As much as the 49ers are rightfully proud of their unexpected ascension into the ranks of the NFL’s elite, the best is yet to come if they heed the lessons of the 2011 season.
In their two playoff games, San Francisco’s much-ballyhooed defense was torched for 778 yards passing and six touchdowns by Drew Brees and Eli Manning. Admittedly, you don’t face Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks very often, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s insistence on keeping safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner in a cover 2 formation made the 49ers too conservative and predictable.
Even though the 49ers registered nine sacks against the Saints and Giants combined, Brees and Manning all too easily picked apart San Francisco’s zone coverage, completing 72-of-121 passes (59.5 percent).
Re-signing free agents Goldson, Carlos Rogers and Ahmad Brooks will be as important as turning up the heat on opposing quarterbacks in 2012. Want to see how it’s done? Break out the film of Sunday’s blitz-happy AFC Championship Game with the Baltimore Ravens harassing Tom Brady (one sack, two interceptions) and Patriots defensive mastermind Bill Belicheck doing likewise to Joe Flacco (three sacks, one interception).
Of course, the 49ers’ offense is crying out for a big-play wideout. Former starter Josh Morgan, whose season ended in October with a broken ankle, will be a welcome returner. Kyle Williams is a promising player, but at 5-foot-10 is hard-pressed to pry balls away from taller defensive backs.
Meanwhile, Ted Ginn, Jr. is a free agent, and Michael Crabtree, who dropped three passes in the Saints game and had just one catch for three yards against the Giants, complained about not getting more opportunities to make plays. He’s shown he is clearly not a No. 1 receiver. Watching Crabtree struggle to get separation against New York’s cornerbacks affirms his reputation as at best a complementary possession receiver, at worst a me-first underachiever who needs to polish his game and attitude.
Among the notable receivers expected to hit the free-agent market on March 13: Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe and Reggie Wayne. If the 49ers fail to land a game-changing target for Alex Smith, who is also a free agent but, certain to be re-signed, Jim Harbaugh should consider using explosive tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in more spread formation sets.
Now more than ever, the NFL is about giving star quarterbacks dangerous weapons and building defenses that can contain them. Hopefully, building on this year’s success will carry the 49ers into the Superdome in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.