Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Seahawks.NET's Todd Breda begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Todd to Craig. What's the story behind San Francisco's dramatic defensive turnaround of late, what's the current temperature of 49ers Nation, and are those fickle fans pleased with QB Alex Smith? These Q&As and more inside.

Todd Breda, Site Owner, Seahawks.NET: After starting the season a disappointing 2-5, most around the league wrote off the 49ers as cellar dwellers for yet another year. Yet, since the game in Chicago that saw the Bears cruising 41-0 by the half, there has been a legitimate about-face, especially on defense. Now having won their last two games, they are suddenly tied with the Rams for second place in the NFC West. What in your mind has been the reason for the dramatic turnaround so far in November?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Defense. And defense. And did we say defense? In their previous game before Chicago, the 49ers were crushed 48-19 by the San Diego Chargers in San Francisco, where the Niners usually play well. Upon being walloped by the Bears, San Francisco was on a pace to allow more points in a season than any team in NFL history. But after being buried at Chicago by halftime, the 49ers have allowed just one touchdown in their next 10 quarters of football. It has been an astonishing turnaround, and a bit difficult to figure, because frankly, it didn't appear the 49ers had the personnel capable of getting their act together so well, so quickly. But they have, and here are the reasons: 1) Coach Mike Nolan and his crew, after mixing and matching personnel and switching and tinkering with schemes since training camp, finally opted to keep it simple, almost as a last resort. The simplification has allowed players to settle into their roles and find a level of comfort where they finally are in the right places doing the right things at the right times. 2) After the Chicago debacle, the 49ers elevated linebacker Brandon Moore and free safety Keith Lewis into the starting lineup. Moore responded with a monster performance against Minnesota in Week 9 after which he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. He also had a huge game last week at Detroit. Lewis, San Francisco's special teams captain, is one of the team's best hitters and has made opponents think twice about coming over the middle. He also had the game-clinching interception near the goal line in the final minutes at Detroit. 3) The 49ers continue to rotate players at several defensive positions, and multiple defenders have stepped up their games. Nolan always has said that, despite the team's lack of overall talent on defense, the 49ers could be successful defensively if they played collectively as a unit. That seems to finally be happening.

Todd Breda: Talk a little bit about quarterback Alex Smith. Are 49ers fans pleased with his improvement?

Craig Massei: They have to be. For better or worse, Smith is going to be The Man here in San Francisco for a long time, and that's not going to change. That said - it's not meant to be a negative comment, just the reality of the situation - everybody around the team seems to love what's going on with Smith in his second NFL season. And, while I wouldn't go as far to say that I'm in love, I must concur. Smith has improved so much since his dismal rookie season that the transformation can legitimately be considered amazing. From the moment I first saw Smith in pads during his first training camp in 2005, it was obvious that he had the makeup and skills to succeed at this level, but you kind of had to wonder after the way he performed throughout his deer-in-the-headlights first season. But he's come a long way since then. He has a strong arm, can make all the throws, has become much more accurate with his passes, and perhaps the most promising thing in his development is the presence he displays and exudes in the pocket. He now is instinctively letting his athleticism take over and has displayed much better mobility and is to the point where he now can hurt opponents with his feet. He's still the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL at age 22, and it says something about his leadership qualities and stature on this team that he was voted by his teammates as a team captain for the remainder of the season. I suppose the best thing you can say about Smith's progress is that he has improved to the point where he gives the 49ers a chance to win each Sunday. That couldn't be said with a straight face last year.

Todd Breda: What is the current temperature of 49ers Nation? There has been such a culture of winning, especially the dynasty teams in the 1980s. How has the dynamic of the fan base changed through the years as the franchise has had to endure difficult times?

Craig Massei: As is typical with pro sports, a lot of fair-weather fans have jumped ship, to return only when the climate changes. But the built-in 49ers Faithful still are there, and those fans understand the cyclical nature of pro sports in the 21st century, particularly in the parity-driven NFL. A lot of residents in 49ers Nation were quickly losing patience when the 49ers were stumbling around in 2004 under coach Dennis Erickson and bumbling general manager Terry Donahue, but after owner John York cleaned house after that season, there has been a lot of optimism that Nolan can change things around, even though the struggles and blowouts have continued the past two seasons as Nolan tore down the team's structure to build it back up again from Ground Zero. But don't get me wrong. These fans, spoiled for so long by a two-decade dynasty, want a winner again, and they're getting tired of waiting.

Todd Breda: Running back Frank Gore is coming off an impressive 159-yard day against the Lions. First of all, what is the state of his health after suffering a concussion in the game? Is he expected to play against the Seahawks on Sunday?

Craig Massei: Gore will be there. He's a warrior and a gamer - a 'baller' as his teammates like to call him. As concussions go, the 49ers are calling Gore's a mild one - whatever that means - and he is listed as probable to play against the Seahawks. Gore still was a little light-headed after Sunday's game on the flight back from Detroit, but nobody seems too concerned that his condition is something that will linger or keep him out of this week's game.

Todd Breda: How is the progress of rookie linebacker Manny Lawson coming along and how is the team filling the rather large hole left with Julian Peterson's move to Seattle?

Craig Massei: Don't get me started. Peterson is the one player that Nolan let leave - or pushed out the door - who the 49ers really could use right now. The thing is, after returning from his Achilles' tendon tear last season, he wasn't nearly the player he was for the 49ers in 2002-2003 or the player you guys are seeing right now in Seattle. So Nolan just couldn't see forking out the big bucks to keep him around on a rebuilding team that still was trying to clear a lot of space under the salary cap for future use in free agency. Maybe Peterson didn't really want to stay. Anyway, that's another subject, and I digress … To put it in matter-of-fact terms, the Peterson void hasn't been filled. Lawson now is playing the role left by Peterson in the San Francisco defense, and to be sure, he's a talent. But he's making the transition to outside linebacker after playing defensive end the last few years in college, and it's going to take him a while to develop his pass-rushing skills at this level and provide the kind of pressure from the edge that Jules can. Lawson already has become a competent every-down outside linebacker, and he may already be one of the team's best defenders. But there was this hope that he would immediately become an impact pass rusher, and that hasn't happened, despite his two sacks against the Rams in Week 2 (his only two sacks so far this season). Fortunately, Moore - who led all San Francisco linebackers with five sacks last season, two more than Peterson had - has picked up the slack a bit. The 49ers bring Moore off the edge on passing downs, and he already has matched his 2005 sack total in the team's first nine games.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and Seahawks.NET as Todd and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with Todd answering five of Craig's questions.


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