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Redskins Recon: Week 12 at San Francisco 49ers

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The Redskins will travel to San Francisco in week 12 of the 2014 season to face the 49ers in their new home - the impressive “Levi’s Stadium”. Having been outplayed by the 49ers in 2013 in Washington, how will the Redskins match up this time against this powerhouse of the NFC?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Redskins haven't beaten the 49ers since 2005 (yes, we scored 52 points that day).  Since then a lot has changed in both San Francisco and Washington, with the former coming out ahead of our beloved Redskins.  The 49ers dug themselves out of a rut during which they failed to record a winning season from 2003-10.  Since then they have been to the Conference Championship three times and the Super Bowl once.

The legendary 49ers teams of the 80's and 90's will always be remembered for their offense, this team is a defensive powerhouse that has often struggled to put together a fluid offense (last year they finished 30th in the league for YPG in passing) .

After a controversial offseason, the 49ers will be looking forward to playing some football and forgetting about court cases and arrests. Will this be the year they go all the way, or has their window closed due to age, suspensions and injury catching up with them?

What's changed?

Not too much to be honest. Despite numerous rumours to the contrary in February, the 49ers and Harbaugh have not parted ways, even though relations were frosty - particularly during contract negotiations.

Reports are that Harbaugh is looking to open up the 49ers offense (perhaps realising that his defense may not be as rock solid as it has been the last few years), and use more multiple wide receiver sets and tight ends.  Traditionally of course the 49ers have based their recent success on their efficient power running game spearheaded by Frank Gore.  Adding Kaepernick created a dual threat to this offense, and introduced read option elements similar to those we have seen in Washington and Seattle. Obviously Gore is getting older (31) and with injuries to backups coming out of training camp it may push the 49ers into more of a passing mentality.  Aside from the odd sprinkle of read option, Harbaugh runs a traditional West Coast offensive scheme, which requires Kaepernick to go through his progressions. But the dynamic QB is often criticised for making one or two reads and then running if he is unsure. It will be interesting to see how this potential change impacts this offense this year and how well Kaepernick will respond.

Though it is not really a change, one noticeable offseason move was Kaepernick's big money contract extension. The 49ers obviously believe that Kaepernick is the long-term QB for them and have put their money where their mouth is. Kaepernick has a strong arm with good accuracy, and has the athletic and physical ability to make plays with his legs.  As mentioned above, the one criticism thrown at him is his ability to read progressions and buy time in the pocket without pulling in the ball and setting off. Of course that has also been attributed to RGIII, the difference being that RGIII has a slighter frame and picked up serious injuries from his inability to avoid hits. Kaepernick will turn 27 in November, while RGIII is 24 (25 in February) and it will be interesting to monitor their adjustments to being more traditional QB's this year.  RGIII certainly has more time to develop this aspect of his game, and now that the big money is behind Kaepernick, expectation to deliver will be higher.

Vic Fangio still heads up the defense which this year could be struggling with issues to key players, particularly in the linebacker positions.  Aldon Smith will obviously be suspended for some amount of time for either (a) a stupid case of airport Tourettes, (b) DUI charges or (c) illegal weapons possession, and the 49ers may even be tempted to cut ties with the difficult OLB. That would take some cajones, but it is not out of the question. However that situation turns out, he likely won't be playing for some of this season at least.  NaVorro Bowman is recovering from an ACL/MCL injury that will see him out for a substantial amount of time this season (he will probably be back for this game). In the trenches, stalwart Justin Smith is getting old (35) and has had offseason surgery (undisclosed).  They are a little thin at cornerback too.  All this has resulted in some pundits to state that this defense may regress in 2014, but the 49ers have overcome adversity on the defensive front before, and this is where Fangio excels as a coach so don't count on this. Either way the Redskins will have plenty of time to analyse whether this is the case prior to our week 12 matchup.

During my research I found this interesting video of Fangio talking about beating protection for you Xs and Os fans... and this article goes into a bit more detail about the flexible 49ers defense that has a base in 3-4, but mixes it up a bit based on the situation.

In terms of playing personnel, the 49ers had a pretty quiet few months despite the off field antics. Notably they replaced Donte Whitner with Antoine Bethea at strong safety, and Mario Manningham left to go back to the Giants. A full list of free agency moves can be found here.

