Jim Harbaugh has led the improvement of the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have a 10-3 record and are playoff bound for the first time since 2002. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a main reason for the 49ers' incredible transformation.
Although the 49ers slipped up and lost this past weekend to Arizona, they are still in the hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs. The key now for the 49ers is to win out to earn that bye and a subsequent Round 2 home game to be played in San Francisco.
There are several players who have stepped up their level of play from the 2010 season and are integral factors in the success of the 2011 49ers. Let''s take a look at those players.
In order to qualify for our list, the player must have been with the team in 2010 and have shown a marked improvement in 2011. New additions like Carlos Rogers or Aldon Smith have played quality football but are not considered for our study.
Anthony Davis has been better than in 2010
Anthony Davis was so bad in 2010 that many were calling his draft selection a bust. He was routinely beaten for sacks and pressured by salivating pass-rushers. The 49ers constantly had to use a tight end or running back to help Davis, or it was open season on their quarterback.
Davis also led the league in penalties called against him, as two or three false starts and holding calls were the norm every game.
2011 saw Davis and the entire 49ers' offensive line get off to a poor start. Davis and his line mate on the right side Chilo Rachal resembled turnstiles, as on-rushing defenders constantly got by them and into Alex Smith's face.
Davis was again being penalized at an alarming rate, as he added three tripping penalties to his usual false starts and holding calls.
Then, in the third game of the season, Rachal was replaced by Adam Snyder, and Davis began to improve somewhat. Davis' improvement is linked to the presence of Snyder, as he did a much better job than Rachal, which allowed Davis to just focus on his own responsibilities.
Davis is a decent run blocker, it's in pass blocking where he has had his problems. As the 2011 season has progressed, Davis has shown improvement. There are still too many penalties and an occasional lapse, but more often than not, he has been holding his own in pass protection.
Davis was selected by the 49ers in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, 11th overall. He has not yet lived up to his lofty draft status, but at least, he's moving in the right direction.
The roars of Davis being a total bust have turned into just whispers, and if he can continue to improve, they will die down completely.
Ahmad Brooks closes in on Josh Freeman
Ahmad Brooks is having his most productive year as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. He is the starting strong-side linebacker and has already registered personal highs in tackles for the season.
Brooks had 31 tackles and five sacks in 2010 but has already amassed 39 tackles and six sacks with three games left to play in the 2011 season.
There have been times when Brooks has been victimized by play-action fakes, allowing his man, usually the tight end, to get behind him. He also has had a few periods where he has virtually disappeared for long stretches and made minimal impact in a game.
Nevertheless, more often than not, Brooks has stepped up his overall level of play and been a positive force for the 49ers' defense.
Adam Snyder has helped to solidify the 49ers' offensive line
Prior to the 2011 season, Adam Snyder was like the super-sub. He could come in and play respectably at any position on the offensive line.
Due to injuries to other players over the years, we have seen Snyder play both tackle and guard spots, and he was even working at center in this past training camp. Snyder is a versatile veteran, now in his seventh NFL season.
When right guard Chilo Rachal struggled mightily early in the season, head coach Jim Harbaugh inserted Snyder into his spot. Since that moment, the 49ers' offensive line began to improve.
Snyder is now entrenched in the right-guard spot, and his consistency and understanding of the game has undoubtedly helped young right tackle Anthony Davis, also.
Tarell Brown returns an interception against the Cardinals
I must admit, in prior seasons, whenever I saw Tarell Brown in the game at the corner or nickelback positions, I flinched and hoped for a minor miracle.
Brown typically played so far off the receiver, it was an easy completion in front of him. Then, if he pressed up tighter, he was victimized for a long touchdown. Simply put, Brown was just not very good.
In 2011, the 49ers expected to have Carlos Rogers and Shawntae Spencer starting at the cornerback positions. Rogers, a free-agent acquisition from the Redskins has done a very good job and leads the team with five interceptions.
Spencer, on the other hand, has been hurt, and although he's now relatively healthy, still rarely sees any playing time. Brown inherited the position due to Spencer's injury problems and has been adequate. My best guess is that Spencer, who also commands a high salary, will not be with the team next year.
Brown has improved with the greater playing time experience and good coaching in 2011. He's still nowhere near being a lockdown cover man, but he's much better than he used to be.
Isaac Sopoaga has played well at the nose tackle spot
The San Francisco 49ers had a tough decision to make this past summer. Should they sign nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin to a big contract or move Isaac Sopoaga inside from his defensive end position.
The 49ers opted to let Franklin leave and move Sopoaga inside. That was an excellent decision, as they saved millions in salary cap space, and Sopoaga has played well.
Nose tackle seems to suit Sopoaga very well, as he was a strong run defender, but not a good pass-rusher from the end. Now, at the nose, he can focus more on stuffing the run and occupying blockers, which enables 49er linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to fly around and make plays.
Sopoaga does not have a sack this year and only had one-and-a-half last season. His ability to hold his own inside is one of the key reasons the 49ers lead the league in rushing defense.
The 49ers have not allowed a single rushing touchdown all year, and they have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 35 consecutive games. Sopoaga has played an important role in the success of the 49ers' defense in 2011.
In addition to his play on defense, head coach Jim Harbaugh has employed Sopoaga as a blocking back in the 49ers' short yardage, jumbo formation. Sopoaga even caught a pass for 18 yards earlier in the season.
It's hard to find anyone on the team who seems to be having more fun out on the football field than Sopoaga is this year.
