Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Browns, Part I
Lane Adkins, theOBR.com: Coming off a 6-10 season, in which the 49ers didn't play overly well, but had their moments, how has the culture within the team changed with the hire of Jim Harbaugh? Speculation had been last season that former head coach Mike Singletary had lost the team, and wasn't receptive to player views. How different is the 2011 season thus far, beside the obvious improvement in the record?
Craig Massei, NinersDigest.com: The 49ers have been turned upside down as compared to last season. In this case, that means they're now right-side up. The Niners have had the talent to win for several years, but they were a disintegrating unit last year under Singletary, a great leader of men who last year was exposed as not being a very good NFL head coach, which wasn't so surprising since he had no experience in that role before being handed the job. Singletary was great when it came to motivating his players, but he couldn't back it up with coaching prowess and structure on game days, and eventually the players figured that out on their own. That left the 49ers as a disjointed team with no real belief in what they were doing. It has been a complete reversal with Harbaugh and his excellent staff of assistants, who really seem to know what they are doing both tactically and preparation-wise, even though they have only coached six NFL games together. Harbaugh and his detail-oriented staff have instilled a new attitude and sense of confidence in the team, and that began on Day 1 back in training camp. The players also can identify with Harbaugh, who played 15 years as a NFL quarterback, and many have said that he can relate to them both as football players and individuals. Harbaugh's fiery, no-nonsense attitude and the we-are-as-one camaraderie he has built with his players has done wonders to instill both confidence in his team and his team's confidence in its coach. But, bottom-line, early appearances suggest that Harbaugh can flat out coach. He and his innovative coordinators regularly put the 49ers in a position to win on Sunday with their game plans, and that has meant everything to a team hungry to be winners again after eight consecutive seasons without a winning record.
Lane Adkins: Brad Seely, the former Cleveland assistant head coach/special teams is known as being as good as it gets as a special teams coach. In Cleveland, the special teams have taken a turn south, giving up more yardage per return, while averaging less yard per return this season. Additionally, the Browns have had a couple kicks blocked, a sight not common in Cleveland. With that, what has been the impact of having Seely in San Francisco?
Craig Massei: San Francisco's special teams have made a huge impact on the team's 5-1 start under Seely's direction. I will have to ask you about why he's no longer with the Browns, because Seely has been money for the 49ers. The Niners put a lot of emphasis on special teams in practice – there were times during training camp that they would spend almost an hour a day working on those units. The extra attention has continued during the regular season and has paid weekly dividends. It helps that the 49ers have outstanding specialists in kicker David Akers, punter Andy Lee and long-snapper Brian Jennings – all three of whom have played for the NFC in the Pro Bowl. Ted Ginn Jr. also is a dangerous threat returning kicks and has two touchdown returns to his credit and several others that he almost broke for the distance. Harbaugh kept a few nondescript veterans on San Francisco's final 53-man roster specifically because of what they could do as core players on Seely's special teams units – former Brown Blake Costanzo, for instance – and those players have been productive leaders. But it really all comes back to Seely, because special teams are so detail-oriented and need precision and discipline to produce regular results. Seely obviously is pushing the right buttons as the 49ers win the battle for field position with their special teams on a weekly basis, and the kicking game and its specialists have been terrific.
Lane Adkins: Quarterback Alex Smith looks to be having the most consistent season of his career to date. With the numerous ups and downs in his career, especially being nearly written off on more than one occasion in San Francisco, what are the factors behind the revitalization of his career in leading the 49ers to a 5-1 start to the season?
