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Durkin: Know Your Opponent -- San Francisco 49ers

By Dan Durkin-

(CBS) The NFL is filled with ultra-competitive alpha males both on and off the field.

Some organizations view cordial, synergistic relationships between their head coach and front office as being essential to football operations. Others view internal competition as a boon, so long as the best interests of the team are always at the forefront and the end results are positive. The San Francisco 49ers operate on the latter of these two approaches.

Over the past year, numerous reports have detailed the tension and blooming power struggle between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke. The organization's response has been consistent, saying such reports were nothing more than a trumped up, media-created narrative.

Keep in mind, this is the same organization that initially denied that Harbaugh was nearly traded to the Cleveland Browns, only to change their tune days later. Suffice to say that despite their recent string of success, things are far from settled off the field in San Francisco.

Harbaugh is in the fourth year of his five-year contract, and extension talks have been put on hold. CEO Jed York recently said that the standard for the team is Super Bowl or bust. Yet prior to Harbaugh's arrival, the team hadn't made the playoff for eight seasons. Under Harbaugh, the team has made three straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl appearance.

Irascible as he may be, Harbaugh produces results. The 49ers are once again among the league's elite and pose a huge challenge for the Bears this Sunday night in the inaugural game at Levi's Stadium.

49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman deploys one of the league's most dynamic and diverse running games. The 49ers run traps, wham, veer, power, counters and zone read plays using a variety of blocking schemes, personnel groupings and formations. All of which make game week preparations an enormous undertaking for opposing defensive coordinators.

The centerpiece of the 49ers' attack is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose first NFL start came against the Bears on Monday night in 2012. His prowess as a runner was well known, but doubts centered around his ability to keep a defense honest with his arm. In his first start, he posted a 133.1 passer rating (the second-highest of his career) and threw two touchdown passes in a 32-7 rout of the Bears.

Kaepernick has started every game since, compiling a 22-8 record and securing $61 million guaranteed this offseason in a six-year extension. While he's still not fully developed as a passer, he remains one of the league's best dual-threat quarterbacks.

Part of Kaepernick's evolution as a quarterback will involve training him to operate with more patience in the pocket. Currently, he still operates with simplified, half-field reads, and if his secondary receiver isn't open when he completes his drop, he has a tendency to break the pocket prematurely. Kaepernick has plenty of arm strength to make any throw, he just needs refinement.

This is the conundrum for the 49ers' offensive coaches, as they don't want to harness what makes Kaepernick special -- his ability to move the ball with his feet -- but need him to progress as a player.

The threat of the run is there on virtually every play, which is what makes Kaepernick so dangerous to defend and prepare for. As such, opposing defensive coordinators typically resort to zone coverage to assure they have as many sets of eyes as possible spying the ball at all times. Dropping an eighth defender into the box is becoming more of a risk as the 49ers continue to accumulate more talent on the perimeter.

Over the past two seasons, the front office has made a concerted effort to add weapons in the passing game. Prior to the 2013 season, the 49ers acquired wide receiver Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens for a mere sixth-round draft pick.

Boldin has never been a burner, but he's one of the league's most reliable targets, particularly on third down. Since his arrival, Boldin's 553 yards on third down lead the league, a testament to his willingness to work over the middle of the field.

In 2009, the 49ers spent a first-round pick on wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Like Boldin, Crabtree is a physical receiver and a sound route runner, but he lacks explosiveness and struggles to gain separation at the top of his routes.

The vertical threat in the 49ers' passing game remains tight end Vernon Davis, who is true size-to-speed specimen. Davis is a mismatch against linebackers or safeties who stresses the top of the defense. Since 2009, he leads all tight ends in touchdown receptions (44) and receptions of 25-plus yards (46). Davis is an instrumental part of the 49ers' play-action passing game, as once linebackers bite on the initial run action he exploits the voids left behind them.

As the 49ers find their way with their passing game, they can always rely on their running game. Frank Gore has shown no signs of aging and is a perfect fit for Roman's scheme. Gore presses the line with patience, runs with low pad level, has excellent vision to identify running lanes and has nimble feet through the hole. While he's not a home-run hitter, he's a volume back who wears defenses down.

In the second round of this May's draft, the 49ers drafted a Gore clone in Ohio State's Carlos Hyde. It will be a natural handoff to Hyde once Gore decides to call it a career. Like Eddie Lacy in 2013, Hyde will prove to be a steal in the second round.

A running game is only as good as the five guys up front, and the 49ers' offensive line is stout. Three of the five were first-round picks -- left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis (dealing with a hamstring injury). Throw in sledgehammer fullback Bruce Miller, and it's easy to see why the 49ers are so successful at controlling the line of scrimmage; they have continuity, command of the scheme and are physical at the point of attack.

Defensively, the 49ers are without some key starters, due to injuries and a suspension, but they remain an opportunistic and physical group. They are a 3-4 base but play a lot of 2-4-5 nickel packages.

Fourteen-year veteran defensive lineman Justin Smith may have lost a step, but he's still they key cog to the 49ers' front. Smith plays right end in base and three-technique on their two-man line. He has a knack for taking on and splitting double teams to keep the linebackers clean and takes short paths on stunts.

On the edge, the 49ers are without the services of outside linebacker Aldon Smith for nine games, so the pass rushing burden falls on Ahmad Brooks. Last season, Brooks had a career-high 8.5 sacks in the regular season and registered 4.5 more in the postseason.

The inside linebacking corps is also shorthanded. They're dealing with the loss of All-Pro "mike" linebacker Navarro Bowman, who is still recovering from a gruesome knee injury suffered in the NFC Championship game. The 49ers won't be able to replace Bowman's triple-threat prowess as a run stuffer, blitzer and pass defender.

Fellow All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis will move from the "jack" inside linebacker position to fill in for Bowman at mike. This brings Willis back to where he started his career, allowing him to spy the quarterback and be more of a sideline-to-sideline player. Michael Wilhoite moves into the jack role, and there will be a noticeable dropoff in his performance, particularly in pass coverage.

In back-to-back seasons, the 49ers have seen their safeties -- Dashon Goldson and Dante Whitner -- leave via free agency, so in back-to-back drafts, the 49ers have used first-round picks on safeties. Last year, it was LSU's Eric Reid. This year it was Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward, who will fill the slot corner role. With free agent strong safety Antoine Bethea in the mix, the 49ers will deploy a lot of "big nickel" packages that utilize three safeties, giving them coverage and run support flexibility.

Fortunately for the 49ers, Baalke has assembled one of the deepest rosters in the league, which should keep the defense afloat for half of the season until their reinforcements arrive. The 49ers are one of a few teams who pose a legitimate challenge to the Seahawks both in the division and in the NFC.

Dan Durkin covers the Bears for and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.

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