Same personnel but a lot of mystery
There is one big reason I absolutely despise making predictions. I prefer not to blow my cover. I want readers to believe I actually know what I’m talking about.
And with the 2009 incarnation of the San Francisco 49ers – a team that I’ve watched in the offseason and training camp more than any of the other 14 previous versions I’ve covered – I’m already pretty sure I don’t know what I’m talking about.
There has not been much turnover in personnel. I’m projecting that only five players in uniform for the 49ers on Sunday – and no starters – will be players who are completely new to the organization. But that familiarity only makes things more difficult to gauge just how the 49ers are going to fare this season.
The exhibition season did not supply any answers. That is why today’s game against the Cardinals, last season’s NFC representative in the Super Bowl, should be enlightening.
Offensive line: The same starters are back in the same spots. The only player added to the mix is veteran Tony Pashos, and I’m not sure exactly where he fits in. After all, he is a right tackle. Backups have to be a little more versatile.
Clearly, the 49ers expect right tackle Adam Snyder to be better after he spent his entire offseason working at one position instead of being bounced around from position to position. It’s probably safe to say that the 49ers expect young players Joe Staley, David Baas and Chilo Rachal to be improved, too. Eighth-year pro Eric Heitmann, the team’s best offensive lineman last year, should be just fine.
The 49ers, apparently, made the decision to keep this unit together and build continuity, rather than add a possible upgrade at a certain position via the draft or free agency.
The other aspect comes from coaching and philosophy. The 49ers’ offensive line could be a lot better this season because the emphasis of their power-running game is a better fit for the skills of this unit. The threat of the run game should buy quarterback Shaun Hill an extra tick to find receivers with play-action pass.
Although I’m not sure how much the offensive line will improve this season – if any – I can’t fathom that 49ers quarterbacks will get sacked anywhere near the back-to-back franchise-worst totals of 55 times.
Pass rush: The only outside pass-rusher the 49ers added was Marques Harris, who had eight sacks in 56 career games with the Chargers before signing with the 49ers. The 49ers have fewer pass-rushers than a year ago when Roderick Green and Tully Banta-Cain were on the roster for that purpose. The team cut Banta-Cain and showed zero interest in re-signing Green.
Manny Lawson will start at outside linebacker, just as he has in the past. But this season he will not come off the field on third downs. He will move to defensive end and rush the passer. It is the exact role for which Lawson was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft.
But the 49ers determined early in his career, that he was not ready to be a pass-rusher. That mindset changed when Mike Singletary took over. Lawson did not show much in the exhibition season, and he admits that rediscovering his pass-rush technique is a work in progress.
It’s not all about Lawson, though. Parys Haralson and Justin Smith are the only two proven pass-rushers on the team. Both should be expected to supply decent numbers – perhaps in the six-to-10 range. Ray McDonald and Kentwan Balmer must make contributions, too.
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On face value, these areas look like absolute disasters for the 49ers’ hopes of being competitive in 2009. To think the 49ers are going to be much-improved along the offensive line and with the pass rush requires a significant a leap of faith.
But nothing up to this point really matters, either. So we shall see . . .
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