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Sure, it's only preseason, but everything must have its start. In a 49er-esque 17-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, the team that fell one game short of the Super Bowl took to business as usual, while providing a glimpse of a few new flashes of talent. Here are five things I've taken away from the 2012 San Francisco 49ers thus far:
- Depth. The Niners' depth on both sides of the ball may just be the best in the league. Many of their backups could be very good starters on other teams. Take the cornerbacks for example. What was once the longtime bane of the 49ers defensive unit, the secondary is now one of the strengths of this team. 49ers fans would have been thrilled with the duo of Culliver and Cox as starters at any point during the span of 2003-2010. The fact that these two men are the backups to Rogers and Brown speaks volumes to how far this team has come in terms of its roster from top to bottom. Larry Grant, Ricky Jean-Francois, Kendall Hunter, Delanie Walker, Scott Tolzien, and several others demonstrate just how incredibly deep this team is.
- Confidence. Alex Smith is playing with more confidence than he ever has. Sure, he put that on display last year, but all indications point to him taking that a step further this season. With 2011 under his belt, Smith knows that he's capable of taking over a game and winning it. So now he's got the "been there, done that" sort of moxie that great quarterbacks need. The same can be said for the rest of this team.
- Luck. The 49ers are extremely fortunate that Aldon Smith only suffered what is reported to be a hip bruise during the first quarter of the game. Sure, the aforementioned depth is a boon when injuries such as this crop up, but no team wants to see their premier pass-rusher go down in the first preseason game. Smith is such a vital part of what makes the 49ers defense so good and, outside of Justin Smith, he may be the most indispensable player on defense. As Jim Harbaugh put it, San Francisco really "dodged a bullet" with that one.
- Running Backs, Running Backs, Running Backs. The 49ers may have the most talented backfield in the NFL. Sure, last year showed that Frank Gore is still a force and Kendall Hunter is an emerging talent, but now let's add LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs into the mix as well. The added depth has undoubtedly lit a fire under ultra-competitve Gore, Hunter looks to build upon a phenomenal rookie season, James gives the 49ers a Sproles-like x-factor on offense, and a seemingly fitter, rejuvenated Jacobs gives them the goal line/3rd-and-short bull they've been lacking. In the pass-happy NFL, it may advantageous that the 49ers strength lies in the running game. It gives opponents something different to game plan for, and also opens up what should be an improved passing attack with their newly revamped WR corps. With Jacobs looking surprisingly sharp thus far, Anthony Dixon's days in San Francisco are numbered.
- Lack of Complacency. This 2012 49ers team is sending a strong message that although they were happy with the success they had last year, that they still fell short of their ultimate goal, and this year is a new year. The team admittedly still has a bad taste in their mouth from that championship loss and truly feel they were the better team. That has carried over throughout the offseason and into yesterday's game. Veteran players like Frank Gore and Ahmad Brooks chose to stick around the Bay Area for their offseason training and look to be in fine shape as a result (despite the fact that Gore had the day off on Friday). The stone-cold focus that resides within Harbaugh has been projected onto this team and they'll be all the better for it.
On one final note, those that think the new crop of wide receivers will turn the 49ers into a pass-happy, west-coast version of the Saints or Packers may be in for a rude awakening. Harbaugh preaches balance in his offensive scheme and balance is what we'll see in 2012. The big difference is going to be whether or not the passing game can be more effective in that balanced attack. With the starting offensive unit largely only playing one series and a game plan that offensive coordinator Greg Roman admitted would be "basic", the new-look receiving corps will have to await evaluation until the regular season.