Seven keys to success for 49ers' 2008 season

A lot has to go right for the 49ers this year for them to emerge from their franchise-worst skein of five consecutive losing seasons, but it is definitely something that can realistically happen with the team Mike Nolan and Co. have assembled for 2008. It won't happen, however, unless the Niners come through in a lot of areas. Here are the top seven keys to success for San Francisco's 2008 season.

1. Keep J.T. O'Sullivan upright: This becomes even more of an issue now with speculation regarding a potential season-ending shoulder surgery to Alex Smith, who many figured would get a shot behind center at some point this season. O'Sullivan is going to be dropping back often in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's pass-happy offense, and it's imperative the 49ers keep him healthy and slinging to prevent potential catastrophe to hit both the offense and team, akin to what happened when Smith went down last season with his shoulder injury in Week 4. The 49ers allowed a franchise-record 55 sacks last season, so this is an immediate – and major – concern as the season begins.

2. Pump up the pass rush: You've heard it before. You'll hear it again. The 49ers must get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks to succeed this season. It sounds simple. It isn't. With the personnel they now have assembled on that side of the ball, the Niners have the potential to be a top-10 defense in 2008, but it won't happen if the Niners apply the same kind of paltry pressure they typically sent after the opposing QB last year, when they finished with 30 sacks but actually performed on a weekly basis worse than even that number might suggest. Now, with Justin Smith on board and a revamped front seven, the 49ers have to do better to make it all click defensively.

3. Protecting Patrick: After his spectacular rookie season, you just know that opposing offensive coordinators are rigging their schemes to give extra attention to sweeping inside linebacker Patrick Willis out of plays and keeping him away from the football. That means Willis is going to be a bulls-eye target this year for offensive linemen, fullbacks and even tight ends. The Niners have been building their defense this year with the idea of keeping bodies away from Willis, which is a great idea. But now that the real games start and people will be coming after him like never before, it has to happen.

4. Start strong: Have you seen the 49ers' schedule? It's not easy, particularly during the first half when San Francisco goes through a virtual war zone of quality opponents. Beginning in Week 4, the 49ers take a trip to 2006 NFC playoff finalist New Orleans, then face defending AFC champion New England, Philadelphia and defending Super Bowl champion New York in successive weeks followed by a home game against four-time defending NFC West champion Seattle that takes them to midseason. But the real test begins today. The 49ers have to get the jump on division rival and playoff challenger Arizona, particularly with a trip to Seattle coming next week.

5. Offensive balance: Under Martz's direction last year, the Detroit Lions threw on a NFL-high 66.4 percent of the team's offensive plays. That doesn't figure to work very well in San Francisco, where the top offensive weapon is running back Frank Gore, who needs to be fed the ball on the ground. Gore accounted for a NFL-high 40.5 percent of San Francisco's total net yards last year, so Martz must strive for offensive balance while also getting the ball into Gore's hands as much as possible.

6. O'Sullivan thrives in the Martz system: Martz's specialty is reclamation projects at quarterback, where he takes a previously unheralded guy and turns him into a star. Martz did it with Kurt Warner, a former grocery store shelf-stocker who became a two-time NFL MVP under Martz's direction. He did it with Marc Bulger, a former practice-squadder who became a Pro Bowl MVP. He did it with Jon Kitna, an undrafted free agent who became the ninth player in league history to throw for 4,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Now he must do it with O'Sullivan, or at least something close to it.

7. Keep the scoreboard flickering: In accordance with the previous two keys, the 49ers must turn offensive production into points on the scoreboard. San Francisco scored a NFL-low 219 points last season, the franchise's worst total ever over a 16-game season. Since 2004, the 49ers have averaged just 15.9 points per game. Nobody in the NFL has scored fewer during that span.

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