What you saw from the 49ers in the practice games, on offense and defense, was pure vanilla. What you’ll see in Sunday’s opener against the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick will be quite different.
On defense, you can expect defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to unleash numerous blitzes. Aldon Smith was taken in the first round of the draft with the expectation that he could give the Niners a strong pass rusher from outside linebacker, and he’s shown that ability, though I’m sure Fangio will drastically limit Smith’s exposure on pass coverage.
Blitzing has become a focal point for NFL defenses, and it’s exactly the right kind of defense against Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who is in his first year with the Seahawks.
Jim Harbaugh will also take the wraps off his offense. Like Jackson, Alex Smith is also learning a new offense, but Harbaugh gave Smith the playbook before the lockout, so Smith could conduct workouts with receivers. That served a double purpose: Smith and the receivers were able to learn a good part of the system, and Smith was firmly entrenched as the team leader.
There are several reasons Harbaugh’s offense, derivative of the one Bill Walsh brought to the 49ers, is far superior to any system in which Smith has played during his time in San Francisco. Among them:
- The surprise element. As Frank Gore noted this week, there were times in previous years when
opposing defenses were calling out the play as Smith was calling signals at the line of scrimmage. Last year, it was Gore over left tackle or Gore over right tackle, until he was hurt.
This offense has many options for the quarterback, so it’s much more difficult to defend. Even the running game is much more diversified than it’s been since Gore was drafted, and there are good options behind him in rookie Kendall Hunter and second-year back Anthony Dixon.
Harbaugh will also take advantage of Smith’s running ability, as he did with Andrew Luck at Stanford last year, sometimes with designed plays but more often with rollouts, so Smith will only have to deal with half the field — and can run if there’s no good receiving option. There will even be plays designed to use him as a runner.
- Accountability. In the Harbaugh offense, the quarterback and his receivers have to be on the same page, with both reading the defense as the play is unfolding. This is a tailor-made offense for Smith, who is very intelligent and good at reading defenses, but the most important change will be that his receivers run the right patterns.
Michael Crabtree, in particular, has often not run the right pattern, making Smith look bad when the pass was nowhere near Crabtree. The first time that happens this year, the diva will take a seat on the bench.
- Options. Smith has an additional weapon this year, with Braylon Edwards, whose size makes him a good target for the “fade” pattern in the end zone.
It’s unlikely the 49ers will reach the playoffs this year, but they should beat the Seahawks on Sunday and this will be a more exciting year, as they build for a much brighter future.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.