The San Francisco 49ers under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh took the league by storm in 2011, finishing with a 13-3 record and easily taking the NFC West crown. In their first playoff game in nine years, the 49ers rallied twice in the fourth quarter to stun the New Orleans Saints. The dream season ended a week later, however, as two botched punt returns and an inability to move the ball prove costly against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
As Super Bowl expectations are again becoming the norm in San Francisco. Here are five reasons to think a trip to New Orleans in February is in the cards, and five reasons to think the 49ers aren’t quite ready to make that leap.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) The D is Back
All 11 starters from what many considered the NFL’s most dominant defense in 2011 return in 2012. The only change is that Aldon Smith will move to an every-down position at OLB while Parys Haralson will rotate to a backup role. Led by PFF favorite Justin Smith, as well as a linebacker core that included Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith, the 49ers gave up the second-fewest points in the league last year and were tied for first in takeaways. If they stay healthy, there is no reason to believe they can’t duplicate that performance in 2012.
2) Justin Smith is a Beast
Justin Smith spent his 2011 tossing around offensive linemen. His +47.5 grade during the regular season was the highest of all defensive ends, and earned him the No. 2 spot in last year’s PFF Top 101 behind Aaron Rodgers. A true workhorse, before resting for half of the season finale, Smith played in 94.3% of his team’s defensive snaps the first 15 games. He hasn’t missed a beat in camp so far, and shows no signs of slowing down for a player who is turning 33 in September.
3) Depth at Running Back
While the 49ers emphasized a strong rushing attack last year, featured back Frank Gore seemed to wear down as the year progressed, only receiving positive grades in two of the final nine regular season games. Rookie Kendall Hunter (+3.7) showed flashes of explosiveness in a backup role and has been very impressive in camp so far. These two have been joined in the 2012 backfield by free-agent Brandon Jacobs and second-round draft pick LaMichael James.
While Gore should still expect to receive the majority of the carries, expect to see more of a by-committee approach this season in an attempt to keep Gore fresh into January. Jacobs will add depth to the unit and provide a short-yardage option that was lacking in 2011. James and backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick have been very successful in the preseason running the read option; it will be interesting to see if this package is featured once the real games start.
4) Depth at Wide Receiver
By the time the NFC Championship Game arrived, the 49ers only had four healthy wide receivers in uniform: Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, free-agent signee Brett Swain, and practice squad call-up Joe Hastings. Swain only played two snaps against the Giants, and Hastings never saw the field. Alex Smith only completed one pass to a wide receiver all night (Crabtree) for a total of three yards.
What was easily the thinnest position at the end of 2011 is now one of the deepest. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham were added via free agency and the team used their first round pick on A.J Jenkins from Illinois. Ted Ginn Jr. also returns to the fold, though he will make more of an impact in the return game.
Moss has received some high praise from teammates and coaches during the offseason and training camp, though it remains to be seen how it carries over into the regular season. Jenkins has been inconsistent so far in camp, but has shown signs of being a playmaker. It’s likely this will primarily be a redshirt rookie season for him if the rest of the group stays healthy, as it’s hard to fathom the team dressing six WRs on game day.
5) Special Teams
While the defense received most of the billing in 2011, lost in the hoopla was the fact that the 49ers’ special teams unit was one of the strongest in the league. David Akers connected on 44-of-52 field goals last year, including 7-of-9 from 50+ yards and was the highest-graded (+39.2) kicker in the league. Andy Lee led the league in net punting yardage, and Ted Ginn Jr. graded fifth (+7.3) for all kick returners. It was Ginn Jr.’s absence due to a knee injury that proved fatal in the NFC Championship Game, as his replacement Kyle Williams turned the ball over twice on punts, the second one coming in overtime, sealing the 49ers’ fate.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Brees, Brady, Stafford, E. Manning, Rodgers
The five quarterbacks above threw for the most passing yards in 2011. Why are they listed here? The 49ers will face all five of them in 2012, with Brees, Brady, and Rodgers all coming on the road. While they still get to feast on a relatively weak NFC West, the rest of the 49ers’ non-division schedule in 2012 is much more difficult. In addition to New Orleans, New England, Detroit, the New York Giants, and Green Bay, the New York Jets and the much-improved Buffalo Bills are also on the docket. Repeating last year’s 13 wins will prove to be very tough even if this team is deeper than the 2011 version.
