Much has been made this season about the wonderful job Jim Harbaugh has done with the 49ers. Muc has been made about Frank Gore's great season, Alex Smith's surprisingly not-horrible season and the offenses' overall effective if not jaw-dropping efficiency.
Much has been made about how well the defense has played.
All of these seperate factions deserve some credit. All have either met or exceeded expectations and are a big part of San Francisco's 11-3 record.
But there are a couple of factors which have pretty much been ignored, even though they have made a huge impact in the 49ers' turnaround from a mediocre NFC West team to one of the NFC's top seeds and owners of the NFL's second best record. (which at 11-3 is equal to the Saints and Patriots records)
One of those previously unnamed factors is the special teams. Philly castoff David Akers is leading the NFL in made field goals and has made 36-42 overall, including an impressive 6-7 from 50 yards or more. Punter Andy Lee is tied for the League lead at 43.7 net yards per punt, and as anyone who has seen him punt can attest, the man has a cannon for a leg and is deadly accurate. The 49ers have a couple of nice weapons in Akers and Lee.
But perhaps even more important to San Fran's win total has been the offensive line. Frank Gore is 4th in the League and rushing which isn't much of a surprise, but not only is the running game good, Alex Smith has been pretty decent as well and that's something I never thought I would say.
The reason I say the offensive line is critical to the 49ers success though is not just the overall dominance of Gore or the steadiness of Smith.
It's this: in the 49ers 11 wins, Smith has been sacked a total of 19 times. In their 3 losses, he's been sacked 20 times. Likewise, in 49er wins Frank Gore is averaging almost 90 YPG and over 4.6 YPC, and in losses those numbers drop to under 53 YPG and under 3.6 YPC. (taking the Giants game out of the equation; San Fran won the game but Gore only had 6 carries due to injury)
Obviously there is a direct correlation between the play of the offensive line and the simultaneous rise and fall of the passing and rushing games. What I'm saying is these stats let us see that when the O-Line performs well, so does the entire offense. When the O-Line struggles, so does the entire offense.
So the offensive line is responsible for the performance of the entire offense, which is usually the case for all teams but in San Fran's case it means the difference between wins and losses. It is safe to say that when opposing defenses can get past San Fran's O-line they are able to completely disrupt the 49er offense and San Francisco will almost definitely lose the game. Conversely, when the O-Line maintains their blocks and keeps the backfield empty the 49ers are pretty well on their way to victory.
Again, this is typical for most teams but for San Francisco it's almost a prerequisite for winning and losing, without exception.