10 reasons 49ers making their way back to top

You just know things are going right for the first-place 49ers when they extend their lead in the NFC West on a weekend they don't even play a game. When asked Monday to specify the biggest reasons for his team's great start and push toward the top, coach Jim Harbaugh gave credit to his players but said he had no "bullet points" list of reasons to give. So we'll run down that bullet list for him.

NinersDigest had hoped to get a bit more out of Harbaugh when we asked during Monday's conference call if he could specifically point out the biggest reasons for the 49ers fine – and, yes, quite unexpected – 5-1 start.

"Well," Harbaugh replied, "the players – it's those guys (that) are fueling the start. But a lot of people have asked, what bullet points and things like that… We just don't have any to give them."

Actually, Harbaugh should have plenty to give them, with his own name topping the list. But that's not this unique coach's style.

So, with the 49ers returning from their bye week to make an expected playoff push after eight non-winning seasons, we'll specify for Harbaugh the 10 biggest reasons the 49ers finally are making their move back to the top.

Harbaugh's leadership: This one is obvious, and it's already becoming redundant to praise Harbaugh for the quick impact he has made on the team and where it is headed. But it's true. The 49ers finally have a leader they can believe in as their head coach. There's a distinction there. Mike Singletary was a great leader. But he couldn't back it up with his coaching, and the team eventually unraveled under his direction because of that. It looks like Harbaugh can back it up, and his fiery attitude and in-the-foxhole camaraderie with his players has done wonders to instill both confidence in his team and his team's confidence in its head coach.

Assistants coaching like crazy: This may be the biggest factor of them all, and it probably hasn't gotten the full credit it deserves. But Harbaugh's coaching staff is doing a marvelous job complementing the top guy, and in several cases has been directly responsible for the team exceeding expectations at this juncture. All three coordinators – Greg Roman on offense, Vic Fangio on defense and Brad Seely on special teams – have come through with exquisite game plans and have out-coached their counterparts across the field on several occasions while highlighting their players' strengths and masking their weaknesses. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula also deserves special consideration. He is doing a fantastic job, not only with his own dominant unit, but also with his general role coaching the team's strong defensive front seven.

Prolific pass rush: The 49ers ranked seventh in the NFL with 17 sacks after six games. They have been getting considerable and consistent push by almost exclusively rushing four defenders, which gives the back end more manpower to both contain and shut down opposing passing attacks. Fangio hasn't even had to dig into his deep back of blitzing tricks yet, but that day is sure to come, and the 49ers will only be that much better for it because they never had to show those blitz packages earlier in the season.

Justin Smith, defensive MVP: It's amazing, but Smith just seems to be getting better and stronger every game at age 32, and it seems like we have been saying that about him for three years now. The word going around the NFL – and this is personnel chiefs and scouts talking – is that Smith is now the best 3-4 defensive end in the league, bar none. Smith is a beast both as a pass rusher and in stopping the run, and he wears down opponents with his non-stop motor while teammates feed off his intensity. His chase-down/strip of Jeremy Maclin to secure victory in the Week 4 Philadelphia upset is the 49ers' Play of the Season as the team comes out of its bye.

Alex Smith, offensive MVP: Never thought I'd be writing that sentence. But there it is, and it's both appropriate and well-deserved. The seventh-year veteran has been the one constant on an offense that struggled mightily in September and still ranks just 27th in total offense as of today in a very offense-driven league. Smith has managed the offense well and protected the ball, but he also has made more plays in six games this year than in any previous season. He has directed three comeback victories on the road and has been a major player in San Francisco's 5-1 start. Smith's third-quarter excellence in Philadelphia – with his team behind by 20 points on the road against a heavily-favored opponent – is a notable example of him stepping up when needed. And his fourth-down touchdown pass to beat Detroit is the 49ers' best play of the season so far on offense, and also the most clutch play Smith has made in his career.

The run stops here: Nobody runs on the 49ers. Nobody. The regular front three of Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith has been terrific, but the inside tandem of middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman has been even better at cleaning up the plays that front wall allows them to make. Willis remains a special player whose production can be counted on, and Bowman simply has been one of the biggest surprises on the team as one of the top up-and-coming young linebackers in the league.

The 1-2 backfield combination: Notice how much better Frank Gore has played since the 49ers made rookie Kendall Hunter a regular part of their offensive design? The 49ers always had a puncher's chance with Gore in NFL street fights, but to be able to also hit opponents with several quick jabs of Hunter has changed everything for both Gore and San Francisco's running game. Hunter not only keeps Gore fresh, but now opponents are forced to come up with a defensive game plan that calls for more than just stacking the box to stop Gore. Averaging just 2.5 yards a carry through three weeks, an unburdened Gore now is running with reckless abandon and ranks eighth among the NFL's leading rushers even after just taking a week off.

Special kicking specialists: With all due respect to Joe Nedney, David Akers is better, and he is definitely more clutch. And Andy Lee? If he's not the best punter in football, he is certainly the best punting weapon with his ability to boom long kicks and also place the ball when necessary while making a major impact weekly in the battle for field position. Akers is a money kicker, and the 49ers have no reluctance in allowing him to swing away at field-goal attempts within 55 yards. Both of those factors have been big in San Francisco's start and will continue to be big the remainder of the season, particularly when the Niners hit the stretch run in late November.

Winning the turnover/takeaway battle: This is always a sign of a good team, one that can protect the football and be opportunistic in taking it away on defense. Turnovers are such a huge factor in this game, particular in the fine-line NFL, where most games are close and one play can sway the outcome and be the difference between winning and losing. The 49ers have a plus-8 turnover differential, which ranks near the top of the league, and have won this battle in five of their six games.

Chemistry: It goes back to Harbaugh and his staff and the impact they are having on San Francisco's players, but just as Harbaugh said Monday, it also goes to the players and the bond they have developed both on the field and off. There is great chemistry in the San Francisco locker room, and that extends to the field with chemistry and cohesion characterizing the play of several units that have come together as one. Harbaugh's mantra is "team, team, team." The 49ers are playing like one, and as the NFL standings and power rankings suggest today, they're also learning to win as one.

Niners Digest Top Stories