The San Francisco 49ers' outstanding, and much deserved, 4-1 record thus far has drawn enough positive attention to make up for the last eight years of neglect.
And while the only loss came in overtime to a struggling Dallas Cowboys team, it is evident that the offensive production must be improved if the Jim Harbaugh's Niners want to end this season on a positive note.
Through five weeks, the 49ers have relied heavily on their outstanding defense to close out games—the lone exception being the thrashing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; but even in that melee, it was the hard-hitting, takeaway machine of the Niners that set the demoralizing tone for a victory.
We have yet to see the 49ers offense placed in a situation where they will need to bail out their defense; only then will we be able to honestly gauge the capacity for this team to compete in the upper echelon of football.
With that in mind, here's some key areas of improvement the 49ers must focus on during the second half of the season.
Proficiency at QB
Let's get this out of the way immediately: Alex Smith should be commended and lauded for his game management and his minimal interception figures.
Cautious football, however, will not get it done in the playoffs, and the feel-good story of his career's revival in the face of eight rough years will not get you extra points in the playoffs. Alex Smith must continue to improve his ability to deliver the ball.
Too many times, this season, he's delivered balls too high or too short for his receivers. In the final outcome of the game, the fact that he's throwing uncatchable balls does benefit a 49ers' lead, but looking ahead at potential playoff games, when defenses man up and stack the line preventing an efficient run attack, Alex Smith will need to deliver.
A favorable, NFC West heavy, remaining schedule with suspect defensive backfields will provide the perfect opportunity for Alex Smith to test and improve his ball delivery, while increasing his confidence.
It's clear that Harbaugh has been a blinding light from heaven for the troubled quarterback, and with each successive game, he's let off the reins a little, but in order to keep winning, a better passing game is required, and definitely demanded, by a 49ers brand established on the shoulders of Steve Young and Joe Montana.
The unfortunate loss of Josh Morgan to the injured reserve list places an incredible amount of pressure on the remaining bodies. The recent signing of former Green Bay Packer, Brett Swain, does temporarily add another target for Alex Smith, but it is unclear how much of Morgan's void he'll be able to fill.
Michael Crabtree's required presence as a game-changer has been increased, and he must meet the challenge head-on. Braylon Edwards is due back into action after the bye week, though he will likely not be up to speed right away.
Any adjustments that may be required will be visible this weekend against the Lions, and hopefully, they will be resolved post-bye week as the 49ers head into the second half of the season.
Offensive Line Continuity and Blocking
The success of this 49ers team, more than anything, rests upon the ability of the offensive line to continually improve and provide the necessary leverage for the offense and against opposing defenses.
The guys that are perpetually in the trenches, who receive heavy criticism and little credit, pave the way for the power running of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter and create the pocket and time for Smith to deliver to his receivers.
Like Alex Smith, this often criticized unit has shown growth and progress with each successive week. We've come a long way from Joe Staley's “we don't suck” remarks, to the aggressive pulling and blocking that forced its will upon a distinguished Buccaneers team. It truly was a thing of beauty seeing the O-line pulling for each other and delivering brutal blocks that allowed the ever important yards on the ground for the Niners.
If they can maintain, and hopefully improve, their impact and presence, the 49ers will be in a good position to continue their winning ways in the second half of the season.
Special mention should be made of the many tight ends that Harbaugh is sending to the line to act as additional linemen and who committed superbly last week to their assignments.
A better passing attack, favored by less-than-impressive NFC West defenses, will increase the potential for offensive production.
A passing attack, however, will rely on the impact of Michael Crabtree as a leader, the health of a returning Braylon Edwards and will require a more polished and experienced effort from the offensive line.
Pending the upcoming three games, these are the biggest areas that need to be addressed for offensive improvement in the second half. Any new exploits will become evident after this weekend's game when the 49ers face a potent offense capable of placing their defense in a deep hole.