The 20-17 win over the San Diego Chargers capped the San Francisco 49ers’ 2011 preseason that could be called an up-and-down experience. Well, really, it was down-then-up run through four games. But in each game there were signs of exemplary play as well as noted weaknesses. Consider:
Game 2 vs. Raiders: Offensive line performance was much better and it was clear that the 49ers dominated the line of scrimmage, though the low scoring belied that fact. At the same time, fourth-round pick Kendall Hunter emerged as a promising change-of-pace back from Frank Gore.
Game 3 vs. Texans: Poor offensive line performance again resulted in a harassed and harried Alex Smith, which ended in a low-scoring affair. At the same time, the second-string defense got lit up a little but backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick started to make some plays.
Game 4 in San Diego: A 14-play, 80-yard TD drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock? Is this the second coming of Bill Walsh’s 1981 West Coast offense? A crisp Alex Smith (5-of-6) who even ran out of the pocket at the right time? The Downside: Defense gave up one long TD run.
What does it all mean? What can be expected come the regular season? Here are five areas of intrigue that, if realized, could propel the 49ers atop the NFC West.
It seems that when he has to, new coach Jim Harbaugh is able to get the team focused and efficient. The third game against the Texans, in my mind, gets thrown out because Harbaugh said prior to the game that he wanted to see a lot of backups play. Going against one of the best offenses in the NFL, the rookies, backups and free agents had little chance. But that’s what preseason games are for: analyzing, assessing and gaining information on how to set the roster.
The score doesn’t matter as long as coaches got the chance to make clear decisions on key personnel. Example: First-round pick Aldon Smith got burned in pass coverage. He never really had to play pass defense at Missouri, but here’s the chance to see what he could do. Play and learn.
An offseason workout regimen that dropped about 15 pounds off his 6’5” frame seems to have given the former USC standout that extra jolt out of his stance. He’s getting into defensive tackles quicker and he’s moving well on pulls around the corner.
This marks a significant improvement over last year’s offensive plans in which left guard Mike Iupati regularly became the tip of the running game’s spear. Having both guards playing at a higher level than 2010 brings great promise for the offense.
The first quarter of the San Diego game showed a team built around a powerful, effective power running game spiced with short, accurate throws to a variety of targets. Note that Vernon Davis was hardly used, but Ted Ginn Jr., Delanie Walker and Braylon Edwards all made important catches.
Alex Smith stood in the pocket with steady feet, which resulted in those short but sharp and accurate throws to his receivers. The offense moved down the field. Twelve first downs in the first 14 minutes of the first quarter indicate the offensive line clicked. That some Charger second-string defenders were involved didn’t matter. Smith looked confident, and it showed.
If there’s any criticism, it’s that no throws extended the defense. But then, they didn’t have to.
On the other side of the ball, NaVorro Bowman’s sack, strip and recovery of Billy Volek was the play of the game. But also Patrick Willis made plays, though Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson held their gaps well.
Better yet, later in the game two other players showed how they might develop into key contributors. Antwan Applewhite, the former Charger signed as a free agent, has amazing speed and strength and appears ready to become a key player in some of Vic Fangio’s more complex schemes. Also, free agent Larry Grant seems slated as a strong inside backup.
This very good read by Peter King of Sports Illustrated gives some insight into how complex defenses are getting, and how the offenses have to try to outmaneuver them.
One of the leaders in this trend is Bill Belechick in New England. When his teams won Super Bowls a couple of years ago, it was widely known that the Patriots had the best set of linebackers in the NFL. The Niners are very deep in this essential position, and it seems they, too, are capable of providing plenty of matchup headaches to opposing teams.
Since it isn’t in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that a 4-0 preseason record guarantees a team a spot in the Super Bowl, most coaches use the meaningless games for the expressed purposes of:
1) Limited tune-ups for starters, who go at a higher speed and against different personnel than what they get in training camp.
2) Assessing new players, returning players who have been injured and new schemes.
3) Getting insight into what kind of team will develop over the next three (or four) months.
The uniform has the same colors. Much of the personnel are the same. But this is a new team because it has a new captain and a lot of first officers (assistant coaches) who appear ready to be able to steer Good Ship Niner through the narrow and demanding straights of the NFL’s 16-game schedule.
But remember, the evolution of the team doesn’t stop once preseason ends. In fact, the teams are at the start of their evolutionary stages. They’ll have to adapt to injuries, developments within division rivals and the emergence of their own talents as well as protecting or overcoming their own weaknesses.
What Harbaugh and staff have shown so far is the ability to turn on the team’s better play when needed. It might be fortuitous results, but it seems to me that he’s using the preseason to reduce expectations on his teams (poor showings in Games 1 and 3) followed by better performances in the second and fourth.
It’s a coaching technique of tearing down and building up, with the intent of getting the team to asses weaknesses, overcome them and build confidence. And the smiles on the sidelines of the San Diego game early on was a definite difference from last year. No one was smiling then.
It makes for great intrigue.