San Francisco 49ers: Three Questions Heading Into Training Camp

By Andrew Carroll
July 16, 2012 12:03 pm
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Training camp is fast approaching.  Lucky for us, that means August is almost here, which means pre-season is almost here, which means the regular season is almost here, which means we can collectively stop wondering what to do to aleve the suffering, remove the ennui, and generally put meaning back into our lives.

Yes, football is right around the corner.  The San Francisco 49ers, coming off a miracle-season where they went 13 - 3 under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh and first-round "bust", Alex Smith, enter the 2012 season not just as favorites to win the West, but as favorites to win the Super Bowl.

The pressure is mounting for a franchise that has been used to failure for the past ten years, and for a fan base that expects nothing less than a Lombardi Trophy by February.  With that said, if the 49ers hope to repeat their miracle-run and prove it was just the beginning of something great, they will have to answer three questions heading into training camp.

Not surprising, all three of those questions fall on the offensive side of the ball.

3.  Will San Francisco's wide receiving corps improve enough?

The receiving corps for the 49ers had its share of decent days, and even some quality individual performances throughout the season.  Unfortunately, none of that happened against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, where 49er receivers combined for one catch for three yards.  Yes.  Read it again.  Three yards.

The 49ers went 1-for-13 on third downs in that game, facing a very long average distance of 8.7 yards.  The receivers consistently struggled to get open and the Giants' pass rush (to allude back to San Francisco's sub-par offensive line) did not make things any easier for Alex Smith.  On the 12 unsuccessful third down attempts, Smith was sacked once, had to scramble three times, and was forced to check down to running back, Frank Gore, twice.

But who was on the depth chart that day at wide receiver? 

Michael Crabtree (the former number one overall draft pick and the 49ers only decent threat at the position), Kyle Williams (who fumbled three times, two of those coming on special teams in place of an injured Ted Ginn), Brett Swain (who?), and Joe Hastings (who?).

Josh Morgan, who was viewed as the 49ers' best receiver through the beginning part of the season, was injured in junk time during the 49ers' Week 5 rout of the Buccaneers, and had been placed on IR for the remainder of the season.  The 49ers' front office (never ones to overpay) elected not to resign him, as they were outbid by the Washington Redskins.

Instead, to address what is commonly viewed as the team's biggest problem, Harbaugh and General Manager Trent Baalke (who are indeed becoming known for their frugality) made more moves at the wide receiver position than anywhere else during the offseason.  They brought in Mario Manningham from the New York Giants, signed the legendary Randy Moss to a very cheap, incentive-laden one-year contract, drafted Illinois wide-out, A.J. Jenkins, with their first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and also brought in undrafted rookie Chris Owusu from Stanford.

It's good see them addressing the issue with vigor, though you would have to be blind not to see the issue to begin with.  But all the moves, while promising, bring nothing of guarantee:

Manningham, who was a number three in the Giants' receiving corps, is among the league leaders in dropped passes over the past three years with a drop rate of 10.92%. Moss, currently 35 years old, did not play a single snap last season and spent 2009 hopping between several teams to little effect. Jenkins has been having trouble so far and will have to fight for playing time this year. And Owusu, though very fast and at least familiar with Harbaugh's system via his Stanford days, will also have to fight for a role.

This new groups of receivers, then, are far from a sure thing.  Still, the news coming out so far in regards to both Moss and Manningham has been positive, with Moss allegedly having a huge "chip on his shoulder", according to Brandon Jacobs.  Williams and Crabtree have both found Moss' presence inspiring and perhaps the addition of some real competition in their ranks will also inspire them to perform better on the field.

There is, thus, the promise of something amazing in the works in San Francisco.  Promise.  Training camp will answer a lot of these questions, as the 49ers look to start their season off well against Green Bay and the Detroit Lions, where they may find themselves needing to go toe-to-toe - and pass-for-pass - with Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford.



2.  Can the offensive line become better at run-blocking?

The 49ers' offensive line was woeful last year.  Along with a questionable receiving corps that lacked depth all season long, it was San Francisco's offensive line that ultimately cost them games by being among the league's worst.  In two areas, especially, they will need to improve in order for San Francisco to have continued team success: power running and pass protection.  We'll start with the run game.

