After a disappointing Week 1 loss to the New England Patriots this past Thursday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers will look to channel an extra three days of rest into a win in their home opener against the San Francisco 49ers next Sunday. The 49ers will be working on a short week, as they host the visiting Minnesota Vikings tonight at 10:20 EST in the second feature of Monday Night Football’s doubleheader.
If you’re like me, you’re already looking for a chance to watch the Steelers next opponent in prime time, free from the distractions of other games and probably even other human beings at that time of night (just the way Dave Bryan likes it). The 49ers had maybe the worst offseason in NFL history, losing 18 starters and/or key contributors (counting their punter, Andy Lee), in one way or another.
On offense, gone is Frank Gore, the proud franchise’s all-time leading rusher and a fan-favorite. Gone is three of their top four wide receivers, including Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson. Three of their top six offensive linemen have departed, as Mike Iupati moved on to Arizona and Jonathan Martin and Anthony Davis retired. Center Daniel Kilgore is currently on the P.U.P. list, leaving second-year player Marcus Martin to spearhead the offensive line.
Defensively, the 49ers offseason was even more of a whirlwind. The linebacking corps lost three of the best in the game in Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Aldon Smith, the first two to retirement and Smith to the Oakland Raiders after he was released following yet another off-the-field issue. Starting cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox have moved on as well, while the leader of their defensive line,Justin Smith, also retired. Throw in the absence of Ray McDonald, Dan Skuta, and Craig Dahl, and you have a unit that has not only lost a ton of talent, but also a ton of leadership.
While on the subject of leadership, might as well mention the changes along the coaching staff for the 49ers this year, as Jim Harbaugh has obviously departed for the head coaching job at Michigan. Former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has taken over as the head man in San Francisco, while offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have both been replaced as well. Geep Chryst and the familiar face of Eric Mangini will now roam the sidelines in those roles, while special teams coach Thomas McGaughey takes over for Brad Seely.
With a roster as talented and deep as San Francisco’s was however, the 49ers are not without hope. Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin formed a formidable duo in Baltimore, and will try to replicate that success with Colin Kaepernick this year. If the 49ers will finally utilize him, tight end Vernon Davis remains one of the most athletic playmakers in the league, and second-year back Carlos Hyde could be an upgrade over the aging Gore this year. Left tackle Joe Staley is one of the top blindside protectors in football, and the 49ers have drafted plenty of talent along the offensive line over the past few years to build around him.
On defense the drop-off in talent will be more noticeable, particularly along the line. The linebacking corps remains solid despite three huge departures, led by Navorro Bowman’s inspiring return from a devastating knee injury. Bowman looked great in the preseason, and is the type of player teammates will rally around due to his motor and work ethic. Promising second-year pass rusher Aaron Lynch will look to improve on his six-sack rookie campaign, while veteran Ahmad Brooks tries to focus on football in the midst of troubling off-field, sexual assault allegations.
The secondary is a patchwork unit at cornerback, but has loads of talent at safety. Antoine Bethea is the veteran leader the unit needs on the back end, while third-year player Eric Reid has all the tools to improve on a sophomore slump campaign. Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are too high-pedigree draft picks the 49ers like a lot, so expect to see them continue to work Ward onto the field, potentially in the slot like they did last year. Tartt is just a rookie, but he has the size and physicality to play in the box if need be, and reportedly played very well during preseason action.
Cornerback is a work-in-progress, as veteran undrafted free agent Tramaine Brock steps into the #1 corner role for the Niners. Second-year, sixth rounder Kenneth Acker missed all of his rookie season on injured reserve, but is expected to start opposite Brock tonight. Expect Dontae Johnson to push for serious time in his second year, as the converted safety has shown exciting flashes in his short time in the league. Still, it is a very young group or cornerbacks outside of Brock and Shareece Wright, as Johnson, Acker, and Keith Reaser were all 2014 draft picks.
Tonight’s matchup against one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the league in Teddy Bridgewater should be a good one for San Francisco’s inexperienced defense. They’ll not only have to deal with the arm and smarts of Bridgewater, but also the return of Adrian Peterson to the Vikings lineup.
Despite the defense’s offseason facelift, I think I still have more questions about the 49ers offense heading into the 2015 season. Will Kaepernick take the necessary steps to become one of the top quarterbacks in the league, or will his physical gifts ultimately go to waste? How successful can Hyde be right away, and will it be enough to open up things for Kaepernick down the field? Can San Francisco find a way to maximize the exceptional talents of Vernon Davis, or will he continue to be underutilized in an offense that desperately needs his playmaking? If Davis no-shows again this season, are there enough additional weapons in the passing game for Kaepernick to thrive?
A Mike Zimmer-led defense is always going to be a great test for any offense, but expect the Vikings to get after Kaepernick tonight with their highly-talented front seven. I’ll be watching closely to see how the 49ers fifth-year quarterback handles the pressure, and if he appears ready to take the next step in his career.
If you’re going to be up watching the game, give me a holler in the comments section here, and let me know your thoughts and impressions. Alex Kozora and I will of course be scouting both teams in-depth this week with the help of All-22 film, but your analysis and opinions are always appreciated as well.