback or a first-rate pass-rusher. As it turned out, the team got the latter in Aldon Smith, who, by most reports, is progressing nicely even though he’s just 21 years old.
That said, there’s plenty of other talent—Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Parys Haralson, to name a couple—who have the physical skills to break through. And that’s all that’s needed: 49ers on top of very near the quarterback at the time of release.
Sacks would be nice, but mere pressure to the point the quarterback is harried and unnerved would be a significant improvement over a defense last year that allowed big pass-play after big pass-play.
And then, if the quarterback does get a pass off, it would be nice to see 49ers coverage personnel actually in the vicinity and knock down the pass. Or intercept it.
The 49ers intercepted 36 passes last year while throwing 44 of their own. That ratio has to change. But more telling if the team improves is not just the completed pass but whether there’s a tackle immediately after the catch, thereby limiting the damage. If so, that’s a sign that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has players in the right position.
That’s what coaches do; but it’s still up to the player to make the play. If the players are there, at least it’s an improvement from 2010.
It remains to be seen how much Alex Smith will play against the Saints. First games often bring maybe three or four series, at most. The second preseason game usually brings the most play time for the front-line players—usually a full half.
By the third and fourth games, they become more a tryout for the backup slots on offense and defense as well as filling out special teams. As such, coaches like to see those players prove it on the field while the starters rest.
Yet, there will be about 10 or 12 series in the next 10 days where fans will be scrutinizing Smith. How does he look in the pocket? Is the ball on time and in the right spot? How does he handle the clock and the team? Can he adjust his audibles?
Generally, the preseason games don’t really test all these elements but, in Smith’s case, with a new coach who has sworn his allegiance to, Smith will be expected to show something a little different. Not a swagger or cockiness, but rather effectiveness. Like some TD throws under pressure that are accurate and strong.
It’s been reported often that Colin Kaepernick is the 49ers quarterback of the future. Many fans want the future to start now. Harbaugh has said that the rookie out of Nevada has much to learn. Preseason games are going to be his study hall.
Kaepernick is tall and very fast, and in the excitement of the game it is conceivable that he could use his legs to make some plays. That could be quite exciting for the fans, but it might give Harbaugh heart palpitations.
Kaepernick is expected to make plays, but he’s not expected to endanger himself or the team’s chances for a successful season by running recklessly during a meaningless game. Here’s a call for caution: Throw it away or slide.
Harbaugh’s training camp practices have been spirited and physical. It would be nice to see the team play that way on the field when it counts, but here’s hoping that some glimpses show up in August, too.
Such as: In middle linebacker Patrick Willis, the Niners have one of the game’s elite players. To see him making plays free and clear would suggest that Fangio’s defense is clicking, allowing its best player to be around the ball as much as possible.
Such as: Running back Frank Gore or tight end Vernon Davis making plays and gaining good yardage due to execution as opposed to individual effort.
No one expects this preseason to be enough time to transform a team whose offense in 2010 was moribund and inelegant and whose defense was OK against the run but downright leaky versus the pass. Five weeks into a Super Bowl contender? Not likely.
Just a few glimpses, though, would bring hope to the fans that this year is different.