49ers preview: Playoffs or bust

Five keys to the 49ers' season

1. Smith takes control

After battling injuries and inefficiency for several seasons, Alex Smith finally has a firm grasp on the 49ers’ starting quarterback gig. Now, it’s up to him to see how far he can take the club. After taking over for Shaun
Hill last season, Smith threw for
2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns, while leading the Niners to a 5-5 record down the stretch. He finally showed glimpses of why the 49ers made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. With offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye back — the first time an offensive coordinator has returned during Smith’s tenure — and Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan beginning to blossom, all the pieces are in place for Smith to turn the Niners into one of the league’s more explosive offenses.

2. Shore up the offensive line

The offensive line play has been suspect at times for the 49ers over the past few seasons and 2009 was no different. The line gave up 40 sacks, 11th-most in the league, and the Niners ran for only 1,600 yards as a team, the sixth-lowest total in the NFL. Enter rookie tackle Anthony Davis and rookie guard Mike Iupati. It took the tandem just nine days of training camp for Mike Singletary to anoint the two first-rounder draft picks as starters. That’s either a big statement about the progress of the mammoth linemen, or an indictment of the rest of the Niners’ line. Either way, Davis and Iupati will need to pick up the NFL game quick. The loss of reliable center Eric Heitmann for the start of the season could prove to be costly.

3. Get off to a hot start

With the Seattle Seahawks in transition, the Arizona Cardinals moving on without Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams bumbling along, the NFC West has never been more up for grabs for the 49ers. However, in order capture the division crown, the team must get out of the gate strong. Three of the team’s first four games are on the road, and the one home game is against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on “Monday Night Football.” If the 49ers can come out of those first four games with no worse than a 2-2 mark, they should be set up for a run at the playoffs.

4. Improve the pass defense

Overall, the 49ers’ defense under Mike Singletary took huge strides last season. The unit allowed a paltry 17.6 points per game, fourth best in the league, and 97 rushing yards per game, sixth-best in the NFL. The one weak spot was the pass defense. Cornerback Nate Clements struggled at times and the team’s lack of depth was exposed. The Niners’ pass rush helped the secondary mask some of its issues with 44 sacks, the third most in the league despite not having a single player with more than 6½ sacks. Dashon Goldson was a bright spot in the secondary and should continue to improve, and the addition of rookie Taylor Mays should provide a boost.

5. Return specialist

The Niners have lacked a dynamic kick returner for years, but they tried to address that concern in the offseason with the acquisition of Ted Ginn Jr. from the Miami Dolphins. Last season, Ginn averaged nearly 25 yards per kick return and took two kicks back for touchdowns. If the former Ohio State star can help the Niners win the field-position battle, he’ll prove to be a valuable commodity. Rookie Kyle Williams will likely get the first crack as punt returner.

Impact players

Patrick Willis

At this point, there’s not much more the dynamic linebacker can do to prove his worth. And the 49ers rewarded their defensive star with a five-year, $50 million extension in the offseason. In his three seasons, Willis has recorded at least 141 tackles each year and is a three-time Pro Bowler.

Frank Gore

The 27-year-old running back topped the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the fourth consecutive season in 2009. In addition, Gore added 52 receptions. Health issues have plagued Gore at times, causing him to miss two games each of the past two seasons. But when healthy, there aren’t many backs better.

Vernon Davis

The outspoken tight end finally lived up to the hype in 2009, tallying 965 yards receiving and 13 TDs, an NFL record for a tight end. Davis has always been an athletic freak and devastating blocker, but he finally put it all together last season. His speed and strength create huge mismatches.

Coach’s corner

Mike Singletary

AGE: 51
RECORD: 13-12 (includes nine games as interim coach)
BRIEFLY: In just a year and a half, Mike Singletary has changed the culture around for the 49ers. He has earned his players’ respect and the results have shown on the field.
QUOTABLE: “I am so excited with where we are and the talent level that we have.”

Game to watch

The 49ers couldn’t ask for a higher-profile home opener than what they are saddled with in 2010. The defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints will come to town on Sept. 20 for a “Monday Night Football” showdown at 5:30 p.m. on ESPN. The Niners will find out where their defense is at early in the season against Drew Brees and the Saints’ prolific offense.


For the first time in years, the NFC West is wide open. The three other teams in the division all have big-time questions entering the year, leaving the Niners as the clear-cut favorite. Mike Singletary has the pieces in place for a playoff run. With a very fair schedule, expect San Francisco to win the West going away. Look for a 10-6 year.

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