PFF Preview 2011 – San Francisco 49ers

| September 1, 2011

With new coach Jim Harbaugh now at the helm of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises, the San Francisco 49ers have become one of the more interesting teams to watch heading into this season. It will be hard to tell what kind of stamp he will put on this team going forward and the preseason has given us very little insight into what the 49ers will have to offer over the course of the season.
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Did they add enough pieces through both the draft and free agency to warrant a run in the wide-open NFC West? While most critics would say no, the lack of a true powerhouse within the division will allow them to be in the hunt for a playoff berth until the bitter end.
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1.) Man in the Middle

It’s hard to argue that there is a more complete middle linebacker in the game than Patrick Willis. Over the past three years, Willis has graded out an average of +27.4. During that span, he has amassed an eye popping 277 solo tackles while adding to his improving blitzing abilities which allowed him to tally 20 quarterback disruptions in 2010. On our list of the NFL’s 101 best players, Willis came in at No. 24. He is a perennial Pro Bowler that is the heart and soul of a 49ers’ defense.
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2.) Ground and Pound

Who’s Chilo Rachal? While most people have never heard of him because he has yet to be pumped into the hype machines around the league, he has quietly become 49ers’ best offensive linemen. Being overshadowed by rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis didn’t stop Rachal from being absolutely dominant at the point of attack. He was a mauler in the run game, finishing as our second highest rated run blocker at offensive guard, and ever since he entered the league in 2008, his game has improved from year to year. I don’t expect his performance to change anytime soon, as Rachal is set to enter the prime of his career.
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3.) The Buck Stops Here

Possibly the best 3-4 defensive end in the league, Justin Smith can do absolutely everything, as it’s very hard to find a flaw in his game. A +44.9 is the highest grade we have ever given a 3-4 defensive end, and Smith is a player whose ability to equally rush the passer and defend the run makes him extremely dangerous. In 2010, Smith finished with a +22.1 against the run and +19.8 rushing the passer, and no player at his position had more quarterback sacks, quarterback pressures and stops. How Smith has never been selected as an All-Pro player is beyond me, but his fantastic play does all the talking.
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4.) Cohesive Unit

As a defensive unit, the 49ers finished as our second best rated team. They finished sixth in the NFL in rushing yards given up and their stingy 3.5 yards per carry allowed was good enough for second best in the league. The 49ers’ ability to rush the passer was uncanny as well at +66.6 overall. Having 11 players who finished the season with a positive pass rushing grade will only help mask a secondary that would have been much worse without their incredible pass rush.
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5.) Good Job Rookie

Opposite of right guard Chilo Rachal is the 49ers’ other mauler in the run game, Mike Iupati. As a rookie, Iupati quieted many of the naysayers who said that he was the product of dominating against lesser talent in college. There were only three games where Iupati received a negative grade and most of those negative grades were a result of poor pass blocking. His +9.1 grade in the run game was good enough for sixth best in the NFL, which is not too shabby for a first year pro. Even though his pass blocking was shady at times, it’s important to point out that he only gave up two quarterback sacks through 16 games.
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Five Reasons to be Concerned
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1.) Where’s the Foundation?

With the loss of their two top run defenders, I’m anxious to see how the 49ers fare up the middle. Aubrayo Franklin was the anchor of that defensive line, as he took up both space and bodies to allow the linebackers to roam free. Ricky Jean-Francois performed admirably against the run last year with a limited number of snaps, but his +5.1 rating doesn’t begin to put a dent in Franklin’s +24.3 grade.
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2.) Musical Chairs

The 49ers have an ever revolving door at quarterback. Will they decide to go with the underwhelming Alex Smith, or the unproven rookie Colin Kaepernick? It seems as if Harbaugh has given the keys to the offence to Alex Smith, but there were only five quarterbacks who were rated worse than Smith last year. His numbers looked very pedestrian, but what killed him were taking too many penalties, and his inability to consistently throw a good ball. He also tends to take too many sacks, which kill any chance of building momentum and sustaining a drive. Coaches in recent memory have given a short leash with Smith, but how will it fair under this new regime? We will see soon enough.
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3.) Don’t get Burned

On an already average pass defense, it was disconcerting to see the 49ers do little to upgrade their secondary after the loss of cornerback Nate Clements. By no means was Clements everything his contract hyped him up to be, but he was the best cover defensive back they had. Their starting corners going into the season will be Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers who together combined for a -4.2 PFF grade. Last season, both players allowed seven touchdowns and an opposing QB rating of 100.8  It could quite possibly be a very long year for the 49ers’ secondary.
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4.) Divas

