49ers preview: Will they step up?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusmailfacebooktwittergoogle_plusmail

Five keys to the 49ers' season:

1. Consistent QB play

Now that the 49ers have settled on former UC Davis star J.T. O’Sullivan as their quarterback, it’s up to O’Sullivan to deliver. Inconsistency has plagued Alex Smith the previous three seasons, and O’Sullivan will need to be solid and not turn the ball over to maintain his job. Odds are the journeyman will be on a short leash, since Smith and his huge contract will be just a few yards away. His knowledge of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s offense puts him in a great position to succeed, though. He was a backup last year in Detroit, where Martz was the coordinator. O’Sullivan, who has never started an NFL game before, knows where to go with the football and his no-nonsense attitude seems to have earned his teammates’ respect. Now he has to do it on an even bigger stage.

2. Rushing the passer

For years, the 49ers have been trying to improve their pass rush, but have yet to figure it out. Last year’s team totaled 31 sacks, but 12 of those came in two games against the St. Louis Rams. In the team’s other 14 games, the 49ers only tallied 19 sacks. The acquisition of Justin Smith at defensive end should help in this department. Smith has 43½ career sacks and a motor that never stops. The concern, however, is he only notched two sacks last season with the Bengals. Second-year end Ray McDonald came on at the end of last season, possibly signifying he’s ready for a bigger role this year. Ex-Cal star Tully Banta-Cain was signed last season as a pass-rushing specialist, but only recorded 3½ sacks. This unit needs to step up to alleviate pressure on the defensive backfield.

3. Can Willis do it again?

As far as rookie seasons go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one as productive as the one middle linebacker Patrick Willis turned in last season. Simply put, Willis was an animal. He led the NFL with 174 tackles, 33 more than the next best, and walked away with the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Now that teams have taken notice of the former Ole Miss star, the pressure is on to repeat that success. Willis gets some help in the middle this year from veteran Takeo Spikes. The 23-year-old is one of the quickest LBs from sideline to sideline in the NFL and should be the cornerstone of the 49ers’ defense for years to come. With the experience he gained last year, Willis could be even scarier in 2008.

4. Adjusting to new offense

Mike Martz has a history of molding mediocre players into dynamic offenses. The 49ers are banking on that being the case once again. The 49ers’ passing game has struggled for years, but Martz’s scheme should break that mold. The additions of free-agent wideouts Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson should provide O’Sullivan with a pair of steady targets. The real question is: Can Martz adapt to the rest of the 49ers’ personnel? He has been criticized in the past for not running the ball enough and not utilizing a tight end, the two positions the 49ers happen to be strongest at. If Martz can find a way to get running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis the ball in the open field, this offense could be explosive.

5. Play aggressive football

This is the make-or-break season for coach Mike Nolan. If this team can’t turn it around, Nolan will likely be given his walking papers. The biggest thing for Nolan will be to make sure his team plays aggressive and he coaches aggressively. Many times throughout his tenure, Nolan has been criticized for being too conservative with game-day decisions. Several decisions to kick field goals instead of going for it on fourth down, or vice versa, stand out from last season. Nolan has two solid coordinators in place he can trust, which should allow him to devote more of his attention to his decision making. Now, he needs to show he has confidence in his team and play for the win at all costs. If he doesn’t, he could be looking for a new job this time next year.

IMPACT PLAYERS

Frank Gore

After rumbling for 1,695 yards in 2006, the running back’s production slipped in 2007, as he ran for just 1,102 yards and his yards per carry dropped more than a full yard. Not all of that was on Gore, as poor QB play allowed teams to load the box against him. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz says he wants to build his offense around Gore this season. Gore is healthy, hungry and ready for another monster season.

Joe Staley

Staley has moved from right tackle to left tackle this year and will protect J.T. O’Sullivan’s backside. The shift shows exactly how much confidence the 49ers have in Staley’s ability, as the league’s best defensive ends generally line up opposite left tackles. The hulking 306-pounder out of Central Michigan had a stellar rookie season after being the No. 28 overall pick in the 2007 draft and seems poised to only get better.

Manny Lawson

The athletic outside linebacker’s sophomore season in the NFL was derailed by a season-ending knee injury in the team’s second game. When healthy, the 6-foot-5 Lawson possesses the rare dual-threat ability of being able to rush the passer and drop back into pass coverage. The 49ers are hoping he can provide the kind of playmaking ability that former 49er Julian Peterson used to bring coming off the edge.

Allen Rossum

The 49ers have lacked a game-breaking punt returner for years and adding a bona fide veteran return man such as Rossum could pay huge dividends. While the 32-year-old Rossum has some tread on his tires, he has averaged 9.8 yards per punt return and 22.9 yards per kick return for his career, with seven return TDs. If he can help the 49ers establish solid field position with his returns, he will be a nice addition.

Josh Morgan

The rookie wide receiver has been outstanding during the preseason. He has taken advantage of extra playing time due to injuries to Bryant Johnson and Arnaz Battle. The sixth-round selection out of Virginia Tech may end up starting the season as the team’s No. 2 receiver, and his speed and size could make him the ideal downfield threat the 49ers’ offense has sorely been lacking.

GAME TO WATCH

A visit from the New England Patriots, who went undefeated in the regular season last year, will provide the 49ers a good measuring stick early in the season. Former Serra High School star Tom Brady leads the Pats into town at 1:15 p.m. on
Oct. 5, right in the beginning of arguably the Niners’ toughest stretch of games all season.

PREDICTION

With the instability of the quarterback position and a brutal stretch of five games in the first half of the season, the 49ers will be hard-pressed to make a run at the playoffs. The defense should keep the team in games, but ultimately how many games they win will depend on the offense. Unfortunately, we aren’t very confident and see them finishing 7-9.

In Other News