Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part I
Nate Caminata, publisher, RoarReport.com: The Ford Field crowd on Monday night was clearly disruptive to Chicago's offense, which committed nine false start penalties. How is San Francisco preparing for the raucous environment?
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: This is a huge concern for the 49ers, because their still-developing offensive line has struggled to stay on the same page this season, particularly during September, when a shaky line contributed to the 49ers being the NFL's most penalized offense through the season's first three weeks. That included plenty of false starts, particularly by second-year right tackle Anthony Davis, who remains a work in progress, to put it mildly. However, there has been drastic line improvement in the team's two October victories, and the offense was flagged for just two penalties in last week's rout of Tampa Bay – one holding call and one false start. The line is in the midst of a rather stunning turnaround from its early struggles, and had by far its best game as a unit against the Buccaneers, when the line did a good job in protecting quarterback Alex Smith, who wasn't sacked and was hurried only twice. The 49ers haven't faced anything like the din of noise they will encounter at Ford Field, but their offense did get some vital exposure and experience in hostile atmospheres recently in road victories at Cincinnati and Philadelphia. The 49ers, however, faced a relatively passive crowd and tens of thousands of empty seats at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Field, and during the 49ers' spectacular comeback from a 23-3 deficit in Philadelphia, the home fans seemed more intent on hissing, jeering and ragging on the Eagles rather than helping them by rocking the stadium with noise when the Niners had the ball. So the Niners know they'll be in for worse at Detroit. The 49ers will prepare this week by piping in loud noise through speakers during practice sessions, as they often do to prepare for road games. In fact, eight huge speakers were delivered to the 49ers facility on Wednesday, and they were blasting out hard rock tunes during the team's afternoon practice session. "We've upgraded our sound system," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You've got to be able to be ready to play without being able to talk and verbally communicate." Staying on the same page and preventing mistakes like the Bears made will be vital for the Niners' chances against Detroit's strong defensive front, and Harbaugh and his detail-oriented coaching staff certainly will spend time specifically to get ready for that raucous environment and minimizing its effect.
Nate Caminata: Joshua Morgan is out for the year with a broken leg. How does that affect the team's offense and game plan entering Detroit, and how critical has Morgan been to the difference we've seen in Alex Smith between 2010 and 2011?
Craig Massei: The loss of Morgan is a definite blow to San Francisco's improving offense and will be felt in this game more than any other, since the Niners are likely to get Braylon Edwards back by the time San Francisco plays its next game on Oct. 30 after the team's bye week. Edwards, San Francisco's biggest and best receiver, has been out with a knee injury since Week 2. But Morgan, besides coming into his own as a receiving threat this year, also packed a punch with his size and strength at 215 pounds. That's an element that will be sorely missed, since he'll be replaced this week as the starter by slender Ted Ginn Jr. (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) with Kyle Williams (5-10, 186 pounds) coming in as the No. 3 receiver. The 49ers signed Green Bay castoff Brett Swain this week to replace Morgan on the roster, and he'll likely be San Francisco's No. 4 receiver against the Lions. But Swain probably will only be used on special teams and will see the field on offense only in an emergency. The impact of Morgan's loss might not be felt as much as some expect because the Niners also can incorporate hybrid tight end Delanie Walker more into their attack, and Walker is a very strong receiving threat. But the game plan changes significantly this week with Morgan out, because Ginn is a different kind of receiver altogether. Michael Crabtree will have to step up as the top target among wideouts and take Morgan's place on the tough routes going across the middle. Morgan has been San Francisco's No. 2 wideout next to No. 1 Crabtree since Crabtree entered the league two years ago as a highly-touted first-round draft pick, but that hasn't been the case this season. Morgan has been by far Smith's top target among wide receivers this year, and the two were developing quite a rapport and connection through the air. I would say Morgan has been instrumental in Smith's strong start so far and probably, in Smith's view at least, the team's most reliable wideout. Morgan leads all San Francisco wide receivers this season with 15 receptions for 220 yards, a 14.7 average, and that's a big chunk of offense for both Smith and the 49ers to lose facing a team such as Detroit.
Nate Caminata: Speaking of Smith, he ranks near the bottom of the league in pass attempts and yards, but his 104.1 QB rating is among the NFL's elite. Is that indicative of a quarterback that is being protected from himself, or has Smith finally taken the next step towards that previously elusive stardom?