Part of the reason for the 49ers' lack of success last year was their inability to run in obvious running situations and pass in obvious passing situations. Their offensive line always looked outmatched.  They could not protect Alex Smith on 3rd-and-long and when the offense entered the red zone, boasting the 30th worst red zone touchdown percentage in the NFL, they could not run the ball against a defense defending less field.  Similarly, in obvious power running situations (3rd-and-short; 4th-and-short), the 49ers simply could not line up shoulder-to-shoulder and bulldoze their way to a first down.

On whole, the 49ers employed one of the worst power running games in all of the NFL, an interesting fact given head coach Jim Harbaugh's affinity for power running.  Inside the red zone, Frank Gore and company managed a measly 2.1 yards per attempt, and they led the league in rush attempts for a loss (though, in fairness, they also rushed more than 29 other teams).

Still, the numbers do not lie. The 49ers' rushing attack was largely over-rated in 2011, but not because their backs lacked talent.  No, that was the offensive line.  Expect Harbaugh to not tolerate the team's inability to run the ball in power situations.  He built one of the best offensive lines in football at Stanford, with such a great rushing attack and power running scheme it cost Andrew Luck two Heismans.  And with the best rush defense in the league to practice against every day, it has to be assumed the 49ers' offensive line will improve through training camp.

At the very least, it cannot get much worse.

1.  Will the 49ers adequately fill the hole at right guard?

San Francisco gave up the seventh-most sacks in the league last year (44) despite being 31st in pass attempts per game (in front of only the Tebow-led Broncos).  In the playoffs, the 49ers had the second-worst sack rate (14%) giving up seven sacks in two games.

By the end of the regular season, the 49ers were among the top five worst teams in terms of quick sacks acquiesced (a quick sack is any sack that takes place in less than 2.5 seconds, basically meaning the sack's blame is on the offensive line, rather than the receivers or the quarterback). They also fielded Mike Singletary's 2010 first-round pick, Anthony Davis, at right tackle, who was among the top five worst lineman in the league in terms of overall sacks given up.

But facts can be misleading.  It is generally understood that Davis played much better when he had someone decent playing next to him at right guard, which usually did not happen.  The right guard position is the 49ers' single biggest hole entering this year's training camp.  The Baltimore Ravens accrued nine sacks against the 49ers in "Harbowl 2011" on Thanksgiving Day, with Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata making it look easy against a rotating right guard position.

"Wait a minute!", one might quickly retort, "What about San Francisco's Pro Bowl offensive lineman, Adam Snyder?"

Well, besides the Pro Bowl being a joke (and I don't just mean the game itself; I mean the "honor"), Snyder led the league in sacks given up by a Pro Bowler with six and was released by the 49ers this year. He signed a 5-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals (this is not good news for Arizona quarterbacks, John Skelton and Kevin Kolb).  The 49ers also released another man who they tried to use at right guard to little success, Chilo Rachal (an early second-round choice in 2008, largely viewed as a bust).

The good news is that the 49ers retained Alex Boone, who provided the most stability at the position during last season, and now enters training camp as the favorite.  The other good news is that the 49ers were better than the league average in long sacks (i.e., sacks where the blame is primarily put on the quarterback or the receivers). So if Boone can prove himself at the position, he will make Davis a better tackle and the 49ers offense will become markedly less anemic in 2012.

Combine improvement at right guard with Boone along with increased efficiency in the short-yardage and between-the-tackles running game (allowing a now-stacked backfield of Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, and LaMichael James to wreak havoc) and throw in a combination of Moss, Crabtree, Manningham, and Williams stepping up their play - and you will be looking at a very dangerous San Francisco offense. They might be able to rival the best offenses in the league.  It all comes down to the oft-neglected, often under-appreciated quarterback, Alex Smith.

Answering the three questions above with success means no more excuses for the former first-overall pick.  And then maybe we can finally answer the question 49er fans have been debating for a near-decade...

 Just how good is Alex Smith?

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By Andrew Carroll
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2 years ago
Corrections: Tackle, Joe Staley, made the Pro Bowl, still giving up the most sacks of any Pro Bowler this year.

Snyder was indeed still traded to AZ, however. Apologies for the wrong "S" name in there!

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