Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part II

To conclude an exclusive two-part series on the 49ers and Lions, RoarReport.com's Nate Caminata and SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei wrap up their back-and-forth interaction with 5 questions from Nate to Craig. What's the perception of JTO in San Francisco, and whatever happened to Alex Smith? How are the Niners taking to Mike Martz and what he's doing with the offense? These Q&As and more inside.

Nate Caminata, Publisher, RoarReport.com: Many Lions fans, including the media, find it almost amusing that J.T. O'Sullivan secured the starting quarterback position in San Francisco. While the Lions might praise O'Sullivan in the media, he never showed signs of starting potential while in Detroit. What is the perception of O'Sullivan in San Fran, and just what happened to the Alex Smith era?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: Nobody - and I mean nobody - saw this coming from O'Sullivan when training camp began in July. The 49ers talked during the spring as though O'Sullivan would be included in the "open competition" for the starting quarterback role in the summer, but then training camp started, and O'Sullivan watched from the sidelines and didn't take one single snap during 11-on-11 team drills during the first seven days of camp while Smith and Shaun Hill got all the work. But both were slow to pick up the Mike Martz offense, and coaches - frustrated by that development - finally decided to give O'Sullivan a look with the first unit in early August. He has been there ever since. And quite frankly, he has looked like a legitimate performer in every way since he assumed the No. 1 role. O'Sullivan clearly beat out Hill and former No. 1 overall draft pick Smith for the starting role during the summer, played well during the preseason and has had an excellent start to the regular season, compiling a 96.3 quarterback rating through the first two games. O'Sullivan led the 49ers back from a 14-point deficit in last week's overtime victory at Seattle, becoming the first San Francisco quarterback in 61 games to pass for 300 or more yards. So that gives you an idea of how the guy is doing now that he has gotten his shot in San Francisco. I was slow to come around with O'Sullivan - my position was that the team should have stuck with Smith - but at this point I have to say I am now a believer. O'Sullivan is simply the best quarterback on the San Francisco roster, here and now - there's no doubt about it. The guy has great temperament for the position, and now that the real games have begun, he has gotten better instead of running into problems. He's extremely accurate, can make all the throws, has a quick release and has been making plays with his feet. What more can you ask? Now he just has to keep it up. O'Sullivan already has won over a lot of people in San Francisco that didn't believe he could do this, and his play so far doesn't appear to be a fluke. He's clearly The Man now behind center this season, particularly after Smith was lost for the year with a rare fracture in his throwing shoulder that he suffered while making a throw in practice a few days before the season opener. Sadly, that probably signals the end of Smith's disappointing and troubled career in San Francisco, since his base salary is almost $10 million next year and there's no way the 49ers are paying that unless Smith is clearly established as their starter, which obviously he isn't - and now most likely never will be.


Nate Caminata: Mike Martz's reputation across the league is well known, but that obviously hasn't always ended in success for him. Because of the collapse of his two most recent job posts in Detroit and St. Louis, is there at least a cautious optimism that follows him into San Francisco? Or is it pure giddy anticipation and excitement?

Craig Massei: You have to be a little wary about Martz and his position with the 49ers, particularly since there's a lot of heat on head coach Mike Nolan to win this year in his fourth season and some are saying Martz would be a good guy to fall back on if Nolan doesn't win and the team struggles again in 2008. There are a lot of dynamics involved here with the 49ers season this year - there could be wholesale personnel changes if a certain level of success isn't attained. So, I believe there is cautious optimism regarding Martz in many corners, including this one. That said, he is making quite a difference on a team that finished dead last in NFL offense two of the past three years, and the team's offensive players clearly look up to Martz and seem to be enjoying themselves like never before. The offense really struggled to pick up the system early in training camp, but now it seems to be getting better every week, and seldom over the past four years have the 49ers been as productive on offense as they were last week against a good Seattle defense. So there has been a lot of excitement. Yeah, excitement. That's a word that's being used a lot around here when talking about Martz and his new San Francisco offense.


Nate Caminata: Getting back to Martz: He is notorious for giving up on his running game, and in some instances, not using it at all. Has there been any indication that he'll do the same in San Fran, even with a talent like Frank Gore in the backfield?

Craig Massei: Well, in the season opener, the 49ers threw 20 passes and had 20 running plays. Nobody's expecting that kind of balance as the season progresses, and when in comeback mode last week against Seattle, San Francisco threw 32 passes and had 23 running plays. Martz says Gore - who he believes is an elite performer - will get far more offensive touches than any other San Francisco player, and I take that to mean establishing him as a running threat on a weekly basis. Running the ball is a strength of San Francisco's offensive personnel, and Martz looks smart enough to realize that and take advantage of it. There have been no indications so far that he'll wantonly abandon the run like he has in the past. But then, the season still is young. However, I think Martz has been able to see that a semblance of balance is what will work best for this offense.


Nate Caminata: Many people in Michigan know Joe Staley from his days at Rockford High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to his standout career at Central Michigan. How has Joe progressed so far into his second year with San Francisco, and what is the long-term outlook for his career as a 49er?

Craig Massei: Joe Staley is a stud. By the end of his rookie season last year, he might have been San Francisco's best offensive lineman. As it was, he beat out former first-round pick Kwame Harris for the starting role at right tackle last summer, then played every offensive snap during the season while becoming the first San Francisco offensive lineman ever to start 16 games in his rookie season. I like just about everything about Staley - he's an engaging individual, has a great attitude and already is developing into a leader on the team. He has great athleticism and excellent footwork, two facets that will serve him well as he continues to develop. He probably needs to get a little stronger, but he's a guy with definite Pro Bowl potential who could man the crucial left side for the next decade. Staley has had to make some adjustments after moving to left tackle this year and hasn't exactly been a world-beater there so far. But he is holding his own and just continues to get better practically every time out, just like he did last year. In just his second year, he already has become a cornerstone of this offense. There is little not to be impressed about the guy.


Nate Caminata: Where have teams had success against San Francisco in 2008? We're aware that the 49ers have given up a league-high 12 sacks (a surefire sign of a Martz offense), but if you're an opponent and game-planning against a Mike Nolan-coached football team, where do you attack if you want to have a high level of success?

Craig Massei: I say you do exactly what the Seahawks did last week - gang up your defense to stop Gore and put the heat on O'Sullivan. Stopping Gore has to be the first priority. That guy is special, and he will break runs and wear down a team if opponents try to play it straight across the board against the San Francisco offense. The 49ers only won last week because they were able to make a series of big plays - big plays the team has rarely produced on a consistent basis during the team's franchise-worst skein of five consecutive losing seasons. Seattle had the right idea - the 49ers just finally stepped up to the challenge for once, which I think indicates they are a much better team than last year, particularly since they have a quarterback who can move the offense. Defensively, you have to try to run the ball against the 49ers, because Nolan is a fine defensive strategist, and San Francisco's defensive personnel has been built to stop the pass. If you can't establish the run, the 49ers will feel more confident sending blitzes because their secondary is strong in coverage, particularly on the edges with cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris.


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