Wednesday, May 14, 2008

NFC West Preview: San Francisco 49ers

by: Michael Steffes

Oh yes, the lovely Niners. Filled with so much hope last year after beating the Seahawks twice in 06'. Oh how quickly they found out that they were just 310lbs of Rocky Bernard away from another rebuild.

Last year this team had one of the historically bad offenses of all time. How much have they really improved. Lets take a look....


Record 5-11

Total Offense: 32nd
Total Defense: 25th
Points: 32nd
Points Allowed: 20th


ESPN PWR: 27th
USA Today PWR: 28th
Peter King PWR: 28th

Key additions: WR Bryant Johnson (Arizona), LB Dontarrious Thomas (Minnesota), RB DeShaun Foster (Carolina), KR Allen Rossum (Pittsburgh), WR Isaac Bruce (St. Louis), DE Justin Smith (Cincinnati)

Key Losses: WR Darrell Jackson(Denver), G Justin Smiley (Miami), QB Trent Dilfer(NFLN?), DE Marques Douglas (Tampa Bay), LB Derek Smith (San Diego),Bryant Young (retirement), Larry Allen (retirement)


Lets just call it what it was last year, pathetic. The Niners scored a league low 219 points. Want some proof on how far they have to go to be competitive in the NFC West? Well, only 3 of those points came against the Seahawks, and that is over two games.

The answer to these problems is NFC West old timer, Mike Martz, the architect of the Greatest Show on Turf. Call me skeptical, but i am not so sure Martz is the genius some say he is. I say when you are relying on Martz to save your job you are either desperate or crazy. Martz likes to chuck the ball around and in recent years that has meant big hits on his quarterbacks. This year he may not worry so much, as he has three he can't decide on.

Alex Smith is on the verge of hitting Tim Couch status. Shaun Hill won a couple of games last year, but really?!?! Shaun Hill. And the third is JT O'Sullivan. Martz brought him along from Mo-Town. I am not sure what to tell you other than I wouldn't expect Matt Hasselbeck's now annual trip to Hawaii to be put on hold by any of these three. If the Niners are lucky they will figure out who the starter is going to be in time to get him prepared during training camp.

No matter who the starter his, chances are he will be running for his life a bit again this year. The offensive line play for SF last year was abysmal. This year Larry Allen has retired. Second year player Joe Staley is moving from right to left tackle, and that pushes Jonas Jennings to the RT spot. I was critical of the Niners throughout the offseason for not addressing their o-line. In the draft they took a Chilo Rachel and Cody Wallace. Both could be capable but probably shouldn't be starting this year. That said, the team may already have Rachel penciled in as a starter after David Bass tore his peck. It will be a while before he regains full strength. Unfortunately for the Niners, I could see their line ending up like St. Louis' last year. They are short on talent and depth. If one of the tackles goes down, a converted D Linemen in Damine Duckett is the backup. Adam Snyder could move outside, but he is scheduled to be a starting guard. See where this is heading....Smith/Hill/O'Sullivan, meet Mr. Bernard...again.

The WR position is another interesting concoction. Subtract Darrell Jackson, add Bryant Johnson and Issac Bruce. Mix in Ashlie Lelie and Jason Hill and you have crap. That may be a bit harsh, but the reason AZ wasn't interested in bringing Bryant back was, while he excelled against 3rd corners and safeties, whenever Fitz or Boldin went down, Johnson disappeared too. Bruce is a good receiver, but he is simply past his prime, and putting him on a grass field is like putting a VW in a street race.

Frank Gore is back as the primary running back, and Deshaun Foster is the backup. So far in their careers both of these guys have put the ball on the turf more than their fair share of times. This team is going to need to avoid turnovers like the plaque if they really want to compete. Having fumblers in the backfield is not a good way to start.

Vernon Davis is still the tight end in San Francisco and he hasn't managed much better than Alex Smith as far as high picks go. And he likes to take it out on teammates. He started a fight at the recent mini-camp, something beat writers said he did often last year. Apparently Mike Nolan thinks this is good for the team. Anyway, with SF's line troubles I am predicting, expect Davis to be used a lot as a blocker, get frustrated, and melt down this year. I certainly don't expect as much out of him as the Niners do. With that said, he does have upside, an Martz may send him out in routes despite protection problems.


