Heading into the Week 1 matchup with the Green Bay Packers, it is awfully tempting to look back at what the 49ers accomplished last season…but before you do, realize that the 2012 49ers will be different than year's squad. This is a team that came within a hair's breadth of reaching the Super Bowl after almost a decade without a playoff berth. While last season's team had its shortcomings (3rd down conversion rate, production in the passing game, and roster depth), brilliant coaching, gutsy individual performances and a historically epic defense nearly placed the 49ers atop the NFL dogpile.
But this season will play out differently. This season's opponents will game plan differently. But even more important: this 49er football team is going to win games differently than they did last season. Last season's team won by taking the ball away, winning the field position battle and giving up very few turnovers. History dictates that this season's team will be hard pressed to repeat that success. The 49ers will need to improve fundamentally on offense if they plan on a successful reprise of 2011.
Preseason didn't tell us much about what the 49ers are going to unveil in Week One, but it did provide some subtle insights into what the 49ers did to shore up last season's shortcomings. What follows is my short list of questions that the 49ers (seemingly) answered in the 2012 Offseason/Preseason:
Revolving Door at Right Guard?
While the 49ers started last season 2-1, they did so in spite of what could euphemistically called "substandard O-line play". While Adam Snyder proved to be a huge upgrade over Chilo "el matador" Rachal, the right side of the offensive line was downright offensive for most of last season. Call it inferior personnel, call it a new scheme…call it whatever you like. Last season, the O-Line started out poorly and though they pulled it together down the stretch, their play definitely left something to be desired.
With the departures of Snyder and Rachal in the offseason (thank you Jesus), the 49ers are looking to converted T Alex Boone and recently signed RG Leonard Davis to shore up the right side. Over the course of the preseason, the Boone/Davis combo was nasty...really nasty. Two of the most memorable runs of the preseason (Colin Kaepernick's 78 yard sprint and Brandon Jacobs' 20 yard jaunt) both went right...a rare sight in 2011. Though they still have some work to do, this tandem has the potential to make the 49ers' O-line much more formidable in Week One than they were at this time last season.
In a recent exchange with an overzealous Saints fan (hi, Dusty), I was told that the 49ers run first mentality was going to cost them, especially if Frank Gore gets injured. Looking back at 2011, his argument had merit.
After the 2012 preseason, he and others that are beating the "pass, pass, pass" drum might want to re-adjust their thinking. The league has been content to toss the rock with increasing frequency of late, but the 49ers have been content to run…a lot. Innovation in the running game was a hallmark of the 2011 49ers, but when push came to shove (especially on 3rd and short) the 49ers were the ones that got shoved. In order to improve upon last season, the 49er running game needs to improve…and they've certainly added the hardware to make that happen. Brandon Jacobs has flashed the power that made him a mainstay on two Super Bowl winners in New York. LaMichael James has flashed (albeit briefly) the shiftiness that made him so effective in Oregon. Added to "bell cow" Frank Gore, change of pace back Kendall Hunter and surprisingly improved holdover Anthony Dixon, and it isn't a stretch to deduce that the run is going to be a real weapon for the 2012 49ers.
Touchdowns? In the Red Zone?
On their first drive of the preseason, the 49er offense rolled down the field, converting three 3rd downs and one 4th down to set themselves up with a scoring chance in the Red Zone. The seminal moment of the preseason (in my opinion, anyway) was what Alex Smith did with the chance. He dropped back fluidly, and as he hit his third step, he uncorked a perfectly thrown back shoulder pass to Brett Swain. Why was this the seminal moment of the preseason? Because that throw was one that Smith simply could not complete last season…and it was completed in the Red Zone.
For the 49ers to improve upon last season's success, they do not need to throw more. They do not need to gain more yards, generate more turnovers or throw the ball deep to Randy Moss at every available opportunity. No…what the 49ers must do to take this team to the next level is to convert red zone opportunities.
By way of example, in 2011, the 49ers averaged 23.8 points (T-10th) and 3.3 red zone opportunities per game. Scoring just 1 more TD per game (assuming 4 more points per game, as the TD scored replaces a Red Zone FG) could take their average points per game up to 27.8…which would have been good for a top 5 ranking last season.
Though Jim Harbaugh has all but underlined and double stamped the fact that the 49ers are going to be heavily reliant on the run, this team will need to become more dangerous through the air in order to push for another shot at an NFC Title. In last season's NFC Championship, the 49ers receiving corps was positively anemic…a fact that has since been rectified. The additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first round draft pick A.J. Jenkins will go a long way toward stretching the field, though not in the way that many fans might hope.
Though the Niners added outside speed in the offseason, this team is not going to magically transform into the Patriots, Saints, Packers or Lions. Moss is dangerous deep, Manningham has the potential to be positively lethal out of his breaks and Jenkins has flashed explosive speed…but the 49ers' best receiver is still Vernon Davis, and he will remain their most credible threat through the air.
Even so, the Niners will be more effective in the air than they were last season…but that effectiveness will be more a by-product of situational mismatches than it will be of 7-step drop "chuck n' duck" football. Look for the Niners to employ multiple personnel groupings, unconventional formations and the threat of the deep ball to create space against opposing defenses. But be warned, if the addition of Moss or Manningham has you looking for an old fashioned Tecmo Bowl pass-o-rama, you are likely to be disappointed.
Looking Forward to Lambeau
Given what we know about the 49ers shortcomings last season and what they've done to address them, let's take a look at the keys to the game for the 49ers:
Will the Real Mr. Smith Please Stand Up?
The key to the 49ers success against the Packers will be for Alex Smith to remain as efficient as he has over the course of the preseason. Smith will get some opportunities against a very suspect Green Bay defense. If Smith is smart with the football and is patient enough to take advantage of the mismatches he'll see (particularly underneath against 2nd year ILB DJ Smith who will be starting in place of injured starter Desmond Bishop), he should be particularly effective. Look for the 49ers to drive "roving safety" Charles Woodson deep in order to take advantage of favorable mid- and short-range match ups.
The 49er defense has long been the strength of the team, and they'll need to be at their best against a Packer team that loves to create mismatches with the no-huddle offense. Timing in the passing game is critical to their success. The 49ers have returned all of their starters from a year ago (with the exception of Parys Haralson, who is lost for the season with an arm injury), and they'll need them all to keep pace with Green Bay's attack. Look for San Francisco to put pressure on the tackles with its outstanding pass rush, forcing Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball before he'd like to. Given the relative ineffectiveness of the Green Bay rushing attack, the key for the 49ers will be to get in Rodgers' face early and often.
Watch the Clock
The aforementioned noted, the best defense against a QB like Aaron Rodgers is to keep him on the bench. That stated, don't be surprised if the Packers get a heavy dose of Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Kendal Hunter in order to limit Rodgers' opportunities to make plays. If they get an early lead, do not be surprised if the 49ers use the running game to control the clock.
Coaching, Coaching, Coaching
Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio displayed an almost unbeatable combination of coaching smarts last season. In order to come away with a win in Week 1, they'll need to expand upon that. Look for them to exploit a beleaguered secondary multiple looks out of almost every set they run, particularly with clearing routes against very beatable linebackers when the Packers shift to their Nickel package.
In the End?
At the end of the day, given what we know about the 49ers and the Packers at this point, I think this game will come down to matchups...and the 49ers will come away with the win, 24-17.