Originally written August 01, 2012 on The Sports Headquarters:
I was trying to figure out a way to attack the San Francisco 49ers 2012 Season Preview when I realized this is going to be difficult. A lot of the things that went right last year are simply a result of excellent coaching, smart players and luck.  Two of the three of those things won’t, at least they shouldn’t, change but will the 49ers get the bounces they did during the regular season or are they going to get the unfortunate bounces that cost them a chance to return to the Super Bowl? There’s a fine line between that success and failure, and for more than five months the 49ers seemed to have lady luck on their side. What can we expect for this season? Let’s take a look at five keys to the 49ers 2012 season, and what might trip them up. 1) Can the defense be THAT good again? The reason I phrased the question in such a way was simple, the 49ers defense in 2011 was special for about 13 weeks, then they became, well really good. In fact through the first 12 games they were only giving up 282 yards of total offense per game. That would have placed them second overall. For the last four regular season games and two playoff games they gave up an additional 70 yards per game which would have ranked them comfortably at 18th in the league, just in front of the Arizona Cardinals. More importantly they forced almost one less turnover a game those last 6 games, and that is where the 49ers were making their way. We know that they have the best defensive front seven in the NFL, with the only arguments coming from the north east and Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but what made the defense so special last year was that they weren’t just reeking havoc up front, they were ball hawks in the secondary. While we shouldn’t expect any sort of drop off from Justin Smith, Patrick Willis or Navarro Bowman (who quietly had a better season than his much more heralded counterpart) you have to wonder if the rest of the defense is going to pull their weight as much as last year. The key to the season really will be if Aldon Smith can take the next step in his maturation as an outside linebacker in the NFL.  He was dominant as a pass rusher last year, but saw little time against the run, as he was asked to rush the passer on over 75% of the snaps he played. The other question is simply will the secondary be as good as they were in the beginning of the season.  Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers both had career seasons and finally made good on their potential when placed in a better system fit in San Francisco, but we don’t know if those were their career anomalies or if they really have “figured it out.” 2) Who is Alex Smith throwing too? I know, I know Randy Moss is rejuvenated, and ready to become a premier WR in the NFL again. While I don’t think he will be as good as some fans seem to think, I also do not think he will be as bad as the haters are expecting him to be. The problem is, if Moss is what you are banking on in terms of production at WR, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Michael Crabtree has continued to be up and down in his career, I personally don’t see AJ Jenkins making much of an impact this season, and while I like the addition of Mario Manningham, he isn’t much more than a very good third option or very average second option. That leaves the continuing to progress Vernon Davis.  Davis had an interestingly boring 2011 campaign, putting up average to above average numbers for a TE now, but then completely turning it on in the post season. Can he continue to take the next step? His progression into a possible elite TE, I am talking in the Gronkowski and Graham category, is still completely realistic, but he has to learn to maintain his level of play throughout the season, and realistically, that may not be his fault. 3) Can Smith be the man? I know it is cliche to talk about, but the truth is I was stunned by the route coach Jim Harbaugh took with Alex Smith last season. Making him a game manager, and keeping his risks low with his rewards even lower seemed the anti-Harbaugh thing to do. I understand the lockout certainly changed the plan for Smith’s learning curve, and admittedly Smith did play a bigger role, his shining moment of course in the wild playoff win over the New Orleans Saints, as the season went along, but I still don’t know if you can win a championship with Alex Smith as your quarterback. Smith is in his last year, at least to me, of excuses.  He has had time to work for over a year now with Harbaugh, and needs to find a way to improve his ability to make plays when things breakdown, as the great men at Football Outsiders pointed out: “Alex Smith was out of the pocket on 19 percent of pass plays, fifth in the league, and was pretty bad on these plays, with just 4.4 yards per play and -25.1% DVOA.” Can Smith become a Super Bowl caliber quarterback? Can he become someone you can lean on and allow to sling the ball around the field to make plays? 4) How much more does Gore have? We know the story, 92.5 yards per game , a 4.5 yards per carry average and over 20 carries per game for the first 8 games, then the Giants game hit, he was injured and came back to post 61 yards per game with a barely over 4 yards per carry average on over 15 carries per game. No matter how hard you work in the off season, how in shape you are, or how much you just want it, sometimes you can’t get the job done anymore and it is solely because of the wear on your body. I don’t see how much Gore offers up anymore. Sure he will show flashes of his old self, maybe a couple of those 120+ yard games on only 15-18 carries, but I don’t think his body can hold up to the pounding of close to 20 carries a game. That means we are either going to see more Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James or we are going to see Alex Smith get to throw the ball around. I honestly don’t know which one of those things would be the better choice. Hunter is a fantastic change of pace back and a guy that can get 10-12 carries max a game and be really effective, but he and Jacobs can’t be more than that. The real intrigue is how they use James. While he is an electrifying playmaker, I am not sure his east west running style matches up with the ground game of the 49ers, and if he is going to be used in a Darren Sproles type role, he won’t be getting a ton of carries. That may not be a bad thing either, until you remember the questions we had earlier about Alex Smith. 5) Have they finally figured out the right side of the offensive line? I sympathize 49ers fans, I really do, the whole getting a complete offensive line unit is a pain in the ass, I’ve been waiting nearly 24 years for the Cardinals to accomplish this, but maybe they got it right finally. You see they moved talented back up tackle Alex Boone over to right guard, which is great in theory, until you realize he hass never played the position before. I am not saying it was a bad choice, hell he can’t possibly be worse than the Adam Snyder/Chilo Rachal pu pu platter from last season, can he? Then you have the venerable Anthony Davis, the man who surrendered 8.5 sacks in 2011, after allowing an astonishing 11.5 sacks in 2010, has almost worn out his welcome in San Francisco. Davis’ inadequacies in the passing game forced the 49ers last season to use play action as the basis of their passing game in order to get him adequate help from uber talented left guard Mike Iupati. While this was a very successful ploy in 2011, the 2012 season offers up the added interest of whether or not the running game will be useful enough to allow this base set to work again. Davis has to get better this season, and Boone has to show the same promise at the guard position that he did at the tackle spot in order for the right side to catch up to the left side of the line. Overall:  As I said in the opening the 49ers seem to be the toughest team for me to get a grasp on coming into the season. They played so well last year, but it always seemed, at least to me, it was a lot of smoke and mirrors, and that they would come back to earth at some point. Well they proved me, and all the other doubters wrong by going to overtime of the NFC Championship Game, something I can honestly say I didn’t see happening at all last year. What does that mean for this year then?  Can they repeat that success?  Will they again have the second easiest schedule in the NFL? 49ers fans for a look at the Arizona Cardinals season preview check here, and be on the look out for my 2012 NFC West predictions where I give you my official predictions for the upcoming season.
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