NFL Team Previews: San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers had their first winning season since 2002 a year ago and did it in a big way. Rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh led a renaissance by the Bay, as the team jumped from six wins to thirteen wins in a single season, won an epic playoff game against New Orleans and then lost an equally epic NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants in overtime. Was it a sign of things to come, a one-year wonder or somewhere in between? TheSportsNotebook previews the 49ers and their chances in 2012…

OFFENSE: Harbaugh got quarterback Alex Smith to believe in himself and Smith cut his interceptions back to five, perfect for a team built around defense. The challenge is going to come this year as we can safely assume that Frisco didn’t go out and sign wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss so Smith could spend his Sundays handing the ball off and throwing underneath. Manningham has the opportunity to be “the guy” after a career with the Giants as a secondary option. Moss is trying to rejuvenate his career. I’m skeptical of his chances, but between him and Michael Crabtree, San Fran should have at least one of its troubled receivers come through with a good year.

Smith doesn’t need elite wide receivers to make the passing game go because tight end Vernon Davis is a good combination of speed and power, the rare tight end that can stretch the field. Providing support in the running game is 1,200-yard rusher Frank Gore, who’s been this club’s model of consistency during its down years. And Gore has the offensive line that can get the job done. Mike Iupait is a high-caliber guard and veteran center Jonathan Goodwin is a stable force in the middle. Joe Staley is an excellent left tackle, while Anthony Davis is at least functionable on the other side.

DEFENSE: This team can get after you as well as anybody, with as good a linebacking group as there is anywhere in the NFL. The 3-4 scheme aligns Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside as the playmakers, and they combined for 21 sacks. And while inside linebacker Patrick Willis doesn’t get the same stats by virtue of his position, his reputation and actual grades from the scouts at ESPN’s Scouts Inc, are the highest of any player on the team, regardless of position. Navorro Bowman mans the other inside spot. In a lot of places, Bowman would be the top linebacker. Here he’s fourth-best. The San Francisco football team is about as stacked at this position as the city’s baseball team is with starting pitching.

Since most 3-4 defenses have to invest their resources in linebackers, top defensive linemen are rare. But 32-year-old veteran Justin Smith is an exception in San Francisco. Smith is the equivalent of players like Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata or Kansas City’s Glenn Dorsey, other candidates for best D-Lineman in a 3-4 scheme. On other side of the linebacking corps is strong safety Donte Whitner, who gives good run support.

It’s pass coverage that San Francisco will have to worry about. As good as Whitner is against the run, he is vulnerable in coverage. The corners are a significant problem, at least for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Carlos Rogers is good, but inconsistent and has bad hands when it comes to finishing off plays with interceptions. Tarell Brown is a big liability at the other corner. Harbaugh can at least breathe easy knowing that free safety Dashon Goldson is already a good player and at age 27 might be emerging into the league’s best. If he can patrol centerfield effectively, he can wipe away some mistakes on the corners, something that’s all the more important given that Frisco would certainly prefer to blitz their linebackers rather than use them to provide help in coverage.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 9.5—I was all set to go Under with the 49ers, just on the grounds that improvement like they had is almost impossible to sustain. But this win total is pretty reasonable, indicating that the smart money is also playing it cautious with San Francisco. One thing to watch for will be any regression on the part of the defense. Not because of the talent, but because this was one area where former head coach Mike Singletary clearly knew what he was doing.

As my blogging colleague Jeff Fogle has pointed out in the past over Stat Intelligence, sometimes you get instant improvement when a new coach takes up where the other one was weak, but over time the strengths of the former coach start to dissipate. Think, for example, when Norv Turner took over from Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego in 2007. The team continued to play disciplined football and infused with Turner’s offensive creativity made the AFC Championship Game. Over time, the discipline started to disappear and so did the wins.

Will Harbaugh be able to sustain solid defensive play while allowing his offensive knowledge to reap greater results? I like Harbaugh and wouldn’t bet against him, and while I think Super Bowl expectations should be kept restrained with this team, I wouldn’t bet against them winning 10 games. Take the Over.