2) Offensive Line was Offensive at Times
While the 49ers were one of the better run blocking teams last year, their pass protection was a glaring weakness, grading out 29th overall (-47.4). Center Jonathan Goodwin rated as second-worst among centers in pass blocking (-8.1), Adam Snyder graded out as the worst right guard in the league both in pass protection and overall, and right tackle Anthony Davis (-11.9 pass blocking) also struggled protecting the quarterback.
Snyder was not brought back and signed with Arizona Cardinals, Alex Boone and newly-signed veteran Leonard Davis are competing in camp for the starting right guard spot. Boone is the favorite to land the job, though either should be an upgrade from Snyder’s performance in 2011.
The left side of the line proved much more stable, with Mike Iupati graded as the fifth-highest left guard (+9.6) in the league and tackle Joe Staley overcoming a slow start to earn a rating of +8.8 the final seven games of the regular season.
3) Alex Smith
Alex Smith had his best season by far in 2011, tossing a league-low five interceptions while throwing for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns. He led the team to two fourth quarter, come-from-behind touchdown drives to defeat the Saints, but the following week could not make enough plays to get them past the Giants and to the Super Bowl. In the NFC Title Game, Smith only completed one pass to a wide receiver and only converted on one third down, which was a meaningless conversion on the final play of regulation.
Smith’s conservative play limited turnovers, but he struggled all season connecting with his receivers downfield. That weakness was exposed against the Giants and their strong defense. If the 49ers are going to take the next step to the Super Bowl, Smith will have to make more plays than he did in 2011.
Smith will have another year in Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense, and in 2012 will have many more weapons around him with the additions of Moss, Manningham, and Jenkins, but pass protection is still a concern. Whether the 49ers’ 2012 season is a successful one will largely depend on if Alex Smith can blossom as an NFL quarterback.
4) Secondary Will Be a Target
The 49ers’ secondary was tested in 2011 but definitely held their own. With teams afraid to run against the dominant front seven, the secondary was under attack by teams resorting to the pass. In the playoffs, the 49ers faced a total of 121 pass attempts from Drew Brees and Eli Manning, an NFL record for any two-game stretch. Add that to the list of elite quarterbacks they will face in 2012, and it’s easy to see how the secondary will have a target on them this season.
One question mark is whether Carlos Rogers can repeat the career year he had in 2011. Tarrell Brown played well in his first year as a starter, and rookie Chris Culliver showed promise as a rookie playing in the nickel, but a name to keep an eye on is Perrish Cox. Cox did not play in 2011 after being released by Denver, but has impressed in OTA’s and training camp and is challenging Culliver for the nickel spot.
Safety Donte Whitner is also coming off a career year in 2011 (+8.3), while the biggest concern in the secondary is likely Dashon Goldson, who returns to the team after signing his franchise tender in July. The 49ers made no effort to sign him to a long-term deal in the offseason, and he was the only defensive starter on the team to earn a negative grade (-8.1) in 2011.
5) Staying Healthy
While losing Ted Ginn Jr. in the return game against the Giants proved costly, aside from that, the 49ers stayed remarkably healthy in 2011. It’s unreasonable to expect that the injury gods will be as kind in 2012, though this year’s team is much deeper and should be able to withstand any losses better than they would have last season, especially on offense.
What to Expect?
While the 49ers are a better, and much deeper team on paper in 2012, it’s hard to see them duplicating the 13 wins they put up in 2011 as a much tougher schedule awaits. That being said, this team is still the consensus pick to come out of the NFC West, and even if they only win 10 games, they should be in just as good of a position to try and make a deep run in the playoffs in 2012.
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