Craig Massei: That's an interesting perspective and question. The easy answer would be to say a little of both, and that would be accurate. But to break it down further, I'd say that Harbaugh and his coaching crew were ultra-conservative at the beginning of the season because they were not sure about anything to do with Smith or the offense – how he would perform in Harbaugh's new West Coast system, or how any of the offensive players would take to it, for that matter. Smith has had nothing but strong games during San Francisco's 4-1 start – an astonishing stretch for a QB who was so inconsistent during his first six NFL seasons. I'd say that's because Smith has been brought along gradually and methodically in the system to the point that Harbaugh finally is comfortable with opening the offense more and allowing Smith to throw downfield more often. And let's face it – Smith has been thriving amid those conditions. I've seen it all with Alex Smith since he was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, and I have to admit I finally gave up on him last year after sticking for so long by the belief he could be a good NFL quarterback someday. But today, as we discuss this, Smith is a good NFL quarterback, as his numbers would attest. He has been every bit as good as those numbers, showing both poise and polish in the pocket, and his accuracy and decision-making have been so much better this season than in the past that it's almost difficult to believe it's the same guy. I think San Francisco coaches might have been protecting both Smith and themselves from Smith imploding earlier in the season, but now that they've seen he can handle the role, they're now becoming believers and letting him go out and play. Whether Smith will ever become a star remains to be seen. But he sure has taken steps in that direction five games into the 2011 season, and you have to give credit where credit is due. Smith is playing great, and he's been a major factor in the 49ers' best start since 2002.
Nate Caminata: There are quite a few similarities between these squads, but I think most of it boils down to the Jims: Schwartz and Harbaugh. What are three key things that Harbaugh has changed or instituted that has helped turn the 49ers around in just his first year?
Craig Massei: Harbaugh has really been something. It might be an exaggeration to say he has turned the organization upside down, but that's sort of the effect he's had on the team – and not only its performance, but also its outlook. The 49ers have been stockpiling a lot of talent for years – heck, they've had the talent to win the weak NFC West for at least the past two years. But as you well know, it takes a lot more than talent to win in the NFL. Harbaugh has changed the culture in 49erland and brought detail-oriented structure to the Niners, and the team is really responding to his approach. He has the 49ers believing in themselves and brimming with confidence, and a lot of that has to do with his stoic demeanor and the fact he has been pushing all the right buttons on the sidelines, particularly the past three weeks during San Francisco's three-game winning streak. Harbaugh's performance on game day has been phenomenal for a rookie NFL head coach, and his West Coast scheme finally has the 49ers realizing some of their potential after flopping back and forth between stale and outdated offensive systems the past half decade. There's been a lot of buzz around the NFL lately about Harbaugh making a difference with this team. Heck, he is the difference. I can't imagine the 49ers sitting where they are today, or the promise of where they are going from here, with any of the other four head coaches the team has trotted out during the 21st century.
Nate Caminata: Knowing the 49ers as you do, if you were the Detroit Lions coaching staff, what would be your game plan for Sunday? What weaknesses and match-ups would you look to take advantage of?
Craig Massei: Despite the changes I've seen so far this year, my answer to that would be the same as it has been almost every week for the past five years: Pressure Alex Smith and make him beat you. It looks like that might be a lot tougher now that the 49ers actually have a coaching staff that can call a good game on offense and keep an opponent off balance. But Smith can still be rattled. He still has that in him. Granted, he has been much better in almost every adverse situation he's faced this year, and I'm willing to give that to his maturity and experience. But the Niners are going to have to keep up on the scoreboard with the explosive Lions, and that only happens if Smith can keep the offense moving. Offensively, the Lions only have to keep doing what they do best, because San Francisco's secondary is vulnerable to the pass. And we're talking vulnerable here as in 432-yard and 416-yard vulnerable, the total amount of passing yards the Niners allowed in games against the Cowboys and Eagles, which happened to end as San Francisco's only loss (in overtime) and a one-point victory. I don't know who can cover Calvin Johnson in this secondary. If the Lions can protect QB Matthew Stafford, he'll have an opportunity to do a lot of damage through the air, because the 49ers will shut down the run, just like they do against everybody. San Francisco's special teams and kicking specialists are very good, so I wouldn't expect the Lions to be able to find an edge there, but I would tell their coaches not to kick the ball to Ginn very often.
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