As preseason progresses towards a close, we are getting glimpses of what the 49ers will look like in the 2015 NFL season. It is clear that this team is much different than in years past - not only from a roster standpoint but also a coaching standpoint. In this final preseason edition of Mr. Fix It, I will be breaking down special teams and coaching to see where the Niners can get a leg up on the competition this year.
Let's start by looking at special teams:
Lean on Phil Dawson's leg:
By all accounts, points may be harder to come by this year. When the 49ers have a chance to get points, they should take them. Although he is 40 years old, Phil Dawson is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and can still be relied on to make pressure packed kicks. He has proven himself to be a valuable commodity in the playoffs as well.
With the patchwork on the offensive line, it is quite possible that the offense may stall when they get into scoring territory. There will be situations early on in the season and generally early in games that Jim Tomsula may think about passing up 3 points to go for it on 4th down. Tomsula shouldn't hesitate to send Dawson out there if this happens. It bodes well for a team to score early and often since, you know, the object of the game is to score more than the other guys.
The Niners won't be blowing many teams out this year and I fully expect wins to be hard fought. Having a kicker with ice in his veins will go a long way when the team needs a 43 yard field goal on the road to win a game.
Take advantage of Bradley Pinion's talent
Rookie punter Bradley Pinion had only 2 touchbacks on 75 punts in 2014 with Clemson, while dropping 28 punts inside the 20. It's clear that the kid knows how to boom it (and finesse it) judging by his preseason performance.
There may be situations where the offense is facing 4th and short from midfield in a close game and will have a choice of going for it or punting. The Niners need to trust Pinion the way they trusted Andy Lee to pin the opposition deep in their own territory. It's clear that Pinion has the ability, so he becomes a weapon that can be used to gain an edge.
Pinion is also a kickoff specialist. Sometimes it's just better to not let the other team return a kick, especially when the 49ers have had trouble staying healthy over the past couple of years. Touchbacks mean they won't have to make a tackle on the returner or fight through blocks, which in turn means less chances for injuries on kickoffs.
Get on the Hayne Plane
Jarryd Hayne has been very impressive in his first bit of NFL action. He's already the team's best punt returner and is able to make defenders miss with relative ease. Being a rugby player will come in handy when catching a punt in traffic and trying to create space with defenders all around. The biggest thing is that teams don't have film on Hayne (aside from the 5 punts he has fielded so far in the preseason), so they don't know his tendencies. The 49ers should definitely take advantage of this because Hayne could be one of the biggest surprises of the year.
Now let's talk about the coaching staff. We know that they have a monumental task ahead of them, but the cupboard is not bare and there is still talent with which to create mismatches.
Know how to manage the game
If there was one thing that I thought Jim Harbaugh needed to do better, it was knowing how to better manage the game. There were times that he failed to recognize the situation and make the correct call. In 2012, against the Rams in St. Louis, Harbaugh and Roman insisted on calling passing plays when the 49ers offense was pinned deep in their own territory. The result was a safety in a game that the Rams ended up winning by a field goal. Fast forward to 2013 in Seattle and the Niners were in the same situation. It was a close game in the first half and they called a passing play from their own 1 yard line. The result was a Bruce Miller holding call in the end zone and a safety. The smart call both times would have been to play it safe and get as many yards as possible to get some punting room. Jim Tomsula's 49ers need to learn from their mistakes and recognize when it's best to just take their medicine and play it safe.
Part in parcel of a good gameplan is avoiding the other team's strength. Yes, this means it's NOT a good idea to keep throwing at Richard Sherman. Let's move on.
Managing the game also means having a purpose for every drive. Too many times, the 49ers would get pass happy under Roman/Harbaugh and would end up either losing yards on a drive or going 3 and out. A drive can be successful even if it means that it changes field position by stringing together a few plays or running a little bit of clock. If the offense is in a tough spot, it's best to just take what the defense is giving them and live for another drive instead of trying to go for it all and risk making that crucial mistake.
Another big part of managing the game is realizing when guys are tired. The team was run into the ground from 2011-2014, which is a big factor in all of the injuries the team suffered. I recommend substituting early and often in order to keep guys fresh. This is still a deep team and there's no reason to leave guys like Jarryd Hayne, Bruce Ellington and Quinton Dial on the bench when they could be contributing. Substituting heavily could also come in handy when figuring out which offensive line combination yields the best results.
Attack their weakness
It goes without saying that a team is only as strong as their weakest link. Every team has a weakness and it's the job of the coaches to recognize it and exploit it. This wasn't done nearly enough in the past 4 years, and one example that I vividly remember is the game at New Orleans last year.
Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis was playing on a bad knee and hobbling around everywhere. It was clear that he was hurting and the 49ers didn't bother to attack him at all. Although the Niners won the game, they definitely left some plays on the field as they stayed away from Lewis.
If the blitz is working, Eric Mangini should stick with it. If the read option is working, Geep Chryst should stick with it. NFL teams are good, but it takes a lot to make a mid-game adjustment, especially when a guy is hurt. The Niners need to spot this right away and take advantage of it.
Stay with what works
This goes with the above point about recognizing a weakness and exploiting it. Once a weakness has been found, keep going after it!
Greg Roman used to outsmart himself on a consistent basis. The offense would be moving the ball, be it by running or short passes, and he would all of a sudden change the play calls to something totally different. The Rams game at Levis Stadium last year comes to mind. Frank Gore was having major success on counter plays because the Rams defensive front was over-pursuing. For some unknown reason, Colin Kaepernick was then asked to continually drop back to throw the ball for the rest of the game and ended up taking 9 sacks. The 49ers never really got anything going and ended up losing that game on the goal line.
The current roster poses major matchup problems for opponents, specifically at the running back and outside linebacker positions. Chances are that the 49ers will be able to generate a significant pass rush with Ahmad Brooks, Aaron Lynch and Eli Harold. Continually sending those three after the quarterback - as opposed to dropping them into coverage - will assure that they are playing to their strengths as well. Running back Reggie Bush is a matchup nightmare out of the backfield, and it seems as if running backs will be targeted more. If it works, it could be an important safety valve for Kaepernick when he's under siege.
I understand that the odds are stacked against the 49ers. I have heard all of the rhetoric about how bad the 49ers will supposedly be this year. On any given Sunday, any team can rise up and win. It will be the job of the coaches to make sure that the Niners are ready to rise up as many Sundays as possible. Worse teams have gone on to be successful and as the great John Madden used to say: That's why you play the game.