1. Was the change from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick the only noticeable difference in the 49ers offense over the course of the season?
This counts as the most noticeable difference because any subsequent changes really evolved from this. Michael Crabtree was off to a strong start with Alex Smith, but once Kaepernick took over, it went to a whole new level. Vernon Davis was Alex Smith's go-to guy and we saw Kaepernick looking away from him, and often more to backup tight end Delanie Walker. That changed against the Falcons, but it has still been noticeable.The biggest change aside from Kaepernick is LaMichael James taking over as backup to Frank Gore. Kendall Hunter was the primary backup, but he tore his Achilles, opening the door for the rookie James to step in. He and Hunter are both speedy, athletic backs, but James seems to bring a little something extra in the speed department, while Hunter was the more physical back. Also, given James' success in Oregon's offense, the change to Kaepernick has helped him adjust to the NFL game.
It is a mix of reasons. Kaepernick has looked more toward Crabtree as they seem to have the kind of chemistry Davis had with Smith. Davis entered the NFL with less than stellar hands, but he has worked on improving them an incredibly amount. At the same time, it is also likely taking Davis a bit extra time to get used to the speed of Kaepernick's throws.Davis has not been non-existent, however. He remains one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, and he still draws double teams. This opens the door for other receivers, so even though the numbers don't show it, Davis remains effective in a variety of ways.
Frank Gore continues to be a consistently strong back. He isn't mentioned with the Adrian Peterson's of the world, but considering he has turned into the 49ers all-time leading rusher, I think he's done OK for himself. He put together another solid year, finishing the regular season with 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns.The big change last year and this year has been his acceptance of having a backup getting a decent number of carries behind him. Kendall Hunter last year and the first half of this year, along with LaMichael James in the second half of this season have been key to keeping Gore fresh. However, against the Falcons, when the 49ers were down 17-0, Gore went to Harbaugh and basically said, give me the rock and I'll get this. The 49ers did not abandon the run and it was a big reason they were able to work their way back into the game.At their most basic, the 49ers are a rushing offense. Kaepernick has a cannon, but it is all set up by the pass. The use of the pistol mixes things up in the run a bit, but when the 49ers find success, it is often because the running backs are doing strong work. Gore doesn't need 150 yards and two scores for this team to win, but a strong yards per carry will be a big part of any 49ers win.
When Justin Smith went out in Week 15 against the Patriots, the 49ers saw how tough the going can be with him sidelined. For the second half against the Patriots, and then the Seahawks game in Week 16, the 49ers struggled to get to the quarterback. Tom Brady and Russell Wilson both had their way with the 49ers defense once Smith went out.Smith returned for the Packers and Falcons game. While he is not 100%, his presence has led to some double-teaming, and generally been enough of an impact to boost the 49ers defense. Aldon Smith plays OLB behind Justin's side of the field, and he has not had a sack since before Justin got injured, and there is some connection between the two. Aldon is also getting double-teamed, but losing Smith for a stretch was a tough blow for him and the rest of the pass rush.
The Falcons went a bit wide with their defensive front, and that kept Colin Kaepernick from keeping the ball on the read option. However, the 49ers switched to more of a north-south traditional rushing attack (even out of the pistol), and Frank Gore and LaMichael James did strong work against the Falcons defense. To slow down the rushing attack, the Ravens will need to maintain discipline when they see the read-option, but they also need to maintain fundamentals up the middle and keep the running backs from getting to the second level.As far as the passing attack, Kaepernick can sometimes zone in on one receiver, which opens the door for picks. A smart safety like Ed Reed will likely notice this on film, and keep an eye out for it all game long. Kaepernick has bounced back from bad plays, and not really had a back-breaking mistake thus far. The Ravens will want to put him in uncomfortable situations on pass plays by forcing him to go through more of his reads than he would like.
The 49ers defense can be incredibly strong, but there can be inconsistencies. Against the Falcons and Packers, the 49ers defense struggled in the first half as both Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers had their way against them. The 49ers safeties seemed to be playing a little too close, and that allowed James Jones and then Julio Jones to burn them repeatedly. If the 49ers safeties are cheating up a bit, Joe Flacco needs to be audibling to the go-route for Torrey Smith.Overall, it comes down to taking what the 49ers defense will give up, particularly if they go to any zone coverages. I would even argue that going to hurry-up might be a smart idea. As good as the 49ers can be on defense, an effective hurry-up offense can tire out even the best of defenses.In terms of the run game, it really will just take a strong, strong blocking performance by the Ravens o-line. If I'm the Ravens, I likely give Bernard Pierce a few more carries than normal, as a physical runner can potentially wear down the run defense.
I've gone with a 49ers win 34-20 elsewhere, and I might as well stick with it. A lot of people are picking a closer game, but I think the 49ers have the weapons to attack the Ravens offense and defense effectively. As long as the safeties keep Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin in front of them, I really think the 49ers can take control of this game. The 49ers offense is effective in part because it is hard to game-plan against them. If a defense goes to contain Kaepernick, the running backs can gash the middle. If they try and stop Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis is there. Even Randy Moss is still making plays.The NFL is wildly unpredictable, so any prediction, particularly from this 49ers homer should be taken with a grain of salt. While the players on the field decide things, the Ravens coaching staff will be key in how they game-plan on both sides of the ball. I like the 49ers edge here, but the Ravens will have their opportunities.