Seldom has a Week 2 game been as important as the one the San Francisco 49ers are going to play Monday night. After seven days of dysfunction centered around play calling and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, they look to win their first game of the season against the defending Super Bowl champs.
But it's not just about whether Raye will be calling plays from the sideline or whether quarterback Alex Smith will be wearing a wristband with plays neatly written on it. It's really about fixing things and beginning to look like a team that's capable of winning the NFC West. The 49ers don't have to beat the New Orleans Saints, but they do have to play much better than they did last Sunday in a 31-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Here are five questions begging for answers:
1. Did coach Mike Singletary really say the 49ers would "stop" Saints quarterback Drew Brees?
Well, yes, he did. In an interview with the local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, Singletary was asked about trying to stop the New Orleans QB. After answering several questions in which he defended Raye, an agitated Singletary said, "We will not try to stop Brees. We will stop Brees. Next question."
A couple of days later, Singletary insisted he did not guarantee his team would shut down Brees, but he did say, "I'm certainly not going to go into the game thinking we're not going to stop him. If that's the case, I need to stay at home. So he knows that we're going to come out there and try to stop him. So what does that mean? We're going to get our game plan together and do the very best job that we can of going out there and stopping Drew Brees and that offense."
2. Will Raye come down from the coaches' booth to call plays?
Probably not. Raye voiced his preference to stay in the press box, citing some valid reasons: It's calmer and quieter up there, he doesn't have to listen to players telling him to throw them the ball and there's less emotion to deal with.
More likely is the possibility that Smith may wear a wristband that will allow him to identify certain plays more quickly after they're relayed from Raye to quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson, who sends them in to Smith. Smith was practicing with a wristband during the week.
3. Is the offensive line a concern?
Right now it is. Right guard Chilo Rachal is doubtful with a stinger, and remember, there are three new starters – center David Bass (subbing for Eric Heitmann, who has a broken leg) and rookies Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Adam Snyder is Rachal's likely replacement, although Barry Sims, who was not activated in the opener, is also an option. Look for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who likes an aggressive mix, to test the Niners with a furious pass rush.
4. What about the secondary?
More reason for concern, especially against Brees and his many weapons. The 49ers have three healthy cornerbacks in Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown. Will James is doubtful with a high ankle sprain, and Phillip Adams is questionable with a sore hamstring. Brees came out throwing in the opener against the Minnesota Vikings and will probably do the same against the Niners.
5. With Ted Ginn Jr. out, what happens to the return game?
Singletary has several choices on kickoffs and punts. Zeigler will be the team's No. 3 wideout in place of Ginn (knee) and is a possibility to return punts if Phillip Adams is unavailable. On kickoff returns, look for either Walker or wide receiver Josh Morgan.
None of them is a particularly enticing choice, but that's where the 49ers find themselves in Week 2 – in a tough place but one that demands a positive response.