San Francisco 49ers: What To Expect for the Remainder of the 2011 Season
Through 11 weeks of football, the San Francisco 49ers have proven themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL.
They have gained the reputation as an old-school smash mouth team; relying on a power running game, fierce defense and solid special teams.
Jim Harbaugh and his offensive and defensive coordinators (Greg Roman and Vic Fangio) have shown the ability to add new wrinkles and schemes throughout the season to both sides of the ball.
The following is a breakdown of what fans can expect to see from the San Francisco 49ers for the remainder of the season.
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The 49ers rank sixth in the league with 134.2 rushing yards per game thanks to Frank Gore, who is having his best season since 2006. However, as the season progresses look for Gore to get less carries so that the 49ers can preserve him for the playoffs.
Frank Gore's biggest issue has always been his health. Although he has registered a carry in every game this season, he has again been vulnerable to injury (minor injuries to his ankle and knee).
Look for Kendall Hunter to be in the huddle more often as the season progresses. He is averaging 4.4 yards per carry which is just .2 yards less than Gore. In limited snaps this season, Hunter has demonstrated that he is a capable rusher, receiver and pass protector despite his small build (5'7" 199 lbs).
Anthony Dixon (6'1" 233lbs) is a change of pace power back. His weakness is that he has the tendency to stop moving his feet when running the ball up the middle. If he can improve this, look for him to see more carries in relief of the team's two smaller backs.
Gore is a competitive player. Whether injured or resting, he hates standing on the sidelines while the offense is on the field. However, making sure Gore is 100 percent going into the playoffs is a must if the 49ers hope to beat the NFL's best teams.
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The San Francisco 49ers rank last in the league with 27.7 pass attempts per game. This is because the 9-1 49ers have been playing with the lead in many of their games, utilizing the running game to run out the clock.
In the last two games Alex Smith has been asked to air it out more than usual, throwing 30 passes against the New York Giants and 38 passes against the Arizona Cardinals. Look for Smith's attempts per game to continue to increase as the season progresses.
The 49ers want to prove that they are not a one-dimensional offense. Expect them to continue to air it out more so that opposing defenses cannot key on just one aspect of the 49ers' offense. This will increase Smith's confidence with his receivers, rest Gore's legs and make it harder for defenses to game plan against the 49ers.
Michael Crabtree is emerging as Smith's go-to receiver. He has five or more receptions in nine games played (he missed the Dallas Cowboys game with an injury). Crabtree's continued production will result in defenses paying more attention to him, which should benefit Vernon Davis who typically draws the most attention from opposing secondaries.
This, combined with the solid play from Delanie Walker and the physical presence of Braylon Edwards, could create nightmares for opposing defenses. Also look for Kyle Williams to see more action as he has proved to be a better receiver than Ted Ginn Jr.
The 49ers will let Smith throw the ball more as the season progresses which will force opposing defenses to respect the pass and in turn open up running lanes for Gore and company. Making the offense more balanced will benefit them come playoff time.
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Patrick Willis and Justin Smith are the leaders of the best defense in football. San Francisco has yet to allow a running back to gain over 100 yards in a game or score a touchdown. Expect the 49ers to continue their dominance against the run as the season continues.
The 49ers have been able to suffocate offenses that rely on the run, but have not been able to dominate teams that are able to air it out.
The defense's weakness is the secondary. Carlos Rodgers is having a career year with five interceptions, but the other corners on the depth chart (Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Tramaine Brock) are suspect. The defensive line has been able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks which has made the secondary look better than they are.
The elite quarterbacks San Francisco has faced have all put up big numbers. Tony Romo, Michael Vick, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning have accounted for eight of the 14 passing touchdowns scored on the 49ers this year. In all these games the secondary has given up big plays that either resulted in the 49ers losing or kept the opposing team within striking distance of winning.
Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio has shown the ability to confuse opposing offenses by out-scheming them. This is another reason why the defensive secondary has looked better than it actually is. Fangio is going to keep adding new looks to the defense in order keep opposing quarterbacks on their toes.
Do not be surprised if critics are knocking the 49ers' secondary following their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 19th. The secondary will be the demise of the 49ers in the playoffs.
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The 49ers special teams is one of the most dominant units in the league. They are often an overlooked reason for their success. There is no reason to doubt that the special teams will continue to be one of the reasons the 49ers win games as the season continues.
It's hard to say that special teams win games, but Ted Ginn Jr.'s two return touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 sealed the win, and David Akers' onside kick against the New York Giants kept the 49ers from falling too far behind in the early stages of the game.
Punter Andy Lee and kicker David Akers, have been to seven Pro Bowls combined. This year they rank among the best at their respective positions.
Ted Ginn Jr. has been able to consistently give the 49ers' offense good starting field position with his shifty punt and kick returns.
Ginn will have one more return for a touchdown before the year is over, but it will come in a blowout win against one of the woeful NFC West teams. Expect both Lee and Akers to make the Pro Bowl.
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If the playoffs started today, San Francisco would be the second seed in the NFC, and would enjoy the luxury of a first-round bye. Considering that four of their next six games will be played against NFC West teams, it is all but certain that the 49ers will finish the regular season as one of the top two teams in the NFC.
Not having to play in the Wild Card Round will benefit the 49ers by giving Gore and the rest of the roster extra time to get healthy. It will allow the coaching staff the time to prepare for their opponents and add fresh components to their playbook.
Regardless of who they play, the 49ers special teams will continue their consistency. The offense will be able to put up points, and the defense will be able to stop the run. What remains to be seen is how well their secondary can play against top notch quarterbacks... such as Aaron Rodgers.