Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Dolphins, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive three-part series,'s Craig Massei and's Alain Poupart begin their back-and-forth interaction with 12 questions from Alain to Craig. Do the Dolphins need to worry about QB Shaun Hill and WR Isaac Bruce? Are the 49ers playing harder for coach Mike Singletary, and what's San Francisco's offensive philosophy now? These Q&As and more inside.

Alain Poupart, Associate Editor, QB Shaun Hill is coming off a solid performance against the Jets; is he really someone the Dolphins need to worry about?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, If he had played more than just the past 5½ games, Shaun Hill would be the NFL's fifth-ranked quarterback with his 95.5 passer rating. That's a pretty good indication of how well he has been playing since taking over as San Francisco's starter near the end of October. He has yet to have a bad game and he has moved the offense in each of his starts. Hill is a very accurate passer who makes good decisions and he's deceptively athletic and has good mobility in the pocket. He's not an imposing world-beater, but he's big and has a presence about him, manages the game well and gets the job done. A don't know if the Dolphins should be worrying about him, but he's definitely a player they need to stop to win. He has really given the offense a boost and minimizes his mistakes.

Alain Poupart: Frank Gore has become a question mark for Sunday's game because of an ankle injury; can the 49ers possibly do anything offensively if he doesn't play?

Craig Massei:A lot of us out here are wondering the same thing. The answer last year would have been a definite no. Heck, the 49ers couldn't do much offensively last year even with Gore – he was their offense last year. This year, I guess the answer would be that the 49ers were able to muster two scoring drives in the fourth quarter without Gore in the game to break a 14-14 tie and beat the New York Jets. The 49ers have some decent backups behind Gore in DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson, but neither comes close to Gore and his impact ability, which is substantial. If Gore can't play, the 49ers likely will test the Miami secondary with a short and intermediate passing game, something at which they're starting to get pretty good.

Alain Poupart: Has Vernon Davis become any more of a factor at tight end since his well-publicized banishment in Mike Singletary's first game as interim head coach?

Craig Massei: Nope, he's just the same talented tight end that the 49ers just don't get the ball to enough. Davis has made just as much impact with this blocking this year as his pass-catching, even though he has the skills to be one of San Francisco's top offensive weapons. The Mike Martz offense just isn't designed to take advantage of his talent as a playmaker and he spends a lot of time blocking in protection on passing downs when he could be making plays as a receiver. Davis is one of the better players on the team and has been playing at the same level he was before his banishment by Singletary, which is a story that was way overplayed in the media. Singletary and Davis were buddy-buddy the next day and have been every since. Davis is one of Singletary's biggest supporters, and vice versa.

Alain Poupart: Despite his age, Isaac Bruce appears to be the 49ers' best wide receiver; should he still command a lot of attention from the Dolphins defense?

Craig Massei: Bruce has clearly emerged as San Francisco's No. 1 receiver, though he's not the No. 1 receiver he was in his prime. He's probably a solid No. 2 receiver at this stage of his career, which says a lot considering all the mileage he has on him at age 36 in his 15th NFL season. Bruce has really helped this team in a lot of ways, particularly as a reliable threat in the passing game. He still knows how to get open and his hands are legendary, and he also is a deep threat who's averaging 15.4 yards a catch with a team-high six touchdown receptions. The Niners will come at the Dolphins with a lot of different receivers, but Bruce is always a guy you have to keep an eye on in the Mike Martz offense.

Alain Poupart: What has been the 49ers' offensive philosophy under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who doesn't have the weapons he had in St. Louis?

Craig Massei: The philosophy definitely has changed since Mike Singletary has taken over as head coach. The offense is more of a physical, ball-control, focus-on-establishing-the-run attack. This is a reflection on Singletary, who has been able to impose his will on Martz and kind of rein in the flamboyant coordinator a little. That's not to say Martz still doesn't like to wing it – and Singletary lets Martz run the offense – but a lot of the risk in Martz's system seems to be toned down since Singletary took over. The thing is, Martz has seemed to adjust very well to the style and the parts he has to work with, and the offense has been at its best over the past month.

