6 Questions the San Francisco 49ers Need to Answer Before Week 1

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IAugust 22, 2011

6 Questions the San Francisco 49ers Need to Answer Before Week 1

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    Already, there are murmurs. Those who watch the San Francisco 49ers regularly have noticed something that seems to be floating under the radar of NFL observers.

    Most of the preseason attention has been directed at the decision to bring back Alex Smith. Now the latest “issue” that looms is the renegotiation of Frank Gore’s contract.

    Meanwhile, something else has been brewing and it’s starting to be recognized by those who know: The 49er defense appears to be shaping into a dynamic force.

    But the 49er staff seems content to not let that story get too much headlines. Coach Jim Harbaugh handles the talk about the offense with casual but direct answers that seem to hug a “we’re progressing but we have to get better” rail line.

    Meanwhile, when asked about the defense, Harbaugh does mention the fact that linebacker Ahmad Brooks is developing into a first-rate pass rusher, and that first-round draft pick Aldon Smith also appears to have the physical tool kit to create havoc on offensive line play.

    But there has been little said about the overall performance of the first defense so far in the preseason. Consider:

    • Last week in New Orleans, Drew Brees and his first team had little success against the Niner defense. First four series, four punts. Considering the huge advantage the Saints have in the Superdome, that is a worthwhile accomplishment.
    • On Aug. 20 against the Raiders, the Niner defense stuffed Oakland’s offense for a goal line stand, and harassed both Jason Campbell and Trent Edwards regularly. Granted, the Raiders did get inside the 5 on a nice play by receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, but note he did it over two 49er defensive backs. The coverage was there.
    • Patrick Willis has been a heat-seeking missile on defense.
    • The secondary has been in position.

    By about the fourth week of the regular season game statistics become a clearer indication of a team’s performance.

    So there’s no need to go into how yards per carry allowed and other August stats, but there’s no doubt that the 49ers have shown renowned speed to the ball and, quite surprisingly, much better secondary play.

    From this developing mix comes several possibilities, most of them quite positive. Here are the six questions the 49ers need to answer before Week 1.

Recognize New Team Strengths?

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    In last Saturday’s performance against the Raiders, the 49ers demonstrated marked improvement in all facets of offensive line play. 

    They picked up blitzes successfully, giving Smith the time to find targets in the short and mid-range passing lanes. They held the pocket decently and drop backs, and Smith’s performance represented the benefits of better line play. That alone is the biggest improvement from the Saints game.

    But there’s more: The offensive line beat back a good Raider defensive line, led tackles by Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly. They ran inside well, with Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter all getting big gains off basic running plays on – this is important – running downs.

    With a great tight end tandem of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker to go along with a big, mobile offensive line, it appears the 49ers could be developing into a power team that will be run-first.

    The passing game will be integrated as an extension of the running game – short drops for quick, precise throws to the edges or interior slots. The intention isn’t to score on any of these plays as much as move the chains.

    This tactic plays into Smith’s strengths. More importantly, the coaches have given indications that they know this. That is something that couldn’t be said for last year’s staff led by Mike Singletary.

Can Alex Smith Find the Mark?

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    Perhaps more important good line play does for the running and passing game, it gives Harbaugh and staff (as well as 49er fans) a clear assessment of Smith’s capabilities.

    Even the most ardent defenders of Smith have to concede that there are times the former first pick of the NFL draft has demonstrated less-than-pinpoint accuracy on what looks like easy throws (if there is such a thing in the NFL). He also has a tendency to throw a wobbly pass rather than a tight spiral, and that can throw off the timing as well as make the ball more difficult to catch.

    Against the Raiders, Smith demonstrated pinpoint control on nearly all his passes. Perhaps the biggest was a first-quarter completion on third-and-long to Vernon Davis for a first down. That event was a rarity in 2010.

    That Smith and Davis can turn decidedly negative situation into a new set of downs has to give the most negative 49er fan reason to hope.

    Even better, the offensive line play allowed Smith to demonstrate his abilities and, from the coaching perspective, his drawbacks. Smith gave every indication that he’s going to be the starter for a while, and at least the offensive line allowed that clear assessment to take place.

Can the D Get off the Field

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    It wasn’t the interception late in the first half to stop the Raiders that was so appealing. It was that two 49er defensive backs were in position to make the play. In that line, it is important to remember that the Niners in 2010 allowed first downs on nearly three out of five third-down plays.

    Again, preseason stats don’t mean much, but indications are that this element of the game is much better. To that point, Dashon Goldson as free safety showed up to negate a couple of deep throws, and he was in on the play that resulted in Heyward-Bey’s catch inside the five.

    The point is that Goldson was there helping on coverage, where he was supposed to be. Heyward-Bey made a good catch in tough coverage. Credit to him.

    Moreover, the Niner secondary hasn’t given up a long gain on a pass play where either coverage was blown or a tackle was missed. It’s been only two games, but already it seems that the first defense, and particularly the nickel package with Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers working the “slot” receivers,” seems to be much, much improved.

Can Braylon Edwards Stretch?

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    His 30-yard plus catch in the second quarter represented two things. First, Smith’s accuracy on a deep pass – which has been a big weakness for him – was first-rate. Second, despite coverage, Edwards made the play with a fine one-handed catch.

    It’s the sort of play an offense that appears to be developing in Niner Land needs – the ability to give the defense a deep threat. Granted, the Niners appear ready to run and run often, it’s only going to bring more defenders near the line of scrimmage.

    Edwards’ play, which came off a quick drop by Smith, was a good sign.

Can Some WR Make It a Double?

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    He’s been in camp but he’s been a minor presence, thanks to the walking boot on his left foot. But everyone expects Michael Crabtree to be ready by September. If so, what does that do for an offense?

    Edwards and Crabtree on the same side of the field can cause defenses to rotate over a safety for ‘over the top’ help as well as slide a linebacker out for more protection against the short zones. That means the other side of the offensive formation will have less help against the likes of tight end Davis or third receiver Josh Morgan.

    In short, more options for Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

    Slowly but surely, Smith and Edwards are getting in sync. Morgan has been okay to good so far. That means Crabtree isn’t guaranteed automatic playing time. He’ll have to be good and be good right away to get lots of playing time.

    But if he does, can his presence bring a little more space for an offense who will want to run on anyone?

Does the Coach See It?

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    As he was being pursued for a number of NFL head coaching positions last winter, Jim Harbaugh had many issues to consider in making the decision. Among them was the talent – or lack thereof – he would have to transform into a team.

    I always felt that the Niners had a good core of very, very good players led by Patrick Willis (a potential Hall of Farmer) and Vernon Davis. But from Josh Morgan to Joe Staley to Ahmad Brooks to Navarro Bowman there were more players who had good physical skills but needed help in demonstrating their assets.

    So far, there are signs that Harbaugh and staff are doing their best to put their players in position to make plays. That’s the ultimate test for a coach. It’s not showing a player how to back-pedal or what position the hands have to be in to make a sideline catch.

    It’s the overall coaching scheme that puts these players in the right place at the right time to take advantage of their skills.

    That’s what we saw against the Raiders. Vernon Davis with one-on-one coverage on third-and-long; Anthony Dixon busting right end for 12 yards on a first-down play; Ted Ginn Jr. sitting down in the zone to turn a 4-yard pass into a key second-down gain that led to a third-and-1 rather than a third-and-9.

    To take the negative view, it’s still preseason. It doesn’t mean much, and opening with Seattle and Dallas at home will be better tests.

    However, it has to be said on the positive that these developments are quite the opposite from last year at this time. That’s an issue most can agree on.