helped the 49ers
win the NFC West in 2011, but may have hit his ceiling. (SI)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Raise your hand if you thought San Francisco would go 13-3 and host the NFC title game last year. Everyone but Jim Harbaugh, keep your hands down.
In his first season at the helm in San Francisco, Harbaugh brought a brash bravado -- see: The Handshake War with Jim Schwartz -- that helped rouse the 49ers from a longstanding slumber. Prior to their 2011 breakthrough, the 49ers had not finished above .500 or made the playoffs since 2002.
Led by one of the league's top defenses, San Francisco turned the corner. If not for Kyle Williams' inability to field a punt in the NFC championship, the 49ers might have claimed a Super Bowl berth.
Harbaugh's challenge now: Repeating his success in Year 2 now that everyone in the NFC West is gunning for his team.
2011 Record: 13-3 (first in NFC West; lost to Giants in NFC championship)
Key Additions: CB Perrish Cox, RB Brandon Jacobs, RB LaMichael James, WR A.J. Jenkins, G Joe Looney, WR Mario Manningham, WR Randy Moss
Key Subtractions: WR Josh Morgan, S Reggie Smith, G/T Adam Snyder
Team Strengths: RB, TE, DT, ILB, OLB
Team Weaknesses: QB, RG
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the passing game be better?: Alex Smith was the proverbial "game manager" at quarterback last season, helping the 49ers to a 13-3 record in the regular season and a thrilling playoff win over the Saints. The former No. 1 overall draft pick experienced quite a turnaround under Harbaugh, throwing just five interceptions all season and posted a 90.7 QB rating.
But was that the ceiling for Smith? And, if it was, did San Francisco max out what it can accomplish with him as quarterback?
The 49ers attempted the third most run plays in the league last year and threw the second fewest passes. While Harbaugh's offensive game plan brilliantly protected Smith, San Francisco never once hit the 300-yard passing mark. If the Frank Gore-led run game has even a little slip, or if the 49ers find themselves behind in more games, Harbaugh may need to turn Smith loose.
Both Harbaugh and Smith should have more confidence in the receivers this year, if nothing else. Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis caught 72 and 67 passes in 2011, respectively, but the next highest total was Williams' 20. To help there, the 49ers added free agents Manningham and Moss, then drafted Jenkins.
Manningham alone serves as an upgrade, and this could prove to be a very dangerous unit if Moss has anything left in the tank or Jenkins develops quickly.
2. Is Aldon Smith ready to be an every-down player?: Smith dodged a bullet in late June when he suffered only minor injuries after being stabbed while allegedly trying to break up a fight. That's good news for the 49ers, all things considered, because they have visions of utilizing Smith in all situations this season.
Last year, Smith was a ridiculous weapon on passing downs, chalking up 14 sacks (No. 5 in the NFL) despite playing about half his team's snaps -- and five fewer snaps (511-506) than starting outside linebacker Parys Haralson, whose spot Smith took in pass-rush situations.
The big challenge for Smith will be adjusting to defending the run a lot more. (We took an in-depth look at the Smith switch earlier this offseason.) The 49ers still have Haralson in the wings should Smith falter on first and second downs; in that scenario San Francisco would simply revert to its setup from last year, with Haralson and Smith sharing time.
Rather remarkably, the 49ers return every starter from last year's dominant defense, so Smith's move up the depth chart might be the biggest question mark.
3. Can the defense stay healthy again?: Any player or coach will say it takes a little good fortunate to put together a winning NFL season, especially on the injury front. And the 49ers were living right on defense in 2011.
Every single one of the 49ers' normal starters played 13 games or more, with six guys -- Navorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Carlos Rogers, Ahmad Brooks, Tarrell Brown and Haralson -- suiting up for every single game. San Francisco could use that sort of durability again, because while the first-team defense is absolutely loaded, the rest of the depth chart is thin, especially up front.
The biggest issues could arise at defensive tackle, where Ray McDonald and Justin Smith own the starting spots. That duo played more than 2,100 snaps last season, with Ricky Jean-Francois plugging into the lineup for the one game McDonald missed. Jean-Francois would be first up in a pinch again in 2012; little-used Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu are the other options.
After Aldon Smith, Larry Grant saw the most action (232 snaps) of the non-starting linebackers, but San Francisco didn't really go any deeper than that.
The secondary is in better shape, despite losing safety Reggie Smith (presumably, because the team decided it had way too many Smiths on the roster), but the front seven might not be able to overcome any serious injuries.
Say what you will about Alex Smith, but he did exactly what he was asked to do last season: He didn't lose games, and he gave the 49ers' defense and run game chances to win them.
Despite chasing Peyton Manning this offseason, San Francisco will employ a similar formula this time around. With Gore and newcomer Jacobs carrying the load behind Smith, and with that spectacular defense stuffing opponents on the other side of the ball, the foundation has been laid for another solid season.
The downside of winning a division, of course, is landing a first-place schedule the next season. As such, San Francisco visits Green Bay, New Orleans and New England in 2012 and hosts Detroit, Chicago and the Giants outside of the division. It won't be an easy road back to the NFC West crown, especially with St. Louis, Arizona and Seattle all working to improve, but the 49ers have to be considered the division favorites.