New San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is known for his offensive acumen, first as an NFL quarterback and then as head coach of the Stanford Cardinal. It's the 49er defense and special teams, however, that have allowed the Niners to enter Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals at 1-1.
The 49ers are averaging just over 200 yards of total offense in two games this season, yet have scored 57 points. They've managed that feat through tremendous special teams play led by former Ohio State Buckeye Ted Ginn, Jr. and fortuitous filed position set up by an aggressive defense.
In week one against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco managed only a single offensive touchdown. Ted Ginn, Jr. returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns however, accounting for 14 points in a 33-17 opening day win. Last week against Dallas, the Niners' offense was given the ball in Cowboy territory three times in the second half and came away with ten points, including a 55 yard David Akers field goal.
With Alex Smith at the helm, the San Francisco offense bears little resemblance to the legendary offenses of Montana and Young. It doesn't even look much like Jeff Garcia. Drafting Nevada's Colin Kaepernick in the second round was a clear sign of the organization's dissatisfaction with Smith, the former number one overall pick out of Utah. Unlike Cincinnati, however, who have been forced into playing rookie Andy Dalton by Carson Palmer's "retirement," the Niners have opted to let Kaepernick learn from the sidelines… for now.
The main offensive threats for San Francisco remain TE Vernon Davis and RB Frank Gore. Davis leads all tight ends in touchdown receptions since 2008 and is often Smith's escape target. Gore has struggled thus far, averaging under three yards per carry, but has shown the ability to carry a game if allowed. With Braylon Edwards out with injury and Michael Crabtree just returning, Davis and Gore should be the focal points for the Bengals defense this week.
The front seven for the Niners defense has been outstanding however, allowing a league-leading 54.5 yards per carry on the ground. Included in that group are former Bengals Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks, but the leader is linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis has the ability to cause havoc in the opponent's backfield as well as the speed to make plays sideline to sideline and excel in pass coverage. For the Bengals to be successful, the offensive line must get some blocks into the second level and keep tabs on where Willis is at all times. If they can do that, a one-lunged Tony Romo showed last week that there are some holes in the Niners' secondary.
Sunday's game will be decided by the Bengals' young offense against the Niners' opportunistic defense. If the Bengals can continue to play mistake-free football and not give San Francisco's offense short fields to work with, they should be in pretty good shape to win the home opener.
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