As the Vikings open the 2012 preseason Friday night, they're looking to erase the memory of a 2011 season that was nothing short of a disaster. Their first opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, is on the flip side of that coin.
Not only are the 49ers coming off a 13-3 season (only Green Bay had a better record), they addressed their offensive deficiencies in a big way since losing to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. It would appear that they are entering the 2012 season with a Super Bowl or Bust motto and have amassed their offensive troops in hopes of creating an attack that can win games rather than simply depending on the defense.
As most fans realize, the first preseason game is more a test for the guys on the second, third and fourth line of the depth chart rather than the starters, but with so many high-profile skill position players, the Niners may want to get a longer look at some of their new talent to go along with the young players fighting to win roster spots.
As significant as the changes were in the offseason for the 49ers, the biggest was the one they missed out on. The 49ers made a very public pursuit of Peyton Manning – they wined him, they dined him, they everything but sign him. Had Manning joined the 49ers, it would have likely been the end of Alex Smith's 49ers career. But, when Manning chose Denver over San Francisco, coach Jim Harbaugh had to mend fences with Smith, who returns as the starter. He will likely only play a couple of drives Friday night, turning the offense over to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick. As a rookie in 2011, Kaepernick threw just five passes in mop-up duty and, with Smith being re-signed, his chances of getting into the starting lineup appear slim. He will have to prove himself in the preseason because, in an ideal world, he won't hit the field often in 2012. In fact, his preseason battle may be more with Josh Johnson than Smith. Johnson spent his first four seasons with Tampa Bay, but was coached in college by Harbaugh, who brought the best out of him. The plan is to give both Kaepernick and Johnson about a quarter, with Kaepernick getting the first call.
The running game has undergone a significant change. Frank Gore remains the primary runner in the 49ers ground attack, but the team has added talent both through free agency and the draft and Gore will likely be used sparingly in the opener. Those duties will be shared by three players Friday – Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James. Hunter was the No. 2 guy with the 49ers last year and, while undersized, has excellent burst and the speed to get to the outside and make significant gains. Jacobs defected from the Giants and gives the 49ers a power back option, especially in short-yardage situations. The wild card of the group may well be James, a second-round rookie. He is currently fourth on the depth chart but is being viewed as the eventual replacement to Gore after tearing up the Pac-12 last year at Oregon. He led the country in rushing, averaging more than 150 yards a game, and has excellent instincts and vision, hitting the hole hard and making people miss. Expect to see him getting the majority of the carries as the Niners get their first live look at their newest draft commodity.
Just as the running game has been provided an infusion of talent, so has the receiver corps. Last year, the team had Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and little else – no other receiver caught more than 20 passes. Determined to change that, the 49ers signed Randy Moss out of retirement, made former Giant Mario Manningham an offer he couldn't refuse and used their first-round draft pick on A.J. Jenkins. With Crabtree sidelined with a foot injury for much of training camp, Moss has all but locked down one starting spot and Manningham is fighting with incumbents Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams for the other starting spot. Crabtree remains a question mark to play, but the team will likely give Manningham, Williams, Ginn and Jenkins a long look Friday as they attempt to diversify their offense to become more pass-heavy. It seems almost inevitable that, barring injuries, the Niners will keep all six receivers and go from one of the weakest receiver corps in the league to one of the most dynamic.
The San Francisco offensive line has been built through the draft and the results bore fruit last year. Left tackle Joe Staley made his first Pro Bowl and left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis are both former first-round picks. The only training camp battle is at right guard, where Alex Boone is trying to hold off veteran Leonard Davis. The other four starters seem set, so the battles will likely be only for backup positions. The team will have to whittle five of their 15 linemen from the roster (including four centers), but seem prepared for another big year – both in run blocking and pass protection.
The calling card for the 49ers last year was their defense. They never allowed more than 27 points in any game, gave up 20 or less in 12 of them and 11 or less in seven games. The Niners are one of the few NFC teams that run an exclusive 3-4 base defense and, while they're starting to age along the front line, they are still as dominant a trio as there is in the conference. Justin Smith is entering his 12th year and is coming off one of his best seasons ever. On the other side, Ray McDonald is the youngest of the group (in his sixth season) and is the every-down left end. In the middle, ninth-year pro Isaac Sopoaga is a run clogger who doesn't make a lot of tackles but closes off running lanes. Given their age and experience, they likely will only be asked to play a couple series, primarily because the team lacks depth at both the end positions. Ricky Jean Francois is a veteran backup for Sopoaga at tackle, but there is no experience at the defensive end spots – where Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu are the only two of the five backups on the roster with any experience, and they're just second-year players who saw very limited action last year. For a team that doesn't have any questions at the starting spots, there are plenty of questions among the backups.
The strength of the defense is in the middle, where the Niners linebackers may be the best in the NFL. Already with Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, seventh-year pro Ahmad Brooks and improving third-year pro Navarro Bowman, the team hit the jackpot with Aldon Smith, whose 14 sacks last year were the second-most by a rookie in NFL history. The front-line linebackers are so good that former starters Tavares Gooden, and Parys Haralson have been relegated to backup duty. With part-time starter Larry Grant and fifth-round rookie Darius Fleming also in the mix, there will be a lot of teams watching the waiver wire at final cut-down day because the 49ers have so much talent at the linebacker position they will be forced to cut players that can suit up for a lot of teams.
If there is a weakness (and it's not much of a weakness), it's at cornerback. Carlos Rogers is coming off a career year in his first season in San Francisco, but isn't viewed as an elite cornerback. Sixth-year man Tarell Brown finally got the chance to be a full-time starter last year and made the most of it but is prone to taking chances. Beyond them, it's a wide open competition for three or four roster spots. None of the six backups has more than two years experience and only one (Chris Culliver) played in all 16 games last season. Who stays and who goes from the roster will likely be decided in part by how they perform against the Vikings.
Safety is another story. Dashon Goldson tied for the team lead with six interceptions last year and was selected to the Pro Bowl and former Buffalo star Donte Whitner made an immediate impact on the defense as a top-notch run stuffer. Both have their jobs locked down and fourth-year man C.J. Spillman is a quality backup providing decent depth and special teams ability.
The 49ers will be a solid test for the Vikings, since the first preseason game is more often a battle of the backups and only cameo appearances from the starters. Championship teams are often built around role players and depth. There are very few question marks surrounding the starters on both offense and defense in San Francisco, so the storyline for the 49ers during this preseason will be surrounding the final dozen players that will make the roster. Harbaugh has built a team capable of going to the Super Bowl and it appears that all the pieces are in place, which will make their preseason opener with the Vikings what they believe is merely the first step on the way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: 49ers an impressive first test
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