The 49ers seem to have tons of draft picks every year, and as per SB Nation this is what they did with this year's crop:

JIMMIE WARD (S, NORTHERN ILLINOIS, 1ST ROUND, 30TH OVERALL)

CARLOS HYDE (RB, OHIO STATE, 2ND ROUND, 57TH OVERALL)

MARCUS MARTIN (C, USC, 3RD ROUND, 70 OVERALL)

CHRIS BORLAND (LB, WISCONSIN, 3RD ROUND, 77TH OVERALL)

BRANDON THOMAS (OT, CLEMSON, 3RD ROUND, 100TH OVERALL)

BRUCE ELLINGTON (WR, SOUTH CAROLINA, 4TH ROUND, 106TH OVERALL)

DONTAE JOHNSON (CB, NC STATE, 4TH ROUND, 129 OVERALL)

AARON LYNCH (DE, SOUTH FLORIDA, 5TH ROUND, 150TH OVERALL)

KEITH REASER (CB, FLORIDA ATLANTIC, 5TH ROUND, 170TH OVERALL)

KENNETH ACKER (CB, SMU, 6TH ROUND, 180TH OVERALL)

KALEB RAMSEY (DE, BOSTON COLLEGE, 7TH ROUND, 243RD OVERALL)

TREY MILLARD (FB, OKLAHOMA, 7TH ROUND, 245 OVERALL)

Stacked with an incredible amount of ammunition, the Niners did not disappoint with the picks they made. I'm particularly impressed with what they've done to add Marcus Martin and Brandon Thomas in the third round. Both of those picks feel like great values and add to a strong offensive line.

All in all it feels like the time is now for the 49ers. The offseason has been a rough road and no doubt the fans and players will be pleased to get back to playing football. Some tweaks to the offense and some sticky tape to the defense seem inevitable, but the talent on this team on both the coaching and playing staff will position them as one of the toughest games on the Redskins 2014 schedule, and even potential Super Bowl contenders once again.  The Redskins will have to play very well on both sides of the ball in this game, and special teams will be hugely important in what could be a tight and cagey game.

Key Players

I have already mentioned Kaepernick above, but some other players to watch out for include:

Frank Gore - RB

The ageing running back has some competition this year with the addition of Lattimore and Carlos Hyde, but there's no doubt that he is the main man in San Francisco. He has put together seven 1,000 yard seasons, and the type of runner he is makes his durability even more outstanding.

Vernon Davis - TE

With his contract dispute over, Davis can resume from where he left off last year, as a huge offensive weapon for the 49ers. Davis and Kaepernick seem to have some chemistry and that long deep post route always seems to be open for their TE.

Anquan Boldin - WR

To be honest, I struggled to pick between Crabtree or Boldin here, but due to Boldin's consistency I went for him.  Mr Professional, Boldin reminds me very much of Pierre Garcon in his demeanour on the field. Tough, physical, competitive, aggressive, but always working for his team.

Patrick Willis - LB

With Bowman expected to miss a large chunk of the season, Willis has an opportunity to show the 49ers what he has got.  He is a versatile player and they expect him to make the transition to Mike LB easily.

Mike Iupati - G

Hailed as one of the best guards in the league, Iupati is a massive force on the 49ers offensive line.

One to watch

Eric Reid - S

Got to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, and earning huge praise from his teammates for his knowledge, work ethic and approach to the game.  Reid is quietly becoming one of future stars of this defense.

Naturally this team has a packed roster, and I have had to limit this list to 6, but feel free to add some other players in the comments section below.

Key's to the Game

  • Stop the 49ers running game. That is their bread and butter (is that just a British term?). What is our tackling like? What is our gap integrity like? Our linebackers will be busy.
  • Can we get any pressure on that strong offensive line?
  • Can we get that pressure without losing sight of Kaepernick. We have to contain him to the pocket and force him to throw. Let's test that hit and miss passing game of the 49ers.
  • How well will the 49ers linebacking crew perform? Can we exploit this in our running game or short passing game?
  • How well will the 49ers CBs perform against our smaller quicker WR's? Culliver for example performs better against the bigger WRs in the league.

So that is the 49ers. Record your expectations of this game in the poll below, and add anything you think I have missed in the comments.  Next week we have the Colts... I wonder what the story line will be for that game?