NFL San Francisco 49ers

Five Areas the San Francisco 49ers Must Improve on for 2013

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Five Areas the San Francisco 49ers Need to Address

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

From top to bottom, the San Francisco 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL last season. Statistically they were dominant on both sides of the ball and came just five yards short of capturing the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl title. But despite their run of success, the 49ers can still get better.

When analyzing their strengths on offense, San Francisco has a stout offensive line, a talented group of runners and a franchise-caliber quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. With a full offseason to prepare as the team’s starting quarterback, Kaepernick should be even better for the upcoming season.

On defense, the unit remains largely intact. Led by Patrick Willis, the group should finish in the top 10 for a third consecutive season.

The 49ers have returned to prominence as one of the premier franchises in the league. Their play has been sparked by the acquisition of head coach Jim Harbaugh in 2011, and more recently, the discovery of Kaepernick. As long as that tandem remains intact, the 49ers will continue on with their winning ways.

However, each team needs to find ways to progress and develop. Though the 49ers have few weaknesses, there are parts of their game that need to be addressed if they want to take the next step.

The goal for Harbaugh and his squad is to punch their ticket back to the Super Bowl and win it. Anything short of that accomplishment will be considered a failure. Returning to the big game will not be easy, so improving in the following areas are a must.

Travis Chan is a San Francisco 49ers writer for Follow him on Twitter or add him to your network on Google

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5. Penalties

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers were one of the most penalized teams in the NFL last season (126 penalties which were enforced). Whether it was a holding, pass interference or false start penalty, San Francisco needs to develop a better sense of discipline. Giving away those free yards or placing themselves in a longer down and distance only puts more stress on themselves when trying to defeat an opponent.

Even though it is encouraging that the 49ers play with aggression, it has to be done within the context of the rules. While it has not really affected them from a win-loss standpoint, penalties can add up over the course of a contest. Those infractions in turn impact the situation and the type of plays that are called in the closing minutes of a game.

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4. Special Teams Coverage/Place Kicking

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Special teams is often overlooked in football, but field position is important when it comes to establishing momentum. The 49ers allowed kick returners an average of 26.9 yards per return, second most in the NFL. Limiting those big returns will force the opposing offense to work even harder against San Francisco’s stingy defense.

After a superb 2011 performance by David Akers, his place kicking took a nosedive last year. With Akers gone after two seasons, the addition of Phil Dawson should serve as an instant upgrade. He’s an 84 percent kicker and is used to playing in harsh conditions. The wind at Candlestick Park should not affect him too much.

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3. Third-Down Offense

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Despite having playmakers in the run and pass game, the 49ers had trouble converting on third downs. Greg Roman’s offense succeeded on just 35.1 percent of their opportunities, placing them 25th in the league.

When forced into a predictable pass play, defenses did not fear the threat of the run or play action. The offense lost receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams to injuries during the season, stifling San Francisco’s aerial attack. When Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis were blanketed, Kaepernick was virtually out of options when a clutch catch was needed.

With another year of experience under his belt, Crabtree will only get better. Having the wideouts return from injury along with the acquisition of Anquan Boldin, should give Kaepernick a host of targets to turn to.

In the postseason, 19 of Boldin’s 22 receptions resulted in a first down. His knack for making the big grab and fighting for that extra yard should pay huge dividends for the Red and Gold.

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2. Getting off to Faster Starts

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at the final box score, it is evident that the 49ers can put up points. But on the other hand, they tend to have difficulty scoring and establishing rhythm early in ball games.

Despite getting shut out in opening quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco was fortunate to sneak by with a 28-24 victory. Unfortunately in the Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, that slow start put the team in a deep hole, and the 49ers were not able to recover in time.

In four of Kaepernick’s 10 starts, his team was held scoreless in the first quarter. But since he was essentially a rookie this past year, those slow starts should be less frequent as he enters his third season.

A faster beginning would also allow the likes of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks to pin their ears back and attack opposing quarterbacks earlier in ball games. Given the talent level that San Francisco possesses, they certainly have the ability to force teams into becoming one-dimensional.

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1. Red-Zone Offense

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Much like their struggles to convert on third downs, the 49ers also had difficulty coming through on red-zone opportunities. That weakness was part of the reason why they came up short in the Super Bowl. On three consecutive pass plays at the five-yard line, Kaepernick targeted Crabtree each time and failed to connect.

But looking at their red-zone efficiency during the regular season, San Francisco scored a touchdown within the 20-yard line just over 54 percent of the time, which ranks them 15th in the league.

As a result of coming up short in scoring position, the 49ers had to settle for field goals too often. In 2011 and 2012, Akers led the league in field goal attempts. Hopefully in 2013, 49ers fans will see more Kaepernicking and less of Dawson. Having Boldin and a healthy Kendall Hunter should help in that regard.