Alain Poupart: From the outside looking in, it appears the 49ers defense is playing much harder under Singletary; is that accurate?

Craig Massei: That's an interesting question. Maybe the defense is playing a little harder for Singletary. It certainly is playing better, that's for sure. But then, the whole team seems to playing both harder and better for Singletary. There is a lot more focus on defense now, for whatever reason, and the defense has stepped it up to its highest level of the season the past two weeks, when the 49ers allowed three points to Buffalo and 14 to the Jets in victories.

Alain Poupart: Patrick Willis was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007; what kind of season is he having?

Craig Massei: He's having another big season, but he's having to work harder for it because everybody knows who he is now and what he can do. This defense is being built around Willis, and he is a wonderful linebacker who can do it all with range and sideline-to-sideline ability. He's becoming more of a playmaker now as his 86-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 2 suggests. He's the team's runaway leader in tackles and, as the NFL's reigning tackle champion, he is in position to defend his crown if he comes up big over the final three weeks of the season. According to the NFL's official statistics, he's currently second in the league behind Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson.

Alain Poupart: CB Nate Clements always seemed to come up with a pick when he was with Buffalo and facing the Dolphins; how has he been playing?

Craig Massei: Not quite as well as last year, when he clearly was one of the team's top players and was named a Pro Bowl alternate. Clements is a very good all-around cornerback – he can play the run and pass with equal effectiveness – but he has been burned for some big plays this year and hasn't been as consistent as last year. He didn't play last week after having surgery on a broken thumb sustained the week before. That ended Clements' streak of 116 consecutive starts. It was the first game he has missed in his NFL career.

Alain Poupart: Who's the one player on defense the Dolphins need to worry about?

Craig Massei: I guess it depends on who's doing the worrying. Up front, Miami's line has to be cognizant of where Justin Smith is at all times, because the 49ers like to move him around and he has a non-stop motor. He has been a big addition to the defense this year and has been playing quite well. I'd worry about Smith because he can do damage to your quarterback. You also have to be aware of where Willis and his partner at linebacker, Takeo Spikes, are at all times.

Alain Poupart: Former Dolphins kicker Joe Nedney has made himself quite a career after leaving Miami; how much of a weapon is he for the 49ers?

Craig Massei: Nedney's a great kicker. He doesn't get the recognition he deserves because he is playing on a team that hasn't done well since he arrived in 2005. He can routinely hit the 50-yard field goal – and deeper – and he has been one of the NFL's most accurate kickers since coming to San Francisco. He ranked second in team history entering the season with a career field-goal percentage of 87.8, and he has made 23 of 26 field goals this year, including a 50-yarder and a 53-yarder. The guy is money.

Alain Poupart: The way the 49ers are playing lately, do you think Mike Singletary might be coaching himself into a permanent job?

Craig Massei: Absolutely. I wasn't sure at first if Singletary knew what he was doing as a head coach, but I am now a true believer – along with a lot of other people around here. There is something special about the guy. Despite his lack of experience at the coaching level, he definitely is not in over his head. There is true greatness about the guy, and he may have already worked his way into the permanent job regardless of how the remainder of the season goes. To be sure, if the 49ers don't make him their regular head coach next year, someone else will.

Alain Poupart: How were the 49ers able to beat the Jets?

Craig Massei: They took it right to them. And they passed all over them. That, along with putting good pressure on quarterback Brett Favre and playing well on the back end defensively, made it practically a non-contest. The only reason the Jets were still in the game entering the fourth quarter was because of mistakes and turnovers by the 49ers – recurring themes this season for San Francisco. Or, at least, earlier in this season. The 49ers held a 375-182 edge in total yards, a 39:49-20:11 advantage in time of possession and a 25-10 edge in first downs. The 24-14 final score wasn't really indicative of the 49ers' domination.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both and as Alain and Craig continue their back-and-fourth interaction with Alain answering 10 questions from Craig.

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