Out with the Stick, in with the Field of Jeans. After years of waiting and $1.2 billion later, Levi’s Stadium is set for its 49ers regular-season debut on Sept. 14. The team’s 68,500-seat crown jewel will dominate much of the discussion in the early part of the season, but once the shine comes off the new digs, the end goal remains the same for the 49ers: Super Bowl or bust.
While the Niners have compiled a 41-14-1 mark (including going 5-3 in the playoffs) in coach Jim Harbaugh’s three years, the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl championship has remained elusive. San Francisco is loaded for another run at it, however, but first must navigate its way through the rugged NFC West. Here are three keys to the 49ers’ 2014 season:
A large part of the 49ers’ three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game has been a dominant defense. In those three seasons, the 49ers have finished in the top five in the NFL in total defense.
This season, however, could put the defense to its biggest test yet.
Veteran stars Patrick Willis and Justin Smith will be familiar faces once the season kicks off, but a few others won’t be around initially.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman is expected to miss at least half the season as he recovers from a torn ACL and MCL he suffered in the playoffs. Linebacker Aldon Smith was suspended for the first nine games of the season for his off-field run-ins with the law. Defensive backs Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner all left via free agency.
Newcomer Antoine Bethea was brought in to solidify the safety spot, while Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland should contribute at linebacker, but there could be some growing pains.
The Niners ranked just 18th in the league in sacks last year with 38 and will need to find a way to pressure the quarterback with Smith out for an extended period of time.
PASSING THE TORCH
As quarterback Colin Kaepernick enters the 2014 season, it’s his time to take the next step in his career. Running back Frank Gore is a year older and the 49ers have the best stable of receivers (Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and tight end Vernon Davis) they’ve had in years.
Now, it’s up to Kaepernick to turn what was a subpar passing attack last year into a formidable one.
The 49ers threw for 186.2 yards per game last season, 30th-best in the NFL. And while the 49ers were, and will continue to be, a run-heavy team, those numbers have to improve if the 49ers want to continue to keep up with the best the NFL has to offer.
The 49ers had too many drives bog down last season because of their inability to make enough plays in the passing game. The good news is Kaepernick, outside of games against the Seattle Seahawks, is extremely cautious with the ball. For his regular-season career, he has thrown just 11 interceptions in 639 attempts compared to 31 touchdowns.
If Kaepernick can get on the same page with his veteran receivers, the 49ers’ offense could transform from good to dynamic.
WIN THE WEST
When it comes to the 49ers and keys to the season, there aren’t many more important than winning the NFC West title and earning home-field advantage for the playoffs. While, yes, it may be a bit presumptuous to already be talking playoffs before the season has even kicked off, this is the bar the 49ers have set under Harbaugh.
The season doesn’t end when the regular season finishes.
So while every team’s goal is obviously to win their respective division, it’s more important the 49ers do so and avoid any scenario that would have them traveling to Seattle to face the Seahawks in what has become a house of horrors for San Francisco. The Niners’ last win in Seattle came in 2011.
Sure, the Niners gave the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks all they could handle in the NFC Championship Game last season, but ultimately they still fell short.
The 49ers’ clearest path to the Super Bowl would be one that runs through Levi’s Stadium, where they could try and establish their own house of horrors for other NFC teams.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Once Kendall Hunter went down with a torn ACL in training camp, it made the 49ers’ decision to take the running back out of Ohio State in the second round of May’s draft all the more important. Hyde will enter the season as the primary backup to veteran Frank Gore. Hyde’s 6-foot, 236-pound frame seems well-suited to handle the pounding NFL running backs endure. Hyde should see his fair share of action as the 49ers look to keep the 31-year-old Gore fresh.
The rookie defensive back is expected to contribute right away as the 49ers’ nickel cornerback and could also see some time at safety. In the preseason, Ward has been tasked with guarding the opponents’ slot receiver, a vital role in any defense. Ward picked off seven passes last year for Northern Illinois and has been solid at tackling in the preseason. If Ward can make an impact right away, it will make up for the loss of defensive backs Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown.
The 49ers’ tight end missed a mandatory minicamp this offseason after he was reportedly unhappy with his contract status. But the 30-year-old didn’t hold out from training camp and reported on time, which was a boon for the 49ers. Davis has emerged as one of the top tight ends in the NFL and hauled in 13 touchdown receptions last year, the second time he has done so in his career. San Francisco needs a focused Davis to round out its passing attack.