San Francisco 49ers

49ers: Five story lines to watch this season

Defensive maneuvers

The 49ers have finished no lower than fifth overall in total defense since defensive coordinator Vic Fangio arrived in 2011. If they even come close to No. 5 this season, it could be Fangio’s most masterful coaching performance yet.

San Francisco will enter the season without its two best defensive players, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, and with a largely rebuilt secondary. The defense will be tested early by quarterbacks such as Dallas’ Tony Romo and Denver’s Peyton Manning – both of whom are capable of scoring in droves – and by an Eagles offense that finished second to Denver last season in yards gained.

The good news is that reinforcements, such as Bowman, should arrive after the bye week in late October, and the 49ers could be at their defensive best when the games – two against Seattle, for example – count the most. The question is how well the fill-ins can hold their ground through the first eight contests.

Receiver resurgence

San Francisco’s recent defensive dominance has meant the 49ers haven’t had to lean heavily on their quarterbacks for wins and that the team’s passers merely had to be “game managers,” especially in the second half.

This season figures to be different, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick could be placed in playoff mode – having to push the ball downfield with his arms and legs to keep pace in tight regular-season contests – from the get-go.

The good news: Kaepernick has the weaponry to put up a fight in a shootout. While Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis were his only reliable targets in 2013, this season Michael Crabtree is healthy, too. Throw in Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd and good-looking rookie Bruce Ellington, and the 49ers may have the most talented receiving corps since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were in the same huddle.

No more Gore?

Is this the last run for the bell cow?

Frank Gore, the most reliable figure on the 49ers over the past decade, is 31 and going into the final season of his contract. And he may have the league’s most talented backup tailback, rookie Carlos Hyde, behind him on the depth chart.

Gore never has liked coming out of games, and 49ers coaches, including position coach Tom Rathman, will have a delicate balancing act this season when it comes to keeping Gore healthy and allowing Hyde’s talent to shine. Still, it’s difficult to see the rookie surpassing Gore as the starter unless there is an injury.

Rumors of Gore’s demise have been circulating for five years, yet he’s been as reliable as death and taxes. He’s looked sharp during the offseason, and another 1,200-yard rushing season not only is possible but should be expected.

An eye on Seattle

The 49ers don’t have to finish with the best record in the NFC to go to the Super Bowl. But, gee, it would behoove them to finish with a better record than Seattle.

San Francisco has been excellent on the road in the postseason the past two seasons, winning games at Atlanta, Green Bay and Carolina. But they haven’t won in Seattle – either in the postseason or the regular season – since a narrow victory in 2011. All of which makes a 21/2-week stretch late in the season in which the 49ers face the Seahawks two times so critical. Meanwhile, the Seahawks haven’t won on the road against the 49ers since 2008.

If the teams met again in the playoffs, where do you think the 49ers would prefer to play?

Harbaugh’s last hurrah?

It may not be a major story line during the season, but once it’s over, it could become a monster.

A year ago, the Cleveland Browns made a weak effort to dislodge Harbaugh from the 49ers. Barring a contract extension during the season, Harbaugh will be entering the final year of his five-year, $25 million deal. Will another team, perhaps the Miami Dolphins, who came after Harbaugh in 2011, or the Raiders, who are desperate to energize their franchise, make Jed York a real offer this time?

With Harbaugh only signed for another year and as difficult as it’s been to work out an extension, one thing is certain: York won’t hang up the phone as quickly as he did with the Browns.