Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and AZRedReport.com's Amberly Richardson begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Amberly to Craig. How did J.T. O'Sullivan beat out Alex Smith and what does that mean? Does Kurt Warner need to be worried Sunday? What are the biggest steps SF has made to become a winner? These Q&As and more inside.

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, AZRedReport.com: It seems that the Cardinals and the 49ers were floating around in similar boats this offseason in regards to their quarterback competition being the main story line. How did J.T. O'Sullivan win the starting job over Alex Smith and what does that mean for San Francisco moving forward?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: O'Sullivan won the job by the most basic of measures: He performed better on the field than both Smith and third contender Shaun Hill. What does that mean for the 49ers? It means they'll have their best quarterback on the field for Sunday's pivotal opener against the Cardinals. Yeah, that might sound sort of simplistic, but that's basically what it came down to for the 49ers. Of course, there are several other dynamics involved. Everybody in the organization wanted to see Smith – the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 draft and the team's posterboy franchise quarterback of the past three years – win the "open competition" at quarterback that coach Mike Nolan promised the team would have at the position this year. But Smith never made much progress this summer in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complex system. In fact, he almost looked like a raw prospect again – man, did we ever see that during his rookie season of 2005 – trying to run Martz's offense. In contrast, when the 49ers finally decided to give O'Sullivan a serious look with the first unit – O'Sullivan didn't take a single snap in 11-on-11 team drills during the first seven days of training camp in July while Smith and Hill got all the work – he looked smooth and assured in the system and, as Martz said, "J.T. stepped in and did some remarkable things when he got looked at, and the more we gave him, the better he did and it just took off from there." That's exactly what happened. O'Sullivan, who learned the Martz system last year when both were with the Detroit Lions (O'Sullivan was the backup to starter Jon Kitna), stepped in and basically took over, looking like a natural in the Martz system with his accuracy, quick release and good decision making. He earned the job, fair and square. And, for better or worse, he's the right choice at this point to be leading the 49ers into the season.


Amberly Richardson: The 49ers will see Kurt Warner taking the snaps on Sunday. How is their defensive front seven looking and should the often immobile Warner be worried? Or will Warner have an opportunity to pass for almost 484 yards similar to the way he did in the 37-31 49ers overtime victory last November?

Craig Massei: San Francisco's front seven is much improved over last year, particularly over the front seven the Cardinals saw in that November game. It is probably an area where the 49ers have experienced some of their biggest improvement this year. The addition of high-priced free agent Justin Smith has juiced up the front, and he should provide an impact as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in San Francisco's 4-3 system. Keep an eye on Smith on Sunday, because he'll be all over the place. For instance, in a 12-play sequence in San Francisco's exhibition opener against Oakland last month, Smith lined up in five different positions – four plays at left end, two plays at left tackle, one play at right tackle, three plays at right outside linebacker and two plays at right end, his designated starting position. Though the 49ers lost stalwart veteran ends Bryant Young (retirement) and Marques Douglas (free agency) during the offseason, they have been replaced with some fresh young talent in strongman Isaac Sopoaga (whom the team signed to a $20 million contract extension during the offseason) and second-year up-and-comer Ray McDonald. On the left edge at outside linebacker, 2006 first-round pick Manny Lawson is back after his 2007 season was wiped out in Week 3 by a torn knee ligament, just when it appeared he was on the verge of a breakout season. And inside, veteran linebackers Takeo Spikes and Ahmad Brooks have been brought in to support a nucleus led by 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis. So, yeah, San Francisco's front seven should show marked improvement. And, yeah, perhaps Mr. Warner has something to be worried about Sunday.


Amberly Richardson: Arizona fans will see WR Bryant Johnson for the first time since he left the desert. How has he looked in preseason and in camp?

Craig Massei: Well, Bryant looked pretty darn good during the offseason program, when he immediately assumed the starting position at split end. But he suffered a hamstring injury before the first exhibition game early last month and missed most of the team's summer work after that. He did not play in the first three preseason games before returning to practice the final week of August. But now that he's back and healthy, Johnson is looking sharp and he started last week's exhibition finale against San Diego, finishing with three receptions for 41 yards. Nolan said Wednesday that he still hasn't decided who will start at split end Sunday – rookie Josh Morgan excelled in Johnson's place as the starter earlier in the preseason and has been one of the team's stars of the summer – but Johnson almost certainly will be the guy. Now that he's healthy again, Johnson is looking as good as ever since he got joined the team.


Amberly Richardson: One of the reasons Johnson was attractive to various teams was because most thought he was overlooked playing behind superstar receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. On the defensive side of the ball, how will the 49ers secondary shape up against the dynamic duo that Johnson left behind?

Craig Massei: Potentially much better now that they don't have to deal with Johnson too. On a conference call with 49ers writers Wednesday, Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt talked about what Johnson meant to you guys over there and indicated that Johnson's contributions will be missed both on the field and in the locker room. The 49ers are doing a lot of game-planning to combat Arizona's passing game in general, but the absence of Johnson should put the 49ers in something of a better position to match up individually with both Boldin and Fitzgerald. There are going to be some good battles between that duo and 49ers front-line cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris (along with top nickel back Shawntae Spencer), to be sure.


Amberly Richardson: After finishing 5-11 in 2007, what are the biggest steps that the 49ers have made to get closer to a winning season?

Craig Massei: That's a good one, Amberly. The 49ers ostensibly have been making those steps since Nolan arrived in 2005. Last year's 5-11 finish from a team that was expected by many to contend for the playoffs was a major setback and disappointment for the organization. But at this time last year, I – and others close to the team – could have told you the 49ers were not going to be as good as some were expecting them to be. This year, cautiously, has presented something of a different outlook. There is finally some good continuity here in both coaches and personnel, and the most drastic change – the addition of new offensive coordinator Martz – has been a definite change for the better. There have been some major veteran upgrades at some of the team's weakest areas – Johnson and Isaac Bruce in at WR, Justin Smith in along the defensive front – and the team did not hesitate to go to an unproven quarterback who knows the system and gives the team its best chance of winning immediately. So, those are some big steps. Now we're about to see if they get the 49ers anywhere.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and AZRedReport.com as Amberly and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with Amberly answering five questions from Craig.



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