San Francisco 49ers: Players Who Have Improved Under Jim Harbaugh and His Staff

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJanuary 1, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: Players Who Have Improved Under Jim Harbaugh and His Staff

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    The San Francisco 49ers finish the final regular season game with a record of 13-3. With their 34-27 win over the Rams, the 49ers secured the second-best record in the NFC and the first-round bye for the playoffs.

    The cast of characters is largely the same, with only a few impact newcomers. Only Donte Whitner, Aldon Smith, Bruce Miller and Carlos Rogers are new to the 49ers and playing big roles in the 49ers' regular rotation.

    The main difference is the improvement of the players, and it's the coaching staff that can be credited for this growth. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has brought a winning attitude to the 49ers and has also done an excellent job with the offense.

    Harbaugh brought in a fine group of assistant coaches and let them do their jobs. Vic Fangio is the defensive coordinator and totally runs that side of the football. Fangio and his group of defensive coaches have made the 49ers the top unit in the NFL in fewest points allowed.

    Brad Seely, special teams coach, has been given autonomy over the special teams and has arguably the best overall special teams units in the the NFC. Kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee both made the Pro Bowl, and the Niners' coverage units have been stellar.

    When the 49ers hired Harbaugh, I felt he would turn this team around, but I thought it would take two or three years. The lockout forced the 49ers to miss a lot of valuable practice time and shortened the time they had to implement their new systems.

    Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the 49ers to have such a tremendous season, and the credit goes to the coaching staff and the hard work and development of the players. Let's take a look at some of the players who have improved the most in 2011.

11. Ahmad Brooks

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    Ahmad Brooks is in his sixth NFL season, and prior to this year, he made a total of eight starts for the 49ers. He has always had good size and strength, but had a tendency to be inconsistent.

    Brooks could look great for a an extended period of time, then miss an assignment that resulted in a big play for the opposition. This tendency has diminished in 2011, as Brooks has become much more consistent.

    Brooks has 47 tackles, including six sacks, with one game remaining. (His previous high in tackles was 31.) Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, along with linebackers coach Jim Leavitt, have done a fine job helping Brooks become a solid, every-down linebacker.

10. Dashon Goldson

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    His fifth season in San Francisco, Dashon Goldson was being groomed to be the leader of the defensive secondary.

    However, in 2010, he regressed. It seemed the added responsibility of coordinating the secondary also had a negative effect on his play.

    In 2010, Goldson had just one interception and was not the playmaker the 49ers needed.

    All of this changed in 2011.

    Goldson has developed into a fierce hitter and is tied for the team lead with six interceptions. He has also forced a fumble and recovered a fumble this year.

    In the off-season, GM Trent Baalke went out and signed strong safety Donte Whitner as a free agent. The veteran Whitner provided a stabilizing influence for the 49ers' secondary and also assumed the duty of making most of the secondary calls.

    The acquisition of Whitner freed up Goldson to just go out and play football. Goldson was able to focus on his own assignments, as opposed to worrying about everyone else's. He has flourished and earned a Pro Bowl nod for the first time in his career.

9. Ray McDonald

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    Ray McDonald is in his fifth year with the 49ers.

    In his prior four seasons, he started only nine games. This season, McDonald has started 15 of the 49ers' 16 games, missing only one due to injury.

    McDonald was one of the reasons the 49ers felt they could allow nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin to leave via free agency. San Francisco moved Isaac Sopoaga inside to the nose tackle position to replace Franklin, and McDonald took over the defensive end position.

    McDonald has been very steady, and the most notable difference was when he missed the one game due to injury; there was a pronounced drop-off.

    With the increased playing time, McDonald has been productive. Heading into the final game against the Rams, he has 38 tackles—more than any in his career. He also has 5.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

    Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is the lone holdover from Mike Singletary's staff. He has done a great job with McDonald and the defensive line, and the 49ers' front seven is one of the top groups in the NFL.

8. Michael Crabtree

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    Michael Crabtree has benefited from Jim Harbaugh's presence in many ways. He is playing the best football of his career and is also displaying a more professional approach on and off the field.

    Crabtree was characterized as a diva, "me-first" type of player in his prior two years with the 49ers. He even got into a training camp dust-up with team captain Vernon Davis, who questioned his attitude and work ethic.

    All that has changed under Harbaugh.

    Crabtree learned quickly that his self-promoting antics would not be tolerated and has toned down his act. He has matured as a player and a professional, and this is a credit to Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and receivers coach John Morton.

    Crabtree has 73 receptions heading into the team's final game, and his 880 yards are both career-highs. He is also displaying the run-after-the-catch ability the 49ers were hoping for.

    In two very refreshing moves, Crabtree scored two touchdowns against the Rams, hugged a couple teammates and both times, ran off the field. Nowhere were the histrionics he would have demonstrated earlier in his career.

    It is great to see Crabtree developing into a better receiver and playing like a professional. He has greatly matured as a player and a man.

7. Kyle Williams

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    Kyle Williams was a late-round 2010 draft pick who rarely saw the field and hardly contributed. He had only one reception for eight yards last year.