Ray McDonald has been a productive starter this season
Ray McDonald had started only nine games in his previous four seasons with the 49ers. Heading into the 2011 campaign, the 49ers allowed free-agent Aubrayo Franklin to walk and moved Isaac Sopoaga to the nose-tackle spot.
This move opened up a starting defensive end spot for McDonald, opposite Pro Bowl end Justin Smith. There were questions as to whether McDonald could handle an every-down role, but he has done a fine job.
McDonald has achieved career highs with 29 tackles and four sacks in the 12 games he has played in, thus far. In addition to being a better pass-rushing end than Sopoaga, McDonald also does a strong job against the run.
The 49ers' front seven is arguably the best in the league, and McDonald is an integral cog in that unit.
Michael Crabtree excels in RAC yardage
Michael Crabtree was the 49ers' first-round draft pick in 2009. In his first two years in the league, he was rightfully accused of being a prima donna and a selfish, "look at me," type of ball player.
Under Jim Harbaugh, Crabtree is showing a much-needed level of growth and professionalism. His play on the field has also improved, and he's now one of Alex Smith's top targets.
With his next reception, Crabtree will surpass his career high of 55 catches. He also only needs 73 more yards to surpass his career high in yardage, which is 741.
The 49ers drafted Crabtree with the hope that he would become a top flight, No. 1 receiver for them. He has not yet achieved that status, but is getting closer, as the season wears on. If Crabtree continues to improve, he has the talent to be a "go-to" receiver for the 49ers.
The biggest difference I see with Crabtree is that he has matured as a player and as a person. His histrionics after even a simple 10-yard reception no longer appear, and he's not displaying the diva attitude he showed his first two seasons.
I believe Crabtree realized early on that these antics were not going to be tolerated by Harbaugh, and so, he toned them down. It's good to see a more professional player and team-oriented person out on the field, and I credit both Harbaugh and Crabtree for making this happen.
Kyle Williams sprints for a long touchdown
Kyle Williams played in just five games last year and had one reception for eight yards. Heading into the 2011 season, it was questionable if he would even make the team.
Williams had been plagued by nagging injuries, and it was unclear if he was durable enough to contribute on a consistent basis. Williams started 2011 as the fifth wide receiver, so he rarely saw the field.
Injuries to Joshua Morgan and Braylon Edwards finally gave Williams the opportunity he was looking for. Williams has played well when given the chance and has 15 catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns. Eleven of those receptions have come in three of the past four weeks.
Williams has one thing that none of the other 49er wide receivers have, and that's incredible lateral quickness. He can be effective out of the slot position or flanked out wide.
Last week against the Rams, Williams caught a short pass from Alex Smith, broke one tackle and hit a seam in the defense. He used his incredible quickness to elude and outrun the defenders for a 56-yard touchdown.
The 49ers are mighty happy they kept Williams, and he has delivered when given the chances.
Alex Smith has flourished under Jim Harbaugh
When the 2010 season ended, nobody in their right mind would have predicted that Alex Smith would don a 49ers' uniform ever again. Then, Jim Harbaugh was signed as the head coach, and the lockout delayed any free-agent movement.
Lo and behold, Harbaugh wanted Alex Smith and Smith agreed to return. Under Harbaugh's expert tutelage, Smith has developed into a decent NFL quarterback. He certainly isn't in the class of Rodgers, Brady, Brees or even Eli Manning, but he's far better than he was in years past.
Harbaugh has taught Smith so much about effectively playing the quarterback position. Smith does not possess the strongest or most accurate arm, but he has good mobility, and the main thing is he has been keeping the turnovers down.
Smith has thrown 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He has also not made the critical blunder to cost his team at the most crucial times, as he had done in the past.
Smith's completion percentage of 61.7 and quarterback rating of 91.5 are both career bests. Harbaugh has also helped Smith with his decision making, and that's a big reason for the low number of turnovers this year.
The 49ers have been having trouble scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and Smith should take some of the heat for that. However, the offensive line has not opened holes in the red zone, and receivers have had trouble getting open with less space to maneuver.
Smith has improved tremendously and is now a competent NFL quarterback. Not great, but competent. How far the 49ers go in the postseason depends largely on his performance. The defense will keep the 49ers in every game; it will be up to Smith and the offense to generate enough points to win.
NaVorro Bowman makes plays all over the field
NaVorro Bowman was selected in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft. He was a backup inside linebacker to Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis.
When Spikes signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers, Bowman took over as a starting inside backer, next to Willis. The emergence of Bowman as an outstanding linebacker has been incredible to watch.
He's the leading tackler for the 49ers, with 113 stops. Bowman has made everyone forget about Spikes and is playing at a Pro Bowl level. He and Willis make up the top inside linebacker duo in the league.
Unlike Spikes, Bowman has the athleticism to be an every down defender, whereas Spikes played mostly on running downs. It's exciting to watch Bowman and Willis fly around the field and make plays.
Bowman is our most improved 49er for the 2011 season.
Patrick Willis is nursing a sore hamstring
The San Francisco 49ers are poised to make a deep run in the playoffs. Although I don't see them beating Green Bay on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, they have every chance of getting there.
The 49ers will need a healthy Patrick Willis and Frank Gore, in order to win in the playoffs. I also believe we haven't seen everything from Vic Fangio on the defensive side of the ball or from Jim Harbaugh, offensively.
If the 10 players I noted on this list continue to improve, that will help the 49ers as they focus on making a deep run in the postseason.