Jim Harbaugh Spends Time Teaching Smith and McCown
Head coach Jim Harbaugh needs some players to step up and begin to show that they merit their starting jobs. The 49ers are not a deep team, so it will be critical for the players Harbaugh is counting on to deliver.
Let's take a closer look at some of the key players the 49ers need to play well in 2011.
The 49ers will need a big contribution from Ray McDonald
Ray McDonald is entering his fifth season with the San Francisco 49ers. He has started only nine games in his previous four years. The career backup is now being counted on to step in and be a force along the defensive front for the 49ers.
McDonald plays the left defensive end spot, opposite Justin Smith on the right side. Smith is one of the best in the league, which means McDonald will be severely tested. He will need to be up to the task, in order for the 49er defense to excel.
The injury bug has also been a problem over the years, as nagging injuries have hindered McDonald's progress and cut into his playing time.
McDonald has only five career sacks in four years. He has been given a golden opportunity to prove that he is indeed a player the 49ers can rely on.
The 49ers do not have a lot of depth along the defensive line, so McDonald will need to stay healthy and play well. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will employ a much more pressure-oriented defense, which will create more chances for McDonald to make plays.
Josh Morgan needs to produce and make plays
The West Coast offense being implemented by Jim Harbaugh should give several players the chance to make major contributions in 2011. One of these players who needs to grab hold of that opportunity is wide receiver Josh Morgan.
Morgan is coming off a season where he made 44 catches for 698 yards and two touchdowns. He has not done a lot in the preseason and must show improvement.
Morgan needs to improve his route running and find ways to get open. He will be one of the starting wide receivers, along with Braylon Edwards, when the season begins. Morgan will stay there until Michael Crabtree gets back on the field following his foot injury.
Harbaugh, unlike his predecessor Mike Singletary, will not just insert Crabtree into the starting lineup when Crabtree announces he is fit to play. Harbaugh will require that Crabtree is in sync with quarterback Alex Smith and the pair will need to get some good practice repetitions in first.
This will give Morgan a big chance to make an impact. Even if Crabtree does take Morgan's starting spot at some point, Morgan will still be on the field quite a bit in Harbaugh's West Coast system.
Cornerback Shawntae Spencer must overcome injury
The San Francisco 49ers had one of the worst defensive backfields in the NFL in 2010 and have taken major steps to upgrade this unit. Gone is expensive cornerback Nate Clements, who had trouble covering quick, shifty receivers; he was replaced by free-agent acquisition Carlos Rogers.
The 49ers also acquired Donte Whitner, who will play strong safety alongside free safety Dashon Goldson. Additionally, the 49ers have depth in the defensive backfield with Reggie Smith, Tarell Brown, Madieu Williams, Phillip Adams and rookie Chris Culliver.
The one position up in the air in the secondary is Shawntae Spencer's cornerback spot. He has been injured with a bad hamstring and has missed most of training camp. Tremaine Brock has stepped in and played well in his absence.
Brock is now pushing for the starting job and how he plays against the Texans this Saturday will be something to watch. Unlike former coaches, Harbaugh comes in with a clean slate and is not beholden to anybody. If Brock proves he can play and Spencer is unable to show his talent on the field, Brock will win that job.
It will be up to Spencer and his cranky hamstring if he's able to get on the field and keep his starting position.
The 49ers need a strong year from Joe Staley
It has often been said that an offensive line is a unit and each player must work cohesively with the others in that unit. For this reason, I am isolating the entire offensive line as one group that needs to step up and perform much better.
The 49ers had one of the worst offensive lines in football last year; they gave up 44 sacks, struggled with penalties and had trouble establishing a successful running game. A large part of this was the offensive game plan and play-calling.
The 49ers were incredibly predictable on offense and were often faced with 3rd-and-long situations. The opposition pressured the quarterback and harassed him into making mistakes.
Right tackle is being handled by second-year pro Anthony Davis. He was repeatedly victimized by strong pass rushers and committed false start and holding penalties at an alarming rate. Davis was not ready to start last year and he simply must be better in 2011.
The right guard spot was also extremely shaky last year. Chilo Rachal played inconsistently and could lose his job to super-sub Adam Snyder. Snyder has practiced in this spot recently and may win the job.
The 49ers lost David Baas in free agency, but went out and signed veteran Jonathan Goodwin. Goodwin will most likely start at center.
The left guard in 2010, Mike Iupati was a bright spot for the 49ers. As a rookie, Iupati improved throughout the season and is one of the most devastating run blockers in the league.
Joe Staley starts at left tackle and must be at full strength to protect Alex Smith's blind side. Staley has missed a large part of the past two seasons, but appears healthy at this point. The 49ers need Staley to stay healthy and be effective.
A productive offense always starts with good offensive line play. Harbaugh built a strong line at Stanford and I expect him to do that in San Francisco as well.
Alex Smith will begin the season as the starter
As Alex Smith goes, so will the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh has staked his reputation on Smith and will work closely with him to improve.
Smith's biggest problem is his lack of accuracy when passing the football. He also has a tendency to make the big mistakes at the most inopportune times.
In his first two preseason games this year, Smith has been up and down. In the first game against the Saints, Smith and the entire 49er offense struggled. New Orleans employed a tough blitzing defense and the 49ers were not prepared.
The offensive line could not contain the Saints' aggressive pass rush and Smith was running for his life on several plays. Smith finished with 2-of-7 passing for only 10 yards. It was a truly inept performance by the 49er offense.
The second preseason game against the Raiders went much better for the 49ers on the football field. By now, I'm sure you have all heard about the violent problems during this game, so I won't go into that.
Smith led the 49ers and threw for 126 yards on 8-of-13 passing. Smith and the 49er offense have a lot of room for improvement, but at least this game was a step in the right direction.
Harbaugh believes he can turn Smith into a decent and productive NFL quarterback. He has a track record of doing this and I hope he's able to do it again.
Frank Gore is healthy and should have a big year
The San Francisco 49ers have a lot of holes and question marks as they head into the 2011 season. The 49ers hope that players step forward in these next two exhibition games and earn their starting positions.
Defensively, the 49ers are pretty solid. Under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, they will blitz more and apply more pressure to the opposition. This will also help to hide some of the other deficiencies the 49ers have.
Offensively, the 49ers have more question marks and the lockout hurt them. They were robbed of valuable practice time, which would have helped the 49ers get more comfortable with the system.
The 49er players seem very excited about the new offensive and defensive schemes. Harbaugh and Fangio seem to have their buy-in on both sides of the football. That is literally half the battle.
I firmly believe Coach Harbaugh is the right man for the job and will have the 49ers turned around into a perennial playoff contender within two to three years.
Unfortunately, I think the 49ers don't yet have enough overall talent on the roster to make the playoffs this season. It will be up to Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke to improve the roster.
After all is said and done this year, I believe the 49ers will have shown significant improvement, but their record may not show it. The 49ers look like a 7-9 team to me this year.