The 49ers’ wide receivers are equally as bad as their defensive counterparts. Michael Crabtree is seen as a diva with foot problems, and Braylon Edwards likes to live tweet when he gets into a fight. Their skills on the field are just about as bad as their skills off the field, as Crabtree has had problems living up to his high draft status. The third-year receiver has never come close to eclipsing the century mark for yards, and in two seasons has only amassed 103 catches. We know that the talent is there, at times being teased with a flash of it, but his lack of focus and inability to make an impact in the run game hurts his overall makeup. Edwards’s problems are awfully eerie in comparison to Crabtree’s as he has trouble blocking in the run game, and playing at full speed is a choice from play to play. Not one 49ers wide receiver received a positive grade from us in 2010, but this is a new year.
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5.) The Potential is There

This is not so much a concern as it is a suggestion. Vernon Davis is an athletic specimen, whose 16.3 yards per catch for a tight end is absolutely ridiculous. At 6’3 and 250 pounds, it would be easy to speculate that blocking shouldn’t be a problem for someone as big and strong as Davis, but as is the case with most pass catching tight ends, blocking gets put to the waist side. If Davis could improve in just a few ways, he could crawl into the top five instead of hanging around number 10 on the list of top tight ends. There are far more tight ends that are worse blockers in the run game than Davis, but it’s important to do well in all facets of the game if “elite” status is something that is being looked for.
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The 49ers have a tough hill to climb in the NFC West, with teams like St. Louis and Arizona on the rise. Stability at the quarterback position is one of the biggest underlying factors, because the NFL is a quarterback driven league. With all-star running back Frank Gore signing his three-year extension, it is likely that the 49ers will ride him until his wheels fall off. The little firepower that they have on offense will force them to rely on their defense once again in 2011.
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  • Misfit74

    I have to question how the ‘grading out’ references throughout the article regarding the SF defense are relevant. I think it’s significant that the team lost their best NT, Aubrayo Franklin. They also lost Manny Lawson and Takeo Spikes. I wonder if those losses won’t have a harsh effect on the run defense, in particular. I think Whitner’s run defense helps, but the corners are still suspect.

    Big problems on the offensive side of the ball until they find a solution not named Alex Smith at QB – likely when Kaepernick is ready to start and Crabtree is healthy. A legit #2 WR would help, as I’m far from sold on Josh Morgan.

    Any word on how Ronald Johnson (WR, USC) is looking?

    • Rick Drummond

      misfit, big losses indeed. Franklin was our second-ranked run stopper among interior D-linemen and Spikes was found to be one of the game’s most reliable tacklers over the past three seasons. Very tough to replace and sure to require time for Bowman and (hopefully) Jean-Francois to approach their impact.

  • MK1

    The O linemen grades you reference, while obviously focused on run blocking, could mislead the casual reader. As a unit, and individually, this line is average at best…and even saying that might be generous. This line consists of three R1 selections (four if you want to count TE Vernon Davis): Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, and a high R2 pick in Chilo Rachel. Despite this investment, the O line was borderline awful in pass protection last year (and if you saw the preseason games against New Orleans and Houston, if anything, they’ve regressed further). They also frequently struggled to pick up 6 inches or punch it in from a yard out when Singletary elected to go for it on 4th downs. So, PFF can grade these guys until the cows come home, but anyone who watched every game last year as I did (thank you, DirecTV) will tell you this O line has a lot to prove this year. A lot.

    • Rick Drummond

      MK, have you had a look at our O-line rankings posted a while back. Notes there basically: run blocking good, pass blocking bad, interior superior to the edges. It certainly will be an important for the young line to show some improvement in pass protection and give that questionable quarterbacking a fighting chance.

      http://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2011/07/13/2010-offensive-line-rankings-%E2%80%93-part-2/

    • naim15

      Yeah dude, you are soo right.

      San Fransisco spent 3 first round selections on O-linemen. So far it has looked very bad. That sucks because last years draft was really loaded and they spent two of those first round pick on them. The last time a team picked 2 first round picks on o-linemen: the Jets. The 2 picks were Nick Mangold and D’Brickishaw Furguson…Wow…lol…

      Sorry Niner fans,