SANTA CLARA, Calif. - If the 49ers are going to contend for another Super Bowl in 2014, they’re going to have to change the way they’ve done it over the last three years.
No contending team has had a more drama-filled offseason. From a rummage of rumors about a Jim Harbaugh trade to the Cleveland Browns, to an alleged bomb threat at LAX, to a hit and run while brandishing brass knuckles, to holdouts (which have since ended), the opening of Levi’s Stadium will be accompanied with an undertone of question about a football team that might be in for regression after three-straight seasons of at least 11 wins.
The defense, which has been the staple of the last three deep runs of championship contention, will enter the year with three new starters in the secondary. And two All-Pros in the linebacking corps will likely be gone for more than half the regular season.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is tasked with playing six new starters, not including his new nickel corner Jimmie Ward and nose tackle Ian Williams, whose 2013 season ended early in Week 2. Stalwarts in the secondary Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner all signed elsewhere in the spring. Corners Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver will be starting Week 1 for the first time in their careers.
The defense has been in the top three in scoring in each of the past three years, and it’s no coincidence that all three of those teams had legitimate shots at winning the Super Bowl. This year, it might be up to the offense to pick up the slack.
With Aldon Smith suspended for nine games, NaVorro Bowman out for at least six and defensive end Ray McDonald facing a six-game suspension following his arrest Sunday, the odds are stacked against the defense remaining elite. The 49ers face the Bears, Eagles, Broncos and Saints before Smith is eligible to return Nov. 16 against the Giants. Bowman can return from his ACL and MCL tears Oct. 19 against Denver, although that remains a long shot.
Since Harbaugh took over in 2011 the offense was built around complimenting the defense and special teams. The 49ers were tough on opponents because of ball security and their kicking game winning the battle of field position. Football Outsiders metrics prove San Francisco has been in the top three in net starting field position (the difference between their average starting field position and opponents’) over the last three seasons.
In the 49ers’ first seven games, they will play five of the league’s top-six scoring offenses from 2013. The combination of Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier and Aaron Lynch will have its hands full. As will Michael Wilhoite replacing Bowman and the group of players replacing McDonald along the defensive line.
But the front office worked in the offseason to counterbalance the turnover on defense with a vitalized offense. Colin Kaepernick enters his third season as starter with his favorite targets Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, while getting new additions in Stevie Jonhson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington. And the team is hoping second-year wideout Quinton Patton can take steps following his injury-riddled rookie season.
Before Crabtree’s return in Week 13 following his Achilles tear, Kaepernick averaged just 173 passing yards per game. After his return, that number jumped to 203, including three postseason games. The offense, which was broken down to its most basic level and rebuilt this offseason, could have a different look and feel starting Sunday in Dallas. After evolving things for Kaepernick last season, moving away from the read-option of 2012, the next step for coordinator Greg Roman could be to spread things out more in 2014. No team faced more loaded boxes last season, which was a point of emphasis when redesigning the offense.
The 49ers finished with the league’s third-worst passing attack in terms of yardage, a stat skewed by the fact the team ran the ball at the second-highest percentage of plays, leading to defenses continuously loading the box. Still, it didn’t prevent San Francisco from averaging 4.4 yards per rush, ninth in the league.
The running game will remain the offense’s priority. But signs are pointing to a shift in the passing game that could include more three wide receiver sets to create more space at the line of scrimmage for the rushing attack.
If 2013 taught the 49ers anything, it's the value of home field advantage in the postseason. With their tough slate of games against high-powered offenses early on, the new-look defense has a difficult road ahead. The onus will be on the offense to open things up and win games in a way the team has been unaccustomed to during Harbaugh’s three-year run. The good news: Bowman and Smith will likely be back for the team's two games against the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Weeks 13 and 15.
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