Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part III

In Part III of our exclusive four-part offseason series,'s Amberly Richardson and's Craig Massei continue their back-and-forth analysis with five more questions from Amberly to Craig. What have the 49ers done to improve, and what do they need to do to become a true contender this season? What happens in the 49ers/Cards season opener? These Q&As and more inside.

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, The 49ers finished 25th in the NFL in pass defense last season. What steps are they taking to stop the high velocity passing teams of the NFC West?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, Despite their final standing in the league rankings, which was in part a product of San Franciso's defense being on the field longer than any other NFL team in 2007, the 49ers' pass defense actually was quite respectable last season as newcomer free agents Nate Clements (left cornerback) and Michael Lewis (strong safety) helped solidify a strong starting secondary that includes 2006 Pro Bowler Walt Harris at right cornerback and steady Mark Roman at free safety. That unit played with consistency and veteran savvy last season, with Clements in particular playing well as a No. 1 corner and being named as a Pro Bowl alternate at the end of the year. The 49ers could have Clements shadow the opponents' No. 1 receiver all afternoon and feel good about it. The biggest problem with San Francisco's pass defense in particular was the team's inability to mount a consistent pass rush, which gave opposing quarterbacks too long in the pocket to find targets down the field. San Francisco lost both starting ends in its 3-4 defensive scheme as Bryant Young retired and Marques Douglas was allowed to leave in free agency. Young led the 49ers with 6.5 sacks last year and Douglas was fourth with on the team with three, so that production must be replaced. The 49ers made Justin Smith their big-ticket item in free agency, giving him a $45 million contract, and the 49ers hope to feature him as a pass rusher by moving him around along their defensive front. The 3-4 system relies on its outside linebackers to be the primary source of pressure, so the 49ers are hoping for much more that group this year and are highly anticipating the return of Manny Lawson, who appeared headed toward big things in his sophomore season last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury after two games. The 49ers feel they have the backside defense to match up with the strong receiver units they face in the NFC West, particularly after adding cornerback/safety prospect Reggie Smith in the third round of the draft, so the team's success in that area could depend on how much an improved pass rush can complement the secondary.

Amberly Richardson: San Francisco didn't make any headlines by selecting DT Kentwan Balmer and G Chilo Rachal with the team's first two draft picks. Could the 49ers have done better?

Craig Massei: Those certainly weren't sexy picks for the 49ers at the top of the draft, but for what the team needed to get during the first day of draft weekend and what was available when San Francisco went on the clock, those both were good selections for the team. The 49ers needed to address and upgrade the size and talent on both sides of their line, and that's what they were able to do with two youngsters who should contribute immediately. In Balmer, they got a space-eater up front who should occupy blockers and free their play-making linebackers to get to the football. In Rachal, they bolstered their depth at a position that needed it and maybe even found a guy who can step in and become an immediate starter at one of the guard positions for departed 2007 starters Justin Smiley and Larry Allen. Finding a receiver and a pass rusher also were priorities for San Francisco, but the 49ers felt they got the best players available when it was their turn to draft, while also getting prospects that helped fill some significant voids in the trenches. The 49ers' philosophy is to build their team through the draft from the inside out, and they took care of the inside with those first two picks.

Amberly Richardson: What areas do the 49ers need to improve on to be contenders this year?

Craig Massei: Offense. And then, there's offense. And did I say offense? There were several factors that contributed to the team's downfall in 2007, but San Francisco ended up with the worst offensive attack in the NFL, and that ruined the season for a team that was pretty decent on defense and even better on special teams. The 49ers did a lot to upgrade their offense during the offseason, most notably bringing in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and that is the area where the team must improve to become in 2008 the playoff contender the 49ers were expected by many to be in 2007. Even a mediocre offense could help the 49ers become a contender just by doing its part to keep the defense off the field. San Francisco's defense simply was worn down last season because the team's offense failed to sustain drives and had so many three-and-outs. A better offense also will mean more points for a team that scored a league-low 219 last season. No team can be a contender putting those kind of numbers on the scoreboard. Specifically, the 49ers must get improved play from virtually every area of their offense, and defensively they need to get more push from their pass rush and become a bit more stout up front. If the 49ers can do those things, they really aren't as far away from being a legitimate contender as their disappointing 5-11 finish of last season might suggest.

Amberly Richardson: It's Week One against the Cardinals, who has the edge (no pun intended)?

Craig Massei: I give the edge to the 49ers in that September 7 season opener at Monster Park in San Francisco, if for no other reason than simply that they'll be playing at home and must hold court against a division rival if they hope to have any chance of making some serious noise in the NFC West. The 49ers have won all three of their home openers since Mike Nolan became their coach in 2005 and generally have played well at home during his tenure. It's a big game for the 49ers – more important to them than the Cardinals – because they must get off to a good start in what will be a pivotal season for both Nolan and the franchise. The 49ers also will be unveiling their new offense under Mike Martz, so there will be no holding back from the start.

Amberly Richardson: The Cardinals and 49ers go head-to-head on ESPN's Monday Night Football in November. Does San Francisco have enough big-time playmakers to put on a show?

Craig Massei: By then, we should really know. Several observers are suggesting it will take half of the season for the 49ers to settle into Martz's offense before they can learn to thrive in the system. Well, that Nov. 10 game is the beginning of the second half of the season for the 49ers, and it comes after the team gets a week of rest after its Nov. 2 bye. San Francisco has several young players on the rise who are looking to make a name for themselves in the NFL consciousness – and the Monday night spotlight obviously is the perfect platform on which to do so. After having four prime-time, nationally-televised night evening last year, this is San Francisco's only prime-time night game appearance this season, and the 49ers will hope to make this their coming-out party before a national audience to say that yes, finally, they are a team that has arrived and will have to both be reckoned with and taken seriously the remainder of the season.

PART IV: Make sure to check back on both and as Amberly and Craig conclude their back-and-forth interaction with Amberly answering five final questions from Craig.

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