Rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh proved he was right to leave the talented Andrew Luck at Stanford and lead the San Francisco 49ers. In his rookie year, he showed the same energy as his brother, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, and returned the 49ers to elite status.
Losing in the conference championship, at home, to the Giants was heart breaking, but the fact that he even got there with the previously lowly 49ers was impressive. Harbaugh has brought the fire to San Francisco, got the best out of criticized quarterback Alex Smith, and turned his defense into a freight train.
Under the leadership of Patrick Willis, the league’s new Ray Lewis, 49ers defenders fly to the ball and bring the pain on any unsuspecting playmakers. Ranking fourth in total defense, the side was spectacular and is fully expected to continue its remarkable dominance in 2012.
With the defense sorted, Harbaugh has seemingly chosen to upgrade his offense. While not fully committing to Smith, Harbaugh has chosen not to go out and draft/sign a more suitable candidate. Instead, Harbaugh has signed a multitude of receivers to help Smith out, one of which is the returning Randy Moss. This offense, granted Smith can play well, should be a lot scarier than last year.
2011 Record: 13-3
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh
Off. Cord: Greg Roman
Def. Cord: Vic Fangio
Smith may never live up to his 2005 first overall pick status, especially now that fellow 2005 first rounder Aaron Rodgers has ascended to the elite class, but in 2011 Smith was conservative and smart.
Completing 61.3% of his passes for 3144 yards are not poor numbers. While tossing a measly 17 TDs is not good enough, that number should easily increase this year with all the new toys he has to throw to. The most impressive stat however is Smith’s 5INTs. In years gone past Smith’s decision making had not been up to par, but Smith has since been safe and smart with his throws, limiting his turnovers. Smith finished 2011 with an impressive 90.7 passer rating.
Seemingly waiting in the wings is Colin Kaepernick. This young player out of Nevada will continue his role on the bench, and depending on whether Smith keeps playing at a consistent level, Kaepernick may have to be content with extended learning.
In the Backfield
In 2011, the pairing of Frank Gore, who yet another great season, and Kendall Hunter produced a total of ten touchdowns. This total, while not bad, was deemed not good enough by Jim Harbaugh who has brought in two new players to hopefully improve on that total in 2012.
While Gore unquestionably remains the featured back (1211 yards last year), he will now be aided by Hunter (473 yards), Brandon Jacobs (571 yards and 7 TDs for the Giants last year) and former Oregon running back LaMichael James.
James has been brought in as the team’s Darren Sproules type player. While not stocky enough to be the workhorse, James will act as a screen catcher and outside runner, with speed that make him a threat to take it all the way. Jacobs on the other hand has the size and power to bury the ball into the endzone on goal line situations and split time with Gore if need be.
Jim Harbaugh has done a magnificent job in supplying talent for Alex Smith. Along with the team’s 2011 top receivers; Michael Crabtree (874 yards and 4 TDs) and Vernon Davis (792 yards and 6 TDs), Smith now has the polarizing Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and their first round pick A.J. Jenkins to throw to.
Davis can lay claim to be one of the better tight ends in the league, and with the trio of Crabtree, Moss and Manningham, the 49ers are suddenly in possession of one of the best receiving groups in the league.
The Big Uglies
With young talented offensive lineman such Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, and the veteran presence of Joe Staley and Leonard Davis, the San Francisco 49ers would have expected more from a unit that allowed 44 sacks.
It’s remarkable that Smith was able to play the best season of his career while getting beat up so much. Against the better pass rush teams in the NFC such as New York, who did beat them in the championship game last year, San Francisco will suffer, no matter how potent the wide receivers or running backs are. This unit must play better in 2012 simple as that.
In 2011, the 49ers surrendered the second least amount of points, and a big part of that was down the insane amount of pressure asserted by the defensive line. While interior lineman Issac Sopoaga played havoc in the middle, his play allowed ends Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and rookie Aldon Smith to record 7.5, 5.5 and 14 sacks respectively.
Aldon Smith especially, used a lot on passing downs, surprised the league with his brilliant play after the 49ers were to deemed to have reached to get him with the 7th overall pick. Justin Smith was voted to the Pro Bowl and the first and second All Pro teams in 2011, and will lead this line to even greater things this year.
In 2011, Patrick Willis missed four games after an injury in week 13. His season’s stats were impressive nonetheless. 97 tackles, 2 sacks, 12 passes defensed and an interception were statistics a great deal of linebackers would be proud of. Willis has become the premier defender in the league, and it just so happens the remainder of his corps isn’t half bad either.
NaVorro Bowman has quickly and quietly become a great compliment to Willis. 2011 saw him record 143 tackles and 2 sacks. His performance saw him join Willis as a first team All-Pro, and he shows no signs of regressing. Fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks made 50 tackles and 7 sacks to make this unit one of the most talented in the league. Depth is a bit of an issue for this group, but if the starting trio stay healthy Harbaugh will have tons of time to stock up on youth.
The 49ers ended the season just outside the top 15 teams for passing yards allowed per game. While not as dominant as the first two levels, the secondary contained both ball hawks and enforcers.
Cornerbacks Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown recorded 6 and 4 INTs respectively. Rodgers put his to good use with 106 return yards and had one pick six. Rodgers had a great first season with the 49ers after over half a decade in Washington.
Safety Dashon Goldson put on a show in the championship game with some devastating hits. Last year he put in 67 tackles (good for 3rd best on the team) and 6 interceptions. Fellow safety Donte Whitner also put up over 60 tackles and added 2 INTs himself. This secondary may not get the credit it deserves, being overshadowed by the linebackers, but if the unit can continue its good play in 2012, the defense should remain a top five defense.
Ted Ginn Jr. will most likely never live up to his first round status. As a receiver he is used sparingly, now tasked with returning kicks and punts. He does both jobs well, averaging 27.6 yards per kick-off return in 2011 with one 102 yard TD, and 12.3 yards per punt return with one 55 yard TD. Ginn’s return skills were missed sorely in the championship game against the Giants where back up returner Kyle Williams had a night to forget.
The 49ers possess the best kicking tandem in the league with David Akers and Andy Lee. Both were chosen as first team All-Pros and Pro Bowlers and there is absolutely no reason to think they will not continue their excellent standard of play in 2012.
The 49ers are an OT game away for the Superbowl. Their defense dominated in 2011 and has been left largely alone for 2012 as the players strengthen their bonds between one another, a process that will only serve to improve them.
The offense played incredibly in 2011. Not on the same level as the Saints or Packers, but for a 49ers team, that has previously seemed inept on offense, Alex Smith has turned his offense around. Through a smart and consistent performance, he was able to lead his team to the brink of greatness.
Second year head coach Jim Harbaugh has opted to upgrade his offense, adding possession and deep threat receivers and fast and powerful runners. This offense is expected to be far greater in 2012. It’ll be five months before we find out if the additions will be enough to make them champions.
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