The San Francisco 49ers were the most impressive team in the NFC in Week 1, and along with the Baltimore Ravens, one of the two most impressive teams in the entire NFL for the season opener. With Frisco’s not-as-close-as-it-sounds 30-22 win in Green Bay, combined with home losses by New Orleans and the New York Giants, the 49ers have been elevated as the team to beat. Is the hype justified?
I suppose we should begin by saying the media’ s need to anoint a “team to beat” after one game is rather silly, and unless you’re a bettor, there’s no real need to do power rankings of teams on a league-wide, or even conference-wide basis. So let’s reframe the question by first assuming that most people already assumed the Niners were the favorite in the NFC West. Do we now—if we didn’t before—assume that means they’ll win 12-13 games again and get at least a first-round bye in the playoffs?
There are still some issues that San Francisco has to work on before we can get carried away. The pass protection was less than ideal in Green Bay, as the 49er offensive line surrendered four sacks. While the Packer defense is aggressive in attacking the passer, San Fran’s offense is still built around the running game and a low-risk passing game. Being low-risk means avoiding sacks, as well as turnovers.
One can argue that when 2 ½ sacks come at the hands of Clay Matthews, that’s not a situation likely to repeat itself. That’s fair enough, but the San Francisco’s next two games are against Detroit and Minnesota, and last I checked, those teams have some players who can rush the passer too. Detroit’s entire front four can get after you, and Minnesota’s Jared Allen is one of the best pass rushers in the business.
In pointing out the issue with pass protection, I don’t mean to cast a negative light on the 49ers. Any football team has work to do after its first game and coming off a performance where the team ran the ball well, threw it with efficiency and kept Aaron Rodgers’ offense reasonably contained, San Francisco has a lot less to worry about than most teams. But it doesn’t change the fact we’re still at the phase of the season where we should be asking how teams are going to fix whatever problems they do have, rather than trying to decide who’s going to be the 1-seed in the NFC playoffs this January.
These next two games are good test cases for San Francisco. I don’t want to imply that the media should focus on something other than the Jim Harbaugh-Jim Schwartz Handshake from last season as they build up to Sunday night’s Lions-Niners out west. But there are some actual, substantive, football-related questions that will play out for San Francisco in this game and then again at Minnesota. Why don’t we keep an eye on how that pass protection develops?