NFL Analysis: The Niners Try And Climb The Last Step

The San Francisco 49ers come into a season looking for redemption off of heartbreak for the second year in a row. In 2011, they lost a gutwrenching NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants. Last year they lost the Super Bowl to the Baltimore Ravens when they were stopped three times inside the 5-yard-line. There’s only one way to keep moving forward and it’s to win it all. Today’s NFL analysis measures the Niners against that very high bar.

It’s the running game that has been the cornerstone of San Francisco’s offensive success over the last two years, but there are reasons to expect that to change. Jim Harbaugh’s gutsy quarterback change from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick in the second half of last season gave the offense some extra juice and drastically altered the team’s personality.

No longer should the Niners be near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed, as they were a year ago. Kaepernick creates more big-play possibilities with his mobility and forcing secondaries to be on the alert. Even if the rush yardage continues to dominate this team’s offensive box score, it’ s more likely to be off the read-option than the conventional attack.

The offensive personality change is coming in time, because I don’t know how wise it is to continue to rely on Frank Gore for rushing yards, especially now that Gore has hit 30-years-old. LaMichael James has great talent as the backup, but is also a question mark for consistency.

San Francisco has ultimately won with defense, but here too, I expect the times to change. They didn’t defend the run very well in 2012, and while the pass defense remains solid, 33-year-old Justin Smith is showing some wear and tear at defensive end. Smith was hurt in the latter part of last year, and when he was out, or playing wounded, the team’s pass rush suffered noticeably.

The Niners still have a fantastic linebacking corps, the lynchpin of any 3-4 scheme. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks and made a run at Defensive Player of the Year, coming up short to Houston’s J.J. Watt. On the opposite side, Ahmad Brooks is a solid pass rusher, and Patrick Willis is as good on the inside as anyone in the game.

Super Bowl or bust is the mindset in the Bay Area, and the betting markets in Las Vegas have obliged, posting this team’s Over/Under win total at 11.5. I have my doubts that this is going to be a big year for the Niners. They’ve already lost wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and they’re counting on a 32-year-old wide receiver in Anquan Boldin to take on an outsized role in the passing attack.

It’s going to be a fun year and the team transitions to relying more on the offense. But I think there’s going to be some growing pains, as defenses have had a full year to study Kapernick and the read option, and the Niners own D is going to experience a drop off. San Francisco is still good, still a contender, but I’m going Under on the number.

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