WEEK 1: vs. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Date: Sunday, Sept. 9. Time: 3:25 p.m. TV: Fox.
2011 record: 13-3. Points scored: 380 (11th). Points against: 229 (2nd).
Noteworthy: After a run of eight consecutive non-winning seasons, the 49ers vaulted back into the NFL consciousness and are eager to take the next step. Their defense features All-Pros Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Justin Smith, and the offense added some oomph with free-agent signings Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. The series: The Packers have won eight straight, including 34-16 at Lambeau in 2010.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Stay healthy. This is a tired axiom for every team in training camp, but for the 49ers, this is more true than the last several years because they have talent. One reason for their 13-3 season in 2011 was their ability to avoid injuries. On defense, Patrick Willis missed three games and most of a fourth game with a hamstring pull. Free safety Dashon Goldson missed the first two games with a foot injury and Ray McDonald missed one game with a tight hamstring. That's it. Offensively, the team was hit hard at receiver with the knee injury to Braylon Edwards that finally knocked him off the roster and the season-ending, early-October broken ankle by Joshua Morgan. The 49ers have fixed their problems by stacking the receiver position with the addition of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and the drafting of A.J. Jenkins in the first round. The 49ers did the same at running back, fortifying starter Frank Gore, who hit a mid-season wall, with Brandon Jacobs, and an exciting rookie in LaMichael James. They join the emerging Kendall Hunter. Nevertheless, should injuries hit the wrong position at the wrong time, the 49ers could struggle just to win the division.
2. Get quarterback Alex Smith comfortable enough during training camp and in the preseason to throw deep. If Smith can't shirk his conservative proclivity to hit the check down receiver then Moss, Manningham and tight end Vernon Davis will be in a frustrated state of permanent idle. Last year, Smith excelled at throwing deep, he just didn't do it often enough. However, things could sour quickly if Smith can't animate the receiving talent he has.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Wide receiver Randy Moss. He has the potential to catapult this team into their first Super Bowl in nearly 20 years. He also has the potential to destroy. Just ask Brad Childress. It was just two years ago that Moss flamed out spectacularly in his second stint in Minnesota. In a four-week span he cost his team $25,000 by refusing to talk to the media, he compared a respected caterer's spread to dog food, and he laid the groundwork for Childress's firing when Childress fired Moss but didn't tell ownership he was doing it. That is an action-packed four weeks, and it reminds everyone that Moss can unleash a pernicious storm at any moment.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Quarterback Alex Smith. You could say Smith is on the hot seat every year. What quarterback isn't? However, for the first time in his eight-year career, Smith has no excuses. This will be his second year in coach Jim Harbaugh's offense, and he also has weapons. He consistently found the revitalized Moss in offseason practices. Tight end Vernon Davis is catching everything in sight and could be poised to join Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski as the next prolific receiving tight end. Manningham eagerly wants to establish himself as a starter after playing behind Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in New York. Not only that, the 49ers have an emerging offensive line, led by Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, that can protect Smith. The team is ready to take flight offensively, and Smith needs to be the pilot.
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