    Williams has been hampered by nagging injuries throughout his career, but he has made a bigger impact in 2011 with 20 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns.

    Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have found ways to utilize Williams' talent. He is especially dangerous as a slot receiver where he can best use his speed and quickness.

    Although Williams missed the Rams' game due to a concussion suffered last week in Seattle, he has emerged as a threat in the 49ers' passing game.

6. Anthony Davis

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    The 49ers drafted Anthony Davis in the first round of the 2010 draft. After one season and a few games into 2011, there were rumblings of him being a bust.

    Davis was routinely beaten on the pass-rush, his footwork was slow and he committed far too many penalties; Davis was the most penalized offensive lineman in the league in 2010.

    To his credit, he has improved throughout this season. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno deserves a lot of credit for Davis' improvement and that of the entire line.

    Davis has always been a decent run-blocker, but his pass-blocking techniques were poor. His improvement is a big reason why the 49ers' offensive line has solidified.

5. NaVorro Bowman

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    NaVorro Bowman played behind Takeo Spikes last season and had 46 tackles in limited duty. When Spikes left via free agency to join the San Diego Chargers, Bowman inherited his inside linebacker spot.

    Bowman has been spectacular. Heading into the Rams game, he leads the team with 133 tackles, one of the best in the league. He should have made the Pro Bowl this year.

    Bowman is a gifted athlete with speed and power. He has learned how to utilize his talents and be in the right positions to make plays for the 49ers' defense.

    Linebackers coach Jim Leavitt has worked with Bowman and helped him with extensive film study. Leavitt has developed one of the top linebacker groups in the NFL.

4. Bruce Miller

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    Bruce Miller played defensive end in college for Central Florida. He was drafted by the 49ers to play fullback, a position he had never played before.

    Obviously Jim Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke saw something, because Miller has developed into a very reliable player.

    Miller has supplanted veteran Moran Norris as the starting fullback, and he also excels on special teams. He plays like a clone of 49ers running backs coach Tom Rathman.

    Rathman, like Miller, was a fine blocker and could catch the ball out of the backfield. Rathman has taught Miller how to play the position, and Miller has learned his lessons quite well.

    With the creative vision of the coaching staff, the 49ers have found a gem in Miller.

3. Aldon Smith

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    Aldon Smith was the 2011 first-round draft pick for the 49ers. There were a lot of questions about whether or not Smith was worthy of being the seventh selection in the draft.

    He has developed into one of the best pass-rushers in the league and has 14 sacks heading into the final game against the Rams. Smith is just half a sack shy of the all-time rookie record held by Javon Kearse.

    Smith started slowly, but came on strong throughout the year, working with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and linebackers coach Jim Leavitt.

    Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has brought Smith along slowly and still utilizes him mostly on passing downs. Smith has responded beautifully, and his pass-rushing presence has been the missing link for the 49ers' defense.

2. Tarell Brown

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    Tarell Brown is in his fifth season with the 49ers. In his prior years, Brown had substantial difficulty in coverage. Even early in the season, Brown was a weak link in a suspect 49ers secondary.

    Although not a lockdown corner by any means, Brown has improved. In recent games, he has been a lot better in coverage and has been less susceptible to giving up the big play.

    Getting beat deep was a problem for Brown and the 49ers, so a big concern was that Brown often laid back and allowed easy completions in front of him. He has improved his play, and the secondary has been a lot better in the second half of the season.

    Ed Donatell, the veteran defensive secondary coach, has been instrumental in Brown's development. Brown's coverage techniques have improved (he has four interceptions on the year), and he has also become a much better tackler.

1. Alex Smith

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    The player who has benefited most from Jim Harbaugh and the improved coaching staff is Alex Smith. Smith has become a solid NFL quarterback who has learned his lessons from Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman very well.

    Smith basically had six poor seasons with the 49ers until Harbaugh arrived. Now, he has led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    Smith has thrown for 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He has also stayed away from the key mistakes that have dogged him throughout his career. A big reason for this is the fact that the offensive system provides Smith with outlets when he's under pressure.

    More than just statistics, however, have been the improved poise and command of the game that Smith exudes. The team believes in him, and he has matured into the leadership role he now displays.

Jim Harbaugh Will Be The NFL Coach of the Year

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    No head coach in the NFL has had a greater impact on his team this year than Jim Harbaugh. He has transformed a team that finished 6-10 in 2010 and turned them into a 13-3 team with a first-round bye in the playoffs.

    Harbaugh got the players to buy in, and they responded. To a man, the players have all stated how this coaching staff teaches them things and helps them improve as players.

    Although Harbaugh brought a tough mindset to the 49ers, that was also prevalent under Mike Singletary. The difference is that Harbaugh and his staff know how to put their players in the best positions to succeed. The game planning is better, the play-calling is better and the in-game adjustments are better.

    Harbaugh has surrounded himself with an excellent group of assistant coaches. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has been given autonomy to run the defense, and he has done an excellent job.

    Harbaugh is focused on the offense and also the overall picture of the team. Fangio handles the defense, and Brad Seely directs the special teams. It is a formula that has worked, as the 49ers head for their first playoff appearance since 2002.