49ers second-half checklist

After a day off Wednesday, the 49ers return to practice in earnest Thursday to begin preparation for the second half of their season, which starts with a Monday night game against NFC West-leading Arizona. The Niners have several things they need to improve upon to turn around their season, and here is a 14-item checklist of things the team needs to do to get it right during the second half.

Adjust to interim coach Mike Singletary: The 49ers must understand this isn't Mike Nolan running the show anymore. This is the new Mike, and that means there definitely is a new sheriff in the house. The 49ers have seen how Singletary is going to respond to things after his much-publicized actions after the team's Week 8 loss to Seattle, so know they have a better idea of what Singletary expects and how he is going to operate. The team must respond better to Singletary than it ever did to Nolan to jump-start a lagging season.

Climb with Hill on offense: It will be a new offense with Shaun Hill at quarterback, even though the team will be running the same Mike Martz offense. Hill won't throw the ball down the field like O'Sullivan, but he will manage the game better and hopefully avoid the costly turnovers that cost O'Sullivan his job. The 49ers have a chance to make some real progress with Hill at the controls, even if he might have been forced on Martz by Singletary.

Protect the quarterback: The 49ers allowed a franchise-record 55 sacks last season, but that's nothing compared to the rate they're allowing opponents to get to their new quarterback this season. O'Sullivan was sacked a whopping 29 times in San Francisco's first seven games – by far the highest total in the NFL – then three more times in Week 8 before being pulled at halftime. With 34 sacks allowed at midseason, the Niners are on a pace to allow 68 for the season. That poor showing cost co-offensive line coach George Warhop his job, and with Chris Foerster – whose specialty is pass blocking – now directing the unit on his own, the 49ers simply have to get busy and get better in this department.

Turn down those turnovers: O'Sullivan threw way too many interceptions – he had nine in a four-game stretch near midseason, giving him the NFL lead in picks thrown at the time – and he also is putting the ball on the ground with fumbles way too often. Even though he didn't play last week, O'Sullivan still leads the NFL in turnovers with 17 – 11 interceptions and six lost fumbles. That's why he's on the bench now, and Hill will be expected to take much better care of the ball. The 49ers led the NFL in turnovers as they approached midseason, and ball security – already an issue with the team – needs to be made even more a priority.

Get it down on third down: As they have for years, the 49ers continue to have problems on third down – on both sides of the ball. They can't convert on third down to stay on the field offensively, and they can't convert on third down to get off the field defensively. As they approached the end of October, the 49ers ranked 29th in the NFL in third-down efficiency offensively and 22nd defensively. They need to make a significant move up those charts, particularly offensively, where their lack of sustaining drives has prevented a promising attack from taking it to the next level.

Beef up the rushing defense: With the deposed Mike Nolan calling the final shots, the 49ers went with a lot of defensive alignments using extra defensive backs that practically encouraged opponents to run the football. And run the ball they did – right at the 49ers, who appeared a little soft up the middle. Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes have proven to be a formidable tandem at inside linebacker, but they've been forced to make way too many stops after opposing running backs have reached the second level. The Niners have been flip-flopping their scheme along the defensive front so much that it has been hard to develop any continuity. They must find what alignments work best against the run and then stay with them more often.

Don't go away from Frank Gore: San Francisco's premier running back – among the NFL leaders in yards from scrimmage throughout the season – needs to be fed a steady diet of the football. That hasn't been a problem most of the time – the 49ers know they need to get him the ball and that is always worked into the game plan. But the 49ers have had a tendency to go away from Gore too early in games, even when they've been ahead. A galling example was the Week 6 loss to Philadelphia, when the 49ers had a nine-point lead entering the fourth quarter but failed to eat time off the clock by getting the ball to Gore to milk the lead. The 49ers must evaluate their strategy during the time off to make sure Gore is featured regularly for four quarters, no matter how far the team is ahead or behind on the scoreboard.

Get Vernon Davis the football: Wonderful things happen when the talented tight end has the football in the open field. The problem is, the 49ers aren't getting it to him there nearly often enough. Davis only had five receptions through San Francisco's first games before breaking loose for six catches in Week 6, when he had a 57-yard catch-and-run to set up a score. But then Davis only had one catch for five yards the next week. Sure, he's a good blocker who helps the team's weak pass protection, but the 49ers are wasting his talent by not featuring him more often as a passing target, and that needs to change. Perhaps Singletary's open criticism of Davis after the Week 8 loss will light a fire under Davis and inspire him to pick up his game.

Pump up the pass rush: The 49ers have been attempting to improve their pass rush for years, and it remains an issue for a defense that faltered considerably after a strong start and produced just 14 sacks in the first half of the season. The 49ers have some potential on the edge with Justin Smith, Parys Haralson, Roderick Green and now Manny Lawson returning to health. They must find ways to put those guys in optimum situations to take advantage of their pass-rushing skills, because their defense won't get any better until they do.

Changes along offensive line: The sum of this unit's parts is not turning out to be much for the 49ers, so they need to at least begin considering changing the parts. When Jonas Jennings is ready to return from his shoulder injury – he practiced in limited fashion Tuesday and could be ready for Monday's game – he needs to take back the right tackle position from his understudy, veteran Barry Sims, who has shown that his best days are behind him while receiving extensive action in place of Jennings. The 49ers also made the right move to get big David Baas back in the lineup as the starting left guard. He's all the way back now from his torn pectoral injury, and needs to play in place of Adam Snyder, who was not distinguishing himself as the regular starter and certainly not playing well enough to keep Baas on the bench. The 49ers also might consider a look at rookie Chilo Rachal, who is being groomed for the future, if there isn't noticeable improvement here.

Make better use of DeShaun Foster: This guy led the Carolina Panthers in rushing for three consecutive seasons before coming to the 49ers this year, rushing for at least 876 yards each season. But the Niners haven't been able to figure out what to do with him, and he has become a lost man in the offense. Through eight games, Foster had only 26 yards rushing – averaging 2.4 per carry – and just 14 receiving. The 49ers don't want to take away touches from Gore, but they need to take better advantage of this playmaker.

Ball drills for the secondary: Once again, the San Francisco secondary is leaving way too many interceptions and potential big plays out on the field and is simply not putting itself in position to make picks the way it should be. In Nate Clements, Walt Harris, Michael Lewis and Mark Roman, the 49ers have the most experienced starting secondary in the NFL, but that isn't translating into big-play picks. In fact, at midseason, San Francisco's two starting middle linebackers had more total interceptions – four – than the three interceptions recorded by San Francisco's entire defensive backfield. The team's defensive backs need to take on a more ball-hawking mentality when they return from their midseason rest.

Covering up: San Francisco's special teams coverage units have been a strength of the team for several years running, but for whatever reasons, they've had a rather drastic drop in effectiveness so far this season. It appeared as though it might be just a temporary problem when it began surfacing during the summer – given the same system is in place with a lot of the same players – but it now has become a trend as both the punt coverage and kickoff coverage units rank among the bottom third in the league a year after both finished in the top 10.

Get the swagger back: The 49ers clearly were losing confidence in what the team was doing during October, which led directly to the firing of coach Mike Nolan. But now it's a new day with a new coach, and Mike Singletary – after being rushed into the job during Week 8 for the Seattle game that led San Francisco to its bye – has had a whole extra week without the pressure of preparing for a game to instill his intensity and fire within the team. San Francisco's schedule lightens up over the second half, so there still is time for the 49ers to turn around their season. But it will only happen with a bit of attitude adjustment – and now the 49ers certainly have the right head coach for that.

Niners Digest Top Stories