Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part III

In Part III of our exclusive four-part game preview, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and's Craig Massei continue their back-and-forth interaction with five more questions from Doug to Craig. How is SF's upgraded defense adjusting to the 3-4 scheme? What's up with newcomers Patrick Willis and Nate Clements? Do the 49ers still believe they're a playoff team? These Q&As and more inside.

Doug Farrar, Editor in Chief, Seahawks.NET: With all the offensive issues, San Francisco's defense looks very strong through the first three games. Bryant Young looked particularly good against the Steelers. How is the front line adjusting to the full-time 3-4?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, Surprisingly well, considering the defensive line was one of San Francisco's biggest weaknesses last year, and two of the three starters this year are returning starters from last season. Young has been a beast, and he continues to flourish in the twilight of his great career. He led the NFL with four sacks entering the Steelers game, and as you saw there, he can still cause some disruption even when facing constant double teams. The key with Young is the team has made a concerted effort to keep him fresh in his 14th NFL season. He only saw a few plays of action during the preseason, and he is held out of practice at least once a week. The 49ers also rotate him with other linemen during games. Another big key has been the stellar play of Marques Douglas, who plays opposite Young at right end. Douglas is third on the team in tackles and second to Young in sacks. Though he's a bit undersized for a 3-4 end at 285 pounds, Douglas is skilled at the intricacies of the position and has been spending a lot of time in opposing backfields. The 49ers brought in free agent Aubrayo Franklin to start at nose tackle, and while he has had an OK start with the team after spraining his knee during training camp, his backup, Isaac Sopoaga, has come on strong and might even be playing better.

Doug Farrar: Though the loss of Manny Lawson for the year was a real blow, there's no denying that rookie ILB Patrick Willis has been sensational from the start. Who will replace Lawson, and what's your take on Willis so far?

Craig Massei: Willis has been the bomb since the first day of training camp. He has been so good and made such an immediate impact that he'd sent Brandon Moore – San Francisco's leader in both tackles and sacks last season – to the bench before the preseason was even half over this summer. He's the real deal – a ferocious hitter who flies to the football and finds it instinctively. He started his NFL career by leading the 49ers in tackles his first two professional games – including 15 in the season opener – and being named NFL Rookie of the Week twice. So, yeah, you could say the 49ers have something there. He already is one of their top three or four defensive players. The loss of Lawson hurts a lot more than you might think because he had really been coming on as an impact force and was such a key piece in what San Francisco wants to do defensively with his sideline-to-sideline range and ability to both rush the passer and drop in coverage. He might be one of San Francisco's most indispensable defenders, but Hannibal Navies is at the very least an adequate replacement. A ninth-year veteran with 50 career starts, Navies is solid and had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery last week. But he's no Lawson. That kid was headed for big things this season.

Doug Farrar: Judging from his performance against the Steelers, it seems that cornerback Nate Clements wants to earn all $80 million of his new contract this season alone. How much has he meant to the defense, and what's up with the rest of San Francisco's revamped secondary?

Craig Massei: I consider Clements San Francisco's best defensive player. He has shown that he deserves to be mentioned among the league's elite cornerbacks. His shutdown capability in coverage has made an impact on the entire defense, and he also has displayed considerable play-making ability. He's a physical player who's a force against the run, something you don't always see in top cover corners. He makes everybody around him better, the true sign of an impact player. This probably is the best secondary the 49ers have had in at least a dozen years. Walt Harris is following up his Pro Bowl season of last year by playing well, even though opponents are coming after him more now with Clements on the other side. Shawntae Spencer, a starter his first three NFL seasons, is now the third/nickel corner, which makes the team a lot better at that position, and he spends a lot of time on the field. The 49ers also spent $30 million to bring in free agent Michael Lewis, and he has added a physical dimension at strong safety. And Mark Roman also has made his presence known at free safety. Individually and as a whole, the secondary has been playing very well.

Doug Farrar: With the 49ers 2-1 for the first time since 2002 despite a horrible offensive output, what are the expectations among the team? Is a division win still in sight, or are the things that need fixing the dominant topics right now? How would you rate the job that Mike Nolan has donethis year?

Craig Massei: The 49ers realize they were fortunate to win their first two games when they couldn't manage to muster even 200 yards of total offense in either of them. They have to get their offense fixed. That's the priority on this team right now. But that said, I don't think the team has changed any of its expectations of winning the division and reaching the playoffs after a four-year drought. This is a respectable team that's now on the verge of being a good team, and defense should keep the 49ers in just about every game they play. Nolan continues to grow as a head coach and I continue to view him as an excellent franchise resurrectioner, to make up my own word. He has a very strong vision and the team buys into what he's selling. The 49ers are 2-1 and 2-0 in the NFC West with an offense that's ranked 31st in the league, so Nolan must be doing something right. Or a lot right. It's a long season, and the 49ers know that they still have plenty of time to get it right.

Doug Farrar: Give us the name of one player on offense and one on defense that Seahawks fans may not know yet, but will become very familiar with on Sunday. Who are the unsung heroes?

Craig Massei: Arnaz Battle on offense. He has become a solid starter at wide receiver and easily held off all challenges to his position this summer. He's an excellent blocker down the field and is a reliable possession receiver who is tough and isn't shy about going across the middle. Defensively, I would say Willis, because this is just his fourth NFL game, but the word is spreading fast about him so he probably can't be considered an unsung hero. But Douglas can. Keep an eye on that guy. He is a classic overachiever, but has really been a guy who has stepped up for San Francisco's improved defense so far.

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