Let me begin the 49ers defensive preview by saying I salute Bryant Young. Bryant Young was San Frans best and most consistent defender and he did it for a long, long time. That said, he is gone. Enjoy your retirement BY! Lets look at the Niners D-Line now that he is gone.

The Niners big free agent acquisition this year was Justin Smith. Smith is a solid defensive end who plays the run better than he rushes the passer, at least last year when he only mustered 2 sacks. With him manning one side, expect rookie Kentwan Balmer to take the other end. Many people had him going to the Seahawks, but Tim Ruskell opted for a player with a little lengthier and more consistent profile. This leaves Issac Sopoaga, who the Niners did a good job retaining, and Abrayo Franklin to share time inside at nose. The 49ers line is going to be solid, the problem is they don't really have any elite pass rushers and in the NFC West you see a lot of passing offenses. This would be less of a problem if they had found a linebacker who could do this.

That is why they will again be relying heavily on Manny Lawson. Lawson, a young player yet to prove himself, missed most of the season with a torn ACL. He is back and will handle one outside spot. The other outside spot will mostly be manned by Parys Haralson. He is a better early down defender than pass rusher. Look for Tully Banta-Cain, who was brought in as a pass rushing specialist last year to try and improve on an awful year last year. The inside linebackers are Patrick Willis, who few will argue is a tackling machine, and free agent Dontarrious Thomas. The should be solid up the middle. However, when you look at this group in its totality, and with the D-line the Niners have, you just wonder if they will consistently get pressure this year. The have invested a lot of money in cover guy Nate Clements, but without a pass rush it could be another substandard year.

Along with Clements, who is a good corner, the Niners will choose from Walt Harris, an aging vet, or Reggie Smith, a rookie at the other spots. Smith will likely start as the nickel back. The still have Shante Spencer as well. Michael Lewis, a free agent signing from last year is one of the safeties with Mark Roman, who is 31, on the other side. If Smith can't hack it as a corner he could end up as a safety.

All and all when I look at the Niners defense, I just don't see anything special. Justin Smith is a solid player, Willis was great last year, but he can't be much better than 170 some tackles right, and Clements is solid corner. Nolan and Niner fans are always raving about this defense, but I just don't see it as a spectacular unit. I challenge them prove different, however they were on the field a lot of the time last year, and Mike Martz is infamous for leaving his defense exposed. He is going to have to show a different side for this team to really be successful.


The Niners have arguably the best special teams in the division. Andy Lee was by far the best punter in the league last year, and he had plenty of chances to prove it. Joe Nedney is solid but doesn't have the leg some kickers do. The Niners added Allen Rossum, who is a little past his prime but still gives them a threat in the return game. Special teams is not all specialists however, but the Niners have enough depth throughout their team (everywhere but O-line) to make their coverage units good. Good special teams + Mike Martz should be enough for them to improve, even if only a little bit.


No team in the West has an easy schedule this year, and much like the Rams, the Niners are going to have to be sharp out of the gate. They open with AZ at home. Normally this would be good, but the Cards may be more focused on the Niners this year than they are on the Hawks after being swept by San Fran last year. The Niners then head to Qwest for the home opener. They may be in hole in the division early, but if they impress they could send a message. The rest of the first half is tough but fair. They go Lions, @ NO, then Pats and Eagles at home. That is a tough three game stretch. It is followed by a trip to NY and then at home vs the Hawks before the bye. I would say they are in a good position to make a second half run, but two back to back road sets makes their 2nd half taxing, even if the teams aren't so tough. If they have any depth issues on the o-line, the road games will expose it. The hardest games will be at AZ on a Mon Night and At Dallas.

PREDICTION: I think the Niners are going to be slightly improved, but they are literally hanging on by a finger nail. They have a low upside, but a huge downside. My best guess is that go 6-10. They have the talent to get a 7th win somewhere, but they could very easily implode as well. No quarterback equals inconsistency. I think 6 is fair, and that leaves them in third place in the NFC West. Bye Bye Mike Nolan.

VS THE HAWKS: The Niners are always gunning for Seattle, but they are in a tough situation having to play the Qwest opener. The other game is week 8. The Hawks have a night game in Tampa the week before, so they will be jet lagged early in the week which will make the game in SF competitive. With the Hawks having an early bye, they should overcome the Tampa trip in time, plus Holmgren is going to be very motivated to contribute to a house cleaning in San Fran, it seems he might be itching for a Parcells like job down in the Bay Area.