Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part III

In Part III of an exclusive four-part series, Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar and SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei continue their back-and-forth interaction with five more questions from Doug to Craig. How is Vernon Davis being used in the new Mike Martz offense? What about newcomer Justin Smith on defense? Is there a way Seattle can exploit stud LB Patrick Willis? These Q&As and more inside.

Doug Farrar, Editor in Chief, Seahawks.NET: Historically, Mike Martz tends to ignore the tight end in his offenses, but Vernon Davis isn't your garden-variety tight end. At the Combine, general Manager Scot McCloughan mentioned that observers might see Davis in the slot and split wide most of the time. Is the plan to turn him into more of a receiver with all the shotgun sets and multi-receiver combinations one can expect from Martz?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: No, the plan is definitely to continue to use Davis as a full-service tight end. Davis is an excellent blocker, and he is an integral part of the San Francisco offense as an every-down player. You will see him moved around a lot in shifts before the snap, and you'll also see him in a variety of formations that include having him in the slot and occasionally split out wide. But most of the time, you will see him in a conventional tight end position on either side of the formation, though sometimes he'll set up off the line in a wing position. The 49ers aren't trying to turn him into a wide receiver by any means. He's too good of a tight end. That said, Martz is trying to take advantage of the deep threat he possesses at the position, something the 49ers have failed to do with much success during Davis' first two seasons in the league. Davis had a 37-yard reception in the opener, so the 49ers will always be looking to get him the ball down the field. He's undoubtedly a key figure in the team's offense and passing game this year. Martz has never worked with a tight end of Davis' talent, and he'll focus on ways to get him the ball throughout the season.


Doug Farrar: How has defensive coordinator Greg Manusky been using Manny Lawson and Justin Smith in blitz packages, and how is Smith adjusting from the 4-3 he played in Cincinnati to a 3-4 in San Francisco?

Craig Massei: Smith is now San Francisco's all-purpose defender - the 49ers are moving him around throughout their defense to make optimum use of his skills and put him in the best position to succeed. That means Smith is being used in a variety of ways in blitz and rush packages. Here's an indication of how all-over-the-place Smith really is: He participated in each of San Francisco's 73 defensive plays in the season opener, and he saw time at seven different positions along San Francisco's defensive front. Lawson isn't really being used in the team's primary sub-blitz package. The 49ers are bringing in outside linebackers Parys Haralson and Rod Green on standard rush downs, and Haralson accounted for two sacks in the opener against Arizona. That's not to say you won't see Lawson rushing the passer, but that's not his primary role right now in this defense. You'll see a lot of Smith going after the quarterback, though. The 49ers are playing a lot of 4-3 with Smith lining up in his customary right end position, so he has settled in well with San Francisco's defensive scheme and already is one of the team's top defensive players.


Doug Farrar: Patrick Willis got off to a strong start in 2008 after a remarkable rookie season. We know how good he is, but are there weaknesses in his game that the Seahawks can exploit?

Craig Massei: Get bodies on him. That's probably not as easy as it sounds - Willis is so darn quick and instinctive - but the Cardinals did an excellent job of getting to Willis at the second level and keeping him bottled in traffic along the line of scrimmage. I'm not sure the Arizona game was such a strong start for Willis. He finished with just five tackles - that's a career low, by the way - and he got blown out of a hole in a goal-line situation when Arizona scored the touchdown that put the Cards in command. That said, the guy has few if any weaknesses. Willis is awesome. He has the makeup of an all-time great if he can stay healthy.


Doug Farrar: The 49ers gave Nate Clements a huge contract in 2007, only to see him become one of the most targeted cornerbacks in the NFL that season. With DeAngelo Hall replacing Clements as the Bay Area's biggest secondary overspend, what does Clements have to do to get his game in line with his paycheck? Or, is he there and the numbers don't reflect it?

Craig Massei: Clements had an excellent debut season with the 49ers last year. He often shadowed the opponent's top receiver on a weekly basis and made a lot of plays, leading the team with four interceptions, 18 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and finishing third on the team with 110 tackles. Opponents actually went away from Clements most of the season. That's not to say he wasn't challenged and didn't give up some plays, but if there's a statistic you're referring to that says he was targeted often, it might have something to do with San Francisco's defense being on the field for far more plays than any other NFL defense in 2007. The 49ers were pleased with what they got from Clements last year and from this viewpoint, he played well and is one of the team's very best players. He was named San Francisco's co-MVP last season and also was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate. Now, DeAngelo Hall, that's another story...


Doug Farrar: It's common knowledge that Mike Nolan is on the hot seat -- anything less than eight wins this year would put him in further jeopardy. Whether he stays or goes, what is the long-term plan for the 49ers? How will McCloughan's personnel philosophy define the team, and is the franchise any closer to contention than it was before the new administration took over?

Craig Massei: They must be closer to the playoffs than before McNolan arrived, because the team was so darn far away from that level when that duo arrived to run the program in 2005. The 49ers were virtually an expansion team then, and now they have a roster that is chock full of talent. So, yeah, they're closer to contention, but as was evidenced in the opener, how close may be a matter of perception. The 49ers are a difficult team to gauge right now. There is some transition ongoing with the move to a new offense and new quarterback, and it's going to take a while to see what kind of groove this team settles into, whether it will truly be competitive - as it appears quite capable of doing - or continue to struggle for whatever reasons that may arise. McCloughan's philosophy is to build with young talent through the draft - nothing radically original there - but the team is where it is, and he has been a part of getting the 49ers there from the start just like Nolan. So, as far as where this team is going and who will be leading it there, we really have to see how things play out over the course of this season, and over the next few months in particular.

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


Niners Digest Top Stories