In the NFL, the coordinators do the actual coaching, so much of the credit for the 49ers’ improvement this season should go to Billy Davis and Norv Turner, who are responsible for the defense and offense, respectively.
During the exhibition season and in their regular-season opener, the most obvious 49ers weakness was the lack of a pass rush. Last week, coach Mike Nolan said that would have to be corrected by scheme, an admission that the 49ers don’t have the ability to pressure a quarterback with a straight-up rush.
So, Davis put in an impressive blitz package that resulted in six sacks in Sunday’s 20-13 win over the St. Louis Rams.
Blitzes can be very disruptive to an offense, not only with sacks but by getting into a quarterback’s head, making him think about the pressure even when it isn’t coming. Butblitzes are also risky because they put more pressure on the secondary. The Niners were up to the challenge on Sunday, never allowing the explosive Rams to complete a pass longer than 24 yards.
Offensively, Turner’s biggest job was to make an NFL quarterback out of Alex Smith and he has done that. Smith is much more poised, much more confident, so he can use his physical ability. Turner has emphasized putting Smith on the move with designed rollouts to make use of his running ability, but on Sunday, Smith proved he can also be effective as a pocket passer. He has gained an ability to feel the pressure, moving away from it if necessary but otherwise staying where he is and delivering the pass. As a rookie, Smith made panicky moves and ill-advised throws that often ended up in interceptions. We’re watching a much different quarterback this season.
Another thing we’re seeing: Wide- open receivers making big gains after taking accurate throws from Smith. There were two in Sunday’s game: A 56-yard hookup with Arnaz Battle and a 72-yard touchdown strike to Antonio Bryant. When you see receivers wide open, it’s a result of a good offensive scheme. Nothing is more invigorating to an offense or demoralizing to a defense than those big plays.
The offensive and defensive schemes have given the players a confidence that wasn’t there last year. As early as training camp, you could see that the players believed in themselves. Since Nolan took over as coach last season, the practices have been much more intense and much more spirited than under the previous coach, Dennis Erickson, but this season, there’s also been a joy that can be sensed from the sideline. The players know now that they have a chance to win. Last year, though they talked a good fight, they didn’t really believe that.
Nolan has emphasized the importance of winning the division, the first step toward a return to the Super Bowl. Realistically, that goal is still a year away.The 49ers are not yet good enough to challenge Seattle, the reigning NFC West champion.
They have reached the level of the other two teams in the division, though, losing a tough one to the Arizona Cardinals in the opener and beating the Rams. Their continued improvement during the season should put them above both teams.
And, much of the credit for that should go to the coordinators.