Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part III

In Part III of an exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Seahawks.NET's Todd Breda continue their back-and-forth interaction with five more questions from Todd to Craig. How's Mike Nolan being perceived in San Francisco and on what does he need to improve? Is the 49ers' sudden defensive resurgence a shooting star destined for a quick fade? These Q&As and much more inside.

Todd Breda, Site Owner, Seahawks.NET: Head Coach Mike Nolan is in his second year with the club. How is he perceived in San Francisco and what do you think he is doing effectively and what kinds of things do you think he could improve on?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Because the 49ers were in such shambles when he arrived, Nolan pretty much is perceived as a strong leader who is fixing things, particularly given the monumental task he was saddled with when he arrived and the way he has aggressively tackled all of the team's problems. But that's also what I see as one of Nolan's weaknesses (I'm not sure weakness is really the right word) - he's trying to have a hand in taking care of ALL of the team's problems down to the smallest detail, and the entire organization's, for that matter. It's simply too much for one man, but Nolan wants to do it anyway. He's committed to turning this thing around, and 100 percent believes that he has the experience, football wisdom and - especially - the vision to make it happen. Nolan has made big waves since the moment he arrived, particularly last season when he started dumping some of the team's top veterans, several of whom weren't "Nolan guys." He was given a long honeymoon by the media out here because the franchise had been so destroyed by previous GM Terry Donahue, but some marked criticism and questions regarding Nolan's capacity to handle the major task at hand really began to surface recently after the 49ers were blown out 41-0 by Kansas City, 48-19 by San Diego and 41-10 by Chicago in a dismal four-game span. But Nolan never wavered, continuing to stay the course and promise that he had the answers, and now he has everybody believing and jumping back on the bandwagon after the team's dramatic turnaround of the past few weeks. This team was 2-5 and headed for oblivion - a place it has known well in recent seasons - but now it's suddenly 4-5 and the term "playoff contention" is being tossed around. Nolan gets the credit for that, and he deserves it. He is cocksure and maybe even has a little bit of dictator in him, but he manages to pull both off as positive qualities. He really believes in what he's doing and that building it brick by brick and layer by layer is going to make things right here, and that rubs off on a lot of people. What can he improve on? Perhaps trying to concentrate his focus on specific areas that need attention instead of attempting to handle every challenge that faces the organization, both off the field and on. I think he's finally starting to get a handle on that. His game-day coaching and game management still needs some work, too. But he's a true leader, and 25 games into his tenure here, he still seems like the right man for the job - and it's a big job.

Todd Breda: San Francisco's defense seems to have found that spark and intensity that was missing often in the 49ers' 2-5 start. Who's been leading the charge and is this a case of a shooting star's brightest moment always being right before it dissipates into the atmosphere, or are they just getting started?

Craig Massei: Good question. As bad as this defense was during that four-game stretch mentioned above, I'm a little hesitant to say it has turned the corner. But if you go just by the results of the past two games, you would have to say it definitely has. Those arguably are the best two defensive games the 49ers have played during the Nolan era, and they were like a comet out of nowhere considering the way the team had been playing in the weeks leading up to that two-game stretch. The leader of the charge has been clear to see: Nolan inserted Brandon Moore into the starting lineup at middle linebacker, and he responded with a monster performance in his first start there two weeks ago against Minnesota with a career-high 15 tackles while taking part in two of San Francisco's three sacks, producing three other quarterback hurries and forcing a fumble that was recovered by the 49ers. He then had a team-high nine tackles, two sacks, and two other quarterback hits last week to lead the charge against the Lions. Keith Lewis also was inserted into the starting lineup at free safety the same time as Moore, and he too has made a noticeable impact. San Francisco's special teams captain, Lewis is one of the team's biggest hitters, and he's making opponents think twice about coming over the middle. Watch for him to have at least one heavy hit on Sunday, guaranteed. He forced a fumble that was recovered by the 49ers and had a game-clinching interception near the San Francisco goal line in the final minutes against the Lions. After trying a lot of different approaches to stop the bleeding on defense since training camp, the 49ers simplified the scheme after the Chicago debacle and everything has been clicking in a big way since. It really does seem that the 49ers are finally on to something and pointed in the right direction defensively, but after all the defensive breakdowns I've witnessed in the past three seasons, I'll wait before making any statements. This game against the Seahawks, at home, ought to give some definitive answers. It's a statement game for a San Francisco unit playing its best defense since 2003.

Todd Breda: NFL Legend Jerry Rice will be retiring with the 49ers at halftime during Sunday's game. What kind of emotional impact do you think that will have on the 49ers or will it even affect the team at all on Sunday?

Craig Massei: Nice thought, but I'm thinking it will have nada effect on the team. Now the crowd at Monster Park - that might be different. And since the home crowd can juice up the team … well, there you go, an emotional impact for the Niners. The problem is the ceremony will be taking place at halftime when they're in the locker room. Rice has had a long time to say goodbye to the 49ers and their fans. He was carried off the field in an emotional display after his final home game as a 49er in 2000, and he has been making a lot of posturing about ultimately retiring as a 49er ever since while continuing his career elsewhere. He actually had his retirement event with the team at 49ers headquarters during a nice little ceremony back in August, with the team practicing in the background while Rice spoke at the podium before a rather intimate gathering of about 100 friends, family, team officials and media members. So I'm not expecting a big impact on the team. This halftime ceremony will be for the fans.

Todd Breda: Seahawks fans are well versed with the type of character and leader QB Trent Dilfer is. How has Dilfer's presence and leadership affected this young 49ers team?

Craig Massei: For a quarterback who hasn't been on the field for one single snap in the first nine games, I would say the impact of Dilfer's presence has been tremendous. He has had a huge impact on the development of Alex Smith, becoming every bit the experienced mentor and confidant to the young quarterback that the 49ers hoped they were getting when they traded Ken Dorsey and a draft pick to the Cleveland Browns in the offseason to get Dilfer. Remember, the 49ers wanted to acquire Dilfer from you guys after the 2004 season, but Cleveland came up with a better offer for his services. Dilfer is such a pro's pro that he rubs off on everyone around the team - and that goes beyond just the players. The guy is such a leader and a stand-up individual who can be no-nonsense when necessary but also carries an amiable, approachable demeanor. The guy takes no crap, not that anyone around here would much consider giving him any. He's only been here nine games, but he's already one of the biggest leaders on the team. And just as significantly, he takes that role to heart and knows the importance it carries with this young team, even though he still yearns to be out on the field making plays, something of which he certainly still is capable.

Todd Breda: With the NFC Champion Seahawks coming into town and the 49ers on a two-game winning streak with a chance to pull within one game of them, is it safe to say the team is approaching this matchup as the game of the year for them?

Craig Massei: To be honest, that might be a bit of an overstatement. The 49ers had the most significant game of the Nolan era just two weeks ago when Minnesota came to town, because after the San Diego and Chicago wipeouts, the sky was falling around here and people were finally starting to really question Nolan and whether the team was getting any better after hitting rock bottom in 2004-2005. Now it's a whole new atmosphere, but the 49ers already have been through so many ups and downs this season, that I really get the sense this is just another-step/one-game-at-a-time sort of week for them. To be sure, everybody knows what's at stake in this game. I think the 49ers are more worried about themselves at this stage than who they're playing. Let's face it, everybody knows the 49ers aren't in the same league as the Seahawks. Yet. But Sunday could be the big step toward getting there. Everybody knows that, too. So if the 49ers manage to win, then it becomes the game of the year for them.


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