Colin Kaepernick. Michael Crabtree. Frank Gore. Patrick Willis. Aldon Smith. Randy Moss.
Not a bad list to choose from if you’re trying to guess which players I was referring to in my article title, but everybody knows what they can do and knows they will be important to the 49ers for obvious reasons. The following four San Francisco 49ers players, however, will be of even greater importance to San Francisco’s Super Bowl hopes for a variety of reasons as the NFL‘s second season begins this coming weekend.
First and foremost, if David Akers is not replaced by Billy Cundiff as the team’s kicker before their game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday, he will be the most critical aspect of the 49ers’ offense that needs to show up come crunch time. We all know the 49ers have made strides offensively since CK replaced Alex Smith (or at the very least the offense now has a different look to it that defenses have to key in on), but there are times they will have to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns and when your kicker has missed four of his last eight kicks and has made less than 70 percent of his attempts for the season, that is a huge problem. If Akers remains the starter, he will need to revert to his 2011 form if he is to help the 49ers in their quest to win their first Super Bowl since 1995.
Second is LaMichael James. The rookie running back from the University of Oregon has played sparingly this season because he wasn’t needed. He played situationally in the final four weeks of the season, however, rushing 4-8 times per game and providing an impressive 4.6 YPR average. In replacing the injured Kendall Hunter as San Francisco’s #2 running back option, he gave Gore a bit of a rest as the season went on so that he wouldn’t break down by the time the playoffs started. He also started returning kicks and averaged 29 yards per kick return, so he filled significant needs in two different positions.
James is similar to CK in that he is an x-factor because of his ability to use his uncommon speed to make the huge play. One of his kickoff returns was for 62 yards and his longest run of the year was for 26 yards, so he has the ability to break out, which could prove useful late in games once Gore has pounded the defensive line to a pulp and the offense needs a pair of fresh legs to run a play or two. If the 49ers get into a possession game like they did against the New York Giants in last year’s NFC Championship game, James’ ability to break open the huge play could be the difference between the 49ers winning or losing.
Third is Vernon Davis. Smith’s go-to receiver all of last season and to a lesser degree this season, Davis has been the forgotten man ever since CK took over at quarterback earlier this season. In recent weeks, Davis’ production on the stat sheets has become virtually non-existent, and he has said that he and CK just haven’t developed that chemistry and sense of timing yet. Given how well Crabtree did against the Arizona Cardinals, and considering the only other legitimate receiving threat on the 49ers is Moss, Davis is about to become a very important player in these playoffs. That is, of course, provided he is healthy enough to return from concussion-related symptoms and perform at a high level.
Simply put, the 49ers don’t have any other offensive weapons for opponents to really key in on in the secondary. Crabtree should draw double coverage at least part of the time, and someone will have to watch Moss streak down the sideline as well, so that means Davis, if healthy, should have a lot of nice looks. It is tempting for CK to want to make the big plays–Lord knows he has already made his share this season–but if the 49ers want to keep advancing in these playoffs, he is going to need to start targeting Davis more frequently and get the ball to him. Davis can go short and deep as well, so CK needs to be aware of the dynamic threat that Davis is, because if the running game gets slowed down and if Crabtree and Moss aren’t open, guess who CK’s going to have to try throwing to?
And finally we come to Justin Smith. There is no denying that the 49ers seem to have about 5,000 defensive threats on their team, but their defense has looked shaky since the All-Pro defensive tackle went down with an injury during San Francisco’s match-up against the New England Patriots in Week 15. In the five quarters he missed between the remainder of the Patriots game and the following week’s debacle against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers’ vaunted defense gave up 50 points.
Think about that stat for a moment.
As much as the 49ers have an improved offense this season, they still win games with their defense, and that defense takes on an entirely different look when Aldon Smith doesn’t have Justin Smith helping him terrorize offensive linemen, running backs and quarterbacks. Sure, they held the Cardinals to 13 points this past Sunday, but that club is an absolute dumpster fire at quarterback and has been all season, so that’s not saying much.
The 49ers would be in serious trouble if they didn’t have a first-round bye in the playoffs, because they need to get a healthy Justin Smith back in the lineup if they want to succeed on defense. The Patriots and Seahawks–two possible opponents for the 49ers in the coming games if they win this week–picked this defense apart without Smith in the lineup. And while the 49ers’ defense does not live and die by one player being missing, his absence is a problem for this team. The hope is that 27 days of rest and recovery between the New England game and their first playoff game will be enough time for him to heal and be effective on defense. If it isn’t…