The San Francisco 49ers will travel to NOLA to compete in Super Bowl XLVII. It has been an unbelievable journey for the team, who has been resurgent in the Harbaugh era. They have a very real shot on February 3rd to bring home a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
But if I pour too much admiration on Jim Harbaugh and company, he's sure to kick me in the shins. The theme in that locker room is to stay hungry, stay humble and get 1% better everyday. With that in mind, I reflected on the 49ers' season, including their past two playoff games, going over where they can improve on the field.
Here are a few things I'd like to see the 49ers improve on for next game:
Justin Smith is still a factor, but he must be hurting. The 49ers pass rush has taken a hit since he sustained the tricep tear in Week 15. Outside the stats, the ability to pressure the QB and make him uncomfortable has not been readily apparent.
They have gotten better in that regard in the second half as the game progresses, but we have not seen them get after the quarterback for four quarters in a while. Vic Fangio needs to remain creative, keep defenders moving around and send pressure from all over.
The team can benefit from testing their match-ups. By allowing Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith to rush from both sides of the line, they can challenge the edge protectors with their diverse skill sets. Incorporating their defensive backs and inside linebackers on certain down and distances wouldn't be a bad idea either.
San Francisco needs to hit the quarterback and make him antsy. It is too vital a factor that has a ripple effect on the rest of the game, so the 49ers need to execute in that regard.
Guarding the Deep Ball
The 49ers secondary has received an awful lot of praise from me this season, and I stand by that. However, there is always room for improvement.
I noticed that San Francisco's defensive backfield can be overtaken by young, fast and physically aggressive deep threats. They've played elite quarterbacks better than they've played elite receivers. Whereas Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers make their receiving corps, Julio Jones and Roddy White make Matt Ryan.
Jones in particular was indefensible in the NFC Championship. There was miscommunication that led to blown assignments, and on a couple occasions, the receiver just beat the Niners to the ball. Jones and White were attacking the football, which led to first half domination by Atlanta.
Matt Ryan vs. #49ers: passes < 10 yds downfield: 14-20, 95 yards, 80.2 rating. 10+ yds downfield: 16-20, 301 yards, 3 TD, INT, 137.5 rating— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) January 22, 2013
Heading into Super XLVII, the 49ers have to worry about the hot tandem of Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. These two have been ultra aggressive, and its got Joe Flacco willing and able to make all throws. This is a concern going forward.
Getting Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis going in the same game
Woah. Could you imagine?
At their core, these are two elite playmakers that once entered this league with high, high ceilings. In the 2006 and 2009 NFL drafts, analysts believed they had the potential to become two of the best at their positions. They have never really been able to get rolling in the same game, aside from the match-up against Buffalo this season.
They both had solid outings in Colin Kaepernick's debut against Chicago, but it's been unbalanced since. Davis all but disappeared in the last six games of the season, while Crabtree thrived like never before. However, Davis has gotten more involved since the postseason has begun, catching six balls for 150 yards and a score so far.
In Davis' big game in the NFC Championship, Crabtree was relatively quiet. The reason for this is because defenses are game planning to stop one or the other. The Niners running game is almost always certain to get off the ground, but if the Niners offense could complete that picture with ball distribution in the passing game, they could become truly dominant.