San Francisco has an imposing schedule this season with games against the Patriots, Jets, Packers, Lions, Saints and, defending NFL champion Giants. Expectations have also become much bigger after HC Jim Harbaugh led his team to a thirteen win season last year. The window for the current 49ers team has about two years as many key players have expiring deals in following the 2013 season. All this means the 49ers must come out of the gates hot, and remain the consistent team they were last season. San Francisco’s keys to winning last year were stellar defensive play and a well executed running game. with training camp just on the horizon and the off-season camps and rosters moves all but set here is a list of key factors for the 49ers to repeat there stellar season of a year ago.
Quarterback play must improve. Sure QB Alex Smith tossed a league low five picks last year for qualifying starts but, where were the big plays and touchdowns. Smith played the conservative game inside the confines of Harbaugh’s offence to a tee. This season the 49ers must utilize the talent they have at wide out. I think if the 49ers were to have say ten more touchdown passes and say 20 more big pass plays added to there season totals then say 6-7 more picks would be acceptable. Keeping WR Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree interested in the season, opening up the running game with passing balance, and adding more points to the scoreboard are all musts for the 49ers success this season. Can Smith deliver a 20+ touchdown season is a huge if. Harbaugh has had a full off-season to work with Smith and you would have to think Smith’s confidence is about as high as it will ever get. The 49ers proved a winning team last year with their ground based conservative attack, but their defensive numbers probably won’t hold up this year (the league high turnover differential is hard to duplicate year to year), putting pressure on the passing game to make up some difference.
The Pass Rush must continue to improve. Last season the 49ers got a stellar year from rookie OLB Aldon Smith. Smith now inherits a starting gig and really must deliver on his potential for the 49ers overall pass rush to work. San Francisco didn’t add any key pass rushers this season so again scheming and big seasons from the current group are in order. Ahmad Brooks armed with a three year contract has been good at rushing the passer but has yet to turn the corner as an above average sacker. Guys like DE Justin Smith, ILB Patrick Willis and, DE Ray McDonald seem to get sacks from the various stunts and play calls rather that individual effort. Without any solid pass rushers currently being groomed there is pressure on Aldon Smith and Brooks to stay healthy and create havoc.
The Offensive line must be spectacular. The starting lineup features three former first round picks and all starters also have at least two full seasons under their belts. The time has come for the 49ers blocking brigade to ascend to the leagues elite. Obviously a solid line creates the running lanes and protects the passer but more than anything the line sets the tone and tempo of and offense and often times a football game. San Francisco has the runners and pass catchers this year to score, but will need to execute plays consistently as there isn’t a whole lot of "school yard" in Alex Smiths game. The right side of the line is where most eyes will be this training camp. OT Anthony Davis has the pedigree to be spectacular but has thus far in his career been average. Davis must be better as his playing mate at right guard will be a first year starter, most likely un-drafted third year player Alex Boone. Boone is awfully upright for a guard but is strong and plays nasty and is currently the best option the 49ers have for the position. This will be a big issue for the 49ers to sort out during training camp.
WR Michael Crabtree needs to develop into a premier talent. Crabtree came into the league with plenty of fanfare and MC Hammer action, but has yet to become a star player in the league. WR Randy Moss will help but for how long will Moss be a "good soldier"? History suggests Moss will lose interest in the team and become an issue. Is this a lesson the 49ers want young Crabtree to witness? Can Crabtree find a way to make an impact with Smith throwing the ball? Considering that Crabtree and rookie WR AJ Jenkins are the only long term locked up 49res going forward this is a very important season for his future in crimson and gold.
HC Jim Harbaugh must continue to work at keeping his staff full of up and comers. Its standard in the NFL, once you have any level of success the league takes notice and begins to pillage talent from your staff. San Francisco has plenty of solid coaches including OC Greg Roman who would probably accept the first coaching job offered to him. Offensive line coach Jim Tomsula and running backs coach Tom Rathman have solid ties to San Francisco but would also take a promotion should it be offered elsewhere. Finally defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will get plenty of attention this year if the 49ers defense is as good as it was last year. Its certain Harbaugh has lost key assistants long before his pro debut as a coach last year but its important to play the "coaching carrousel" game with effectiveness to stay on top in the coaching circle.
A big season could lay in wait for the 49ers but improvement must come in many key areas. Last year the 49ers some what snuck up on the league but won’t have that luxury this year, and couple that with a tough schedule and there is work to be done. The opening game in Green Bay should be amongst the most talked about games of week one, a big test to be sure for the 49ers. Let’s get this thing started. Next month its reports on how the young guys are doing, I hope AJ Jenkins is better than his first impression.