Craig Massei: Like several other 49ers, Smith is experience a rebirth this season under the new coaching staff. But in Smith's case, it's more like a career revival. After seeing promise in Smith and sticking behind the former No. 1 overall draft pick for several years, I finally gave up on Smith last year, as far as him ever amounting to a winning NFL quarterback. I'm still slow to jump on his bandwagon, but the results so far this season speak for themselves. In fact, in a summary of the team's first six games at the bye last week, I named Smith the team's Offensive MVP so far. Smith has had only one subpar game in the first six – and in that game he ended up throwing for the winning touchdown on a clutch fourth-down strike in the final minutes to beat Detroit on Oct. 16. That was the first time in his seven-year career that Smith has thrown for the winning score in the final two minutes of a game. San Francisco's new West Coast offensive system is well-suited to Smith's strengths, and his newfound success certainly is owed to the way he is being handled by Harbaugh and his staff. They had an ultra-conservative offensive plan in September, in effect making Smith a game manager and not exposing him to situations where he could implode, which Smith has done in the past. But as the offense has become more diverse, Smith has continued to produce positive results with high efficiency and a passer rating that stands at 95.2 today – making Smith the ninth-ranked quarterback in the NFL. And that number is accurate, because Smith has played like a top-10 quarterback throughout the season and is a big reason the 49ers have jumped out to such a promising start.
Lane Adkins: The 49ers have a talented array of wide receivers on the roster, but the team is really recognized as being a run-based, physical type team on both sides of the ball. With that, what should we anticipate seeing on game-day from Cleveland native Ted Ginn (I happened to cover him in high school at Glenville HS in Cleveland), former Browns WR Braylon Edwards and the some-believe WR diva, Michael Crabtree? Or will the 49ers continue to pound the capable RB Frank Gore at a Cleveland defense that has played extremely well in the 2011 season, but still struggles to stop the opposition rushing attack?
Craig Massei: Well, you can expect to see a lot of Gore. San Francisco's offense still revolves around the two-time Pro Bowler, just as it has for the past half-decade. You can also expect to see regular contributions from Kendall Hunter, Gore's explosive rookie backup. Hunter has played a significant role in San Francisco's current four-game winning streak, and his emergence as a change-of-pace back has seemed to reinvigorate Gore. Off to a weak start through three games, after which he was averaging just 2.5 yards per carry, Gore quickly corrected that by rushing for 393 yards on just 50 carries in San Francisco's past three games. Edwards hasn't played since suffering minor ligament damage in his right knee on San Francisco's first offensive series against Dallas on Sept. 18. He has been practicing this week and it looks as though he'll play Sunday, though the 49ers probably will ease him back into the attack. When healthy, I would say Edwards is clearly San Francisco's top threat at wide receiver, particularly with Josh Morgan out for the season. Forced into the No. 1 role at WR with Edwards and Morgan out, Crabtree appears to be coming on, and he had a career-high nine receptions while being targeted 15 times two weeks ago against Detroit. Crabtree has been inconsistent so far in his career, and the diva reputation remains an issue, but he appears to be playing some of his best football now that he's recovered from a foot injury that kept him out most of the summer. Ginn has been forced into regular action at WR because of the injuries to Edwards and Morgan, and he has made some mild contributions with mild production at the position. Ginn has trouble getting open off the line, and he has displayed neither the physicality, hands or consistency to make a significant impact at the position. It's a different matter, however, when Ginn is back waiting to return kickoffs and punts.
Lane Adkins: The Browns march into Candlestick Park a team struggling on the offensive side of the ball. Starting RB Peyton Hillis is recovering from a hamstring strain, but is expected to play, and the focus of disappointment for the Browns has been the lack of execution within their offensive scheme. Starting QB Colt McCoy has been inconsistent, partly due to a relatively young and inexperienced receiving corps. The Browns don't run the ball overly well, which is the strength of the 49ers defense and the passing game has been below par, the weakness of the 49ers defense. What should we expect to see on game day coming from the San Francisco defense?
Craig Massei: San Francisco's defense will be all over McCoy, forcing him to make plays to get – and keep - the offense moving. The 49ers have shut down the run against every opponent, and their defensive front seven is excellent. As in every previous game, the Niners will look to stop the run first, forcing the Browns into passing situations. The San Francisco secondary has some playmakers and is playing better than its numbers might suggest, but that still is the best place to try and beat this defense. The Niners rank second in the NFL in stopping the run, so that tells you what the Browns are up against. This is an aggressive, pursuing defense that has a lot of talent and experience, so this is not exactly the best time to be facing the 49ers if your offense is struggling. Defense has set the tone for the entire team and is the leading factor in San Francisco's success through six games.
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