|2004 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE|
Kevan Barlow #32 of the San Francisco 49ers will need to step it up, and make it his team with key losses on offense..
Getty Images/Jonathan Daniel
Notable additions: WR Curtis Conway, NY Jets, 6-1, 200; DE Brandon Whiting, Philadelphia, 6-3, 285; WR Rashaun Woods, Oklahoma St., 6-2, 202; G Justin Smiley, Alabama, 6-3, 301; Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson, Pittsburgh
Notable subtractions: QB Jeff Garcia (released); WR Terrell Owens (traded to Philadelphia); G Ron Stone (released); RB Garrison Hearst (released); Defensive coordinator Jim Mora (now head coach in Atlanta)
Notable returnees: FB Fred Beasley, OT Scott Gragg, WR Brandon Lloyd, LB Derek Smith, DE Andre Carter, CB Ahmed Plummer, QB Tim Rattay
Offensive overview: The 49ers are adding more of Erickson's spread-the-field philosophy to the tried-and-true schemes of the franchise's vaunted West Coast attack. They're doing it with a fresh cast of characters that includes seven new starters. The Niners are the first team in NFL history to begin a season with a new starting quarterback, a new featured running back, two new starting receivers and a new starting tight end, not to mention new starters at right guard and left tackle. Fifth-year veteran Rattay gets the call at quarterback after working his way up in the system the past four years, and his knowledge of the offense, patience in the pocket, accurate arm and quick release will give the Niners a dimension they didn't have in previous seasons with the scrambling Garcia at the controls. While Rattay develops a rapport with his young and inexperienced cast of receivers, the Niners will focus on establishing their running game with Barlow slashing behind Pro Bowler Beasley and a revamped line that could be quicker and more athletic than last year. After taking over from Hearst, Barlow is primed for a breakout season, but opponents will stack the box in the early going and dare the Niners to throw. That's where Rattay is dangerous, because he can find and hit open receivers. But he'll need time in the pocket, and the Niners must protect him from the merciless blitzes he's likely to see throughout the season. If Rattay is kept upright on a consistent basis, he will pick opponents apart, which will open things for a promising running game and make San Francisco's attack hum once again.
Defensive overview: Robinson arrives from the Steelers to take over from Mora as defensive coordinator, and he brings with him an intense personality and aggressive philosophy that features more use of 3-4 schemes. The 49ers will remain a base 4-3 team, as they have been in the past, but expect to see much more 3-4 sets in which the Niners can make optimum use of their talented linebacker corps. Peterson and Smith combine with Jeff Ulbrich and Jamie Winborn to give the Niners four active playmakers who need to be on the field as much as possible - and will be this season. The key for San Francisco, however, is still up front, and that's an area of weakness for the Niners, who don't have any quality depth behind starters Bryant Young and Anthony Adams. Those guys - and the players who followed them into games - were pushed around by opponents during the preseason, and that's a trend the Niners must stop when the real games begin. San Francisco also needs a better pass rush to take pressure off an improved, developing secondary that will feature a few new faces this season. The Niners ranked second in the NFC with 42 sacks last year, but that figure was bloated by blitzing linebackers. The Niners played it vanilla during Robinson's first preseason with the team, but they would like to be more aggressive on the edges in coverage this year. If their pass rush allows them to be, they will. There is pressure on the defense to carry the team this year because of all the new faces on offense, and it wasn't up to the task during the exhibition season.
Special teams overview: The implosion of young kickers Jeff Chandler and Owen Pochman - along with the shaky performance of punter/holder Bill LaFleur - led directly to three close losses last season and cost the 49ers a playoff berth. Veteran Todd Peterson has brought stability to the kicking game and the Niners drafted University of Pittsburgh product Andy Lee in the sixth round to take over the punting duties. Peterson didn't miss a kick in the preseason and Lee was getting the hang - and the hang time - of NFL punting by the end of summer. Arnaz Battle will be given an opportunity to return punts while Jimmy Williams - the NFL's leading punt returner in 2002 - wears a cast to protect his broken thumb. The coverage units are stocked with young talent and should continue the gradual progress they displayed last year.
The 49ers will make the playoffs if... Rattay remains healthy and is given time to throw, Barlow breaks loose for a big rushing season, the defensive interior finds ways to plug its problems and the pass rush produces enough heat to prevent opposing QBs from picking apart the secondary. And that, folks, is a whole lot of big ifs.
|TheInsiders.com 2004 NFL Football Preview|
|NFC EAST||NFC NORTH||NFC SOUTH||NFC WEST||AFC EAST||AFC NORTH||AFC SOUTH||AFC WEST|