Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and AZRedReport's Brad Wilbricht go Behind Enemy Lines to take an inside look at the 49ers and Cardinals. Could Alex Smith be Arizona's starting QB next season? Why aren't the 49ers getting the football more often to explosive TE Vernon Davis? Are there weak spots where San Francisco's second-ranked defense can be exposed in the playoffs? These Q&As and more inside.

Brad Wilbricht, publisher, There has been lots of talk about the quarterback situation with Colin Kaepernick taking over for Alex Smith. Do you think coach Jim Harbaugh made the right move in sticking with Kaepernick? Do you see any scenario in which Smith comes off the bench and relieves Kaepernick if he struggles in the postseason? Do you have a feel on where Smith could end up this offseason – is Arizona a realistic possibility?

Craig Massei, publisher, Although there have been some mixed results lately with Kaepernick as the starting QB – results that I would not attribute solely to Kaepernick's performance – I still believe it was the right move for this team to stay with Kap as the starter. He simply gives the Niners more at the position than Smith does. He's a better athlete with better tools who gives the team more upside potential for a more explosive offense. I think the 49ers will stick with Kaepernick throughout the playoffs no matter what happens. That's sort of the whole point: Kaepernick gives the Niners a better chance to score more points more quickly. If San Francisco falls behind in the playoffs, why go to Smith, who doesn't have the big-play ability to bring the 49ers from behind? Smith got a raw deal by losing his job to a concussion, and he enters the final week of the NFL season leading the league with a 70.0 percent completion percentage while ranking second with a 104.1 passer rating. But that's the nature of the business. Unless he gets some mop-up action Sunday against the Cardinals, Smith may never play another snap for the 49ers. And, yes, Arizona is a REAL possible landing spot for Smith in 2013. He'd be a good fit there, is obviously familiar with the Cardinals and their situation, and I'd believe Arizona would be near the top of his list of possible destinations because of the opportunity he would get there.

Brad Wilbricht: Tight end Vernon Davis has been the 49ers' most potent weapon in the passing game over the years but has been quiet of late. Since being targeted eight times in Week 11, Davis has only been targeted on nine occasions in the past five games combined. Have opposing defenses been scheming to take Davis away or has it been more of another option emerging, like wideout Michael Crabtree?

Craig Massei: There's no question Crabtree has emerged as the top target and No. 1 option in San Francisco's passing game, but it's still baffling to try and understand why Davis isn't being used more and has become a lost man in the offense. Part of the reason, obviously, is that Davis still commands extra attention from every defense San Francisco faces, and he often gets double coverage and/or safeties rolling over the top in his zone. But to think that such an explosive, elite receiving weapon would have only five receptions for 56 yards in the past five games when the 49ers are competing for a division title and high playoff seeding down the stretch? It's a bit difficult to figure, particularly because Kaepernick has the deep passing ability to get Davis the football down the field, a place where he has the speed and ability to beat opponents. I keep thinking perhaps the 49ers are saving Davis for the late-season games that count, but some of those have already come and gone without the team getting him the football on a more regular basis.

Brad Wilbricht: Obviously, the San Francisco defense is a dominating unit that's one of the best in the NFL. Looking at the stat sheet, the 49ers come into Sunday's matchup with the fourth-ranked pass defense in the league and rank sixth against the run. Just how good is this defense and are there any weak spots that could be exposed during the playoffs?

Craig Massei: Without question, San Francisco's defense is elite, and it's probably the best unit the 49ers have had during the 21st century. There are virtually no weaknesses, and the Niners had six of their 11 defensive starters named to the Pro Bowl – with five of those players named as NFC starters. Two other starters were named as Pro Bowl alternates, more testimony to what a talented, powerhouse unit this can be. That said, San Francisco's defense has been rolled over the past six quarters to the tune of 753 yards, 66 points and 48 first downs by the Patriots and Seahawks – truly the unit's worst stretch of performance in recent memory. That stretch also coincides with the absence of All-Pro right tackle Justin Smith, who suffered a partially torn left triceps early in the third quarter of the New England game on Dec. 16 with the 49ers leading 31-3. They've been outscored 73-23 since then. Smith is a stud who is obviously missed, both against the run and against the pass, and he makes a lot happen and commands plenty of attention in the trenches. It's uncertain whether or not he'll be able to play during the postseason. The 49ers have the personnel to adapt to Smith's loss, but they are obviously much better with him, and playoff opponents certainly will attempt to expose the void until the 49ers show that they can fill it.

Brad Wilbricht: There was some chatter following the draft that San Francisco had reached on its first two picks – WR A.J. Jenkins and RB LaMichael James. Being inactive for most of the year, Jenkins has yet to make a catch and James didn't get involved until Kendall Hunter went down for the season a few weeks ago. Are there concerns about their progression or are they simply buried below better players on the depth chart?

Craig Massei: I would tend to think it's more of the latter, because James has made a real contribution both at running back and, especially, as a kick returner after replacing Hunter on the depth chart at both positions. James hadn't played a snap until after Hunter was injured Nov. 25. It's possible he never would have played at all this season if Hunter hadn't been hurt, so James looks as though he'll be an asset, particularly as he develops and gets stronger. It's a bit more unclear regarding Jenkins, who hasn't been able to get on the field even though the 49ers have had some problems at receiver. He has ability, though, and it's not necessarily a bad thing that 2012 has been virtually a redshirt season for him, because he obviously needed some time to develop coming into the league. But with Mario Manningham out the rest of the way with a knee injury sustained last week, Jenkins is one of four healthy receivers remaining on the roster, and he may be asked – or forced – to step up at some point the remainder of the season and the playoffs to follow. But the Niners haven't really needed their first-rounder to do that most of the season.

Brad Wilbricht: After the 49ers dominated the NFC West last season, many pundits expected the same outcome in 2012. With what has been a much more competitive division this year, was there more pressure on San Francisco to stay sharp throughout the year? Do you think the enhanced competition – particularly from Seattle and St. Louis – has better prepared the 49ers to make a postseason run?

Craig Massei: No doubt the NFC West has transformed itself this season into one of the NFL's toughest divisions – and perhaps one of its roughest with the physical style played by several of its teams. This fact alone says plenty about the ascent of the division relative to the rest of the NFL: Defending AFC champion New England went 1-3 against the NFC West this season and is 10-1 against the rest of the league. Jim Harbaugh likes to say that iron sharpens iron, so yes, I think the 49ers have been made at least a bit tougher for the rigors they've faced during their division schedule. Has it made them better prepared for the postseason? Well, a 2-2-1 record in the division so far may cost San Francisco the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs that the 49ers seemed to have in hand most of the season. I'm sure it won't help San Francisco in the playoffs if the 49ers lose a first-round bye. And they got beat up in Seattle last week, losing some of their best players to injury. So it remains to be seen whether or not a bruising division has made the 49ers better for their playoff run.

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