Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Packers, Part II

Our Scout.com experts, Bill Huber of PackerReport and Craig Massei of SFIllustrated, continue their three-part breakdown of the 49ers and Packers and Sunday's game with five questions from Bill to Craig. Is there any hope for Alex Smith? How is Mike Singletary's tough-love approach sitting with San Francisco's players? What is the secret to Frank Gore's success? These Q&As and more inside.

Bill Huber, publisher, PackerReport.com: What was the feeling among the fans and insiders like yourself when the 49ers took Alex Smith instead of the home-state kid, Aaron Rodgers, with the No. 1 overall pick in 2005? Is there any hope that Smith plays to a level good enough to get the 49ers back to contender status on a consistent basis?

Craig Massei, editor in chief, SFIllustrated.com: I wrote on the day of the draft that the 49ers should select Rodgers, for a variety of reasons, including that he would be the one most ready to play right away. Isn't it ironic that he ended up sitting behind Favre for three years. He probably would have been San Francisco's opening-day starter as a rookie had he been drafted by the 49ers. There were several observers close to the team who favored Rodgers, but the verdict was pretty much split down the middle between Rodgers and Smith before the draft and the pick was pretty well received once it was made. I had no problem with the 49ers taking Smith, and once I took a closer look, it seemed like Smith was the right pick and the better prospect, particularly after watching so many teams pass on Rodgers and learning that Smith wouldn't have fallen past Tampa Bay at the No. 4 pick. That said, Smith was nowhere close to being ready for what was expected of him as a rookie, and he really got thrown to the wolves with an expansion-like team around him, and while it made him tough, I don't think it did anything to further his career. Circumstances have really worked against Smith during his time in San Francisco, and I would be writing for the next 10 minutes to detail each and every one of them. But to answer the latter question, I think there is more hope now that Smith can be the man behind center than there has been since his promising second season with the team. He is a more mature individual and a different quarterback now than the one who last played almost two years ago and looks much more sure of himself and fundamentally sound. But the jury still is out, and Smith must still prove he can consistently get the job done. He has until the end of this season to do it. He needs to show he can win games such as this one coming up Sunday. I would say it's one of the more consequential games of his career. It would sure do his career a lot of good to out-shine Rodgers, that's for sure.


Bill Huber: Packers fans have a keen appreciation for Mike Singletary, back to his days with the Bears. And we all remember Singletary sending Vernon Davis to the showers last year. How has that tough-as-nails approach translated to today's athlete?

Craig Massei: Singletary is really something special. I can't say enough about him. He obviously leads by example, and he is equal parts intensity and inspiration. He believes in himself and his message so much that it's almost as though others around him can't help believing it too. You would think his fire and brimstone approach would wear thin with today's pampered, rich athletes, but Singletary really has brought the team together and given a sort of family feel to the 49ers where everybody is working toward the same goal. Of course, there's a lot of situations like that in the NFL, but Singletary really does possess something unique as a leader of men as compared to other coaches I've been around. I don't mean to gush about the man so much, but seldom have I ever been around such a commanding presence that also conducts himself with sincerity. He is certainly in his element as a head coach, and he has done a good job of pushing the right buttons, staying organized and delegating authority. Singletary is tough as nails, but he also sends out a lot of tough love. There is some concern his approach will grow old real fast in hard times and when losses start piling up, but that hasn't happened yet, and the 49ers just endured a four-game losing streak.


Bill Huber: Frank Gore is an amazing, amazing story. His career has been over how many times with knee injuries, only for him to return and break off another 60-yard touchdown run? Gore is clearly one of the NFL's most under-appreciated players. Tell us about him and why he's been so successful this season.

Craig Massei: Wow, it's nice to read that Bill, to know there are others outside San Francisco that realize how truly under-appreciated Gore really is. I tell people this all the time: If he was playing for a better team and got the recognition he deserves, he would be considered an elite back throughout the league. He is the total package – a compact back who can push the pile and run with power between the tackles but also has breakaway burst and the slashing agility to make defenders miss in the open field. He's also an excellent receiver out of the backfield who twice in his first four seasons finished as San Francisco's leader in receptions. Despite his reconstructed knees, the result of tearing ligaments in both during his college career at the University of Miami, Gore has been surprisingly durable. He missed almost three full games earlier this season with foot and ankle problems, but he is back to full speed and playing as well as ever. And that's saying something, considering the struggles of the offense around him and, particularly, the line in front of him.


Bill Huber: Draft day was interesting, with the Packers having their choice between B.J. Raji and Michael Crabtree. Raji has been OK as a reserve defensive lineman. How is Crabtree doing after his ridiculously long holdout? And I know it's early, but is he going to live up to his own hype, or are the scouts' concerns about Crabtree's speed enough to prevent him from becoming a truly elite receiver?

Craig Massei: Well, after one month with the team, Crabtree already is San Francisco's undisputed No. 1 wideout, so I guess you could say he's coming along pretty well. His holdout was ridiculous, and I was beginning to wonder if he would ever play for the team. But once he finally signed his contract after missing 71 days with the team since the start of training camp, he got to work and leapfrogged over other receivers to earn a spot in the 49ers' starting lineup for his NFL debut on Oct. 25. Crabtree has all the tools – he's a big receiver who catches everything, runs crisp and precise routes and uses his body well to shield defenders from the ball. But he doesn't have separation speed, and it's difficult to tell at this point how much that might limit him or prevent him from reaching elite level. But he's already the best the 49ers have, and it certainly looks like he's only going to get better. He'd be a junior in college right now if he had stayed in school, but he already is hanging with the big boys and making plays, so it seems reasonable to assume his best days are still ahead.


Bill Huber: Everyone knows about linebacker Patrick Willis. He's one of the best in the business. But he can't be the only reason why the 49ers are so strong against the run. What has the 49ers' recipe for success been?

Craig Massei: It all starts up front at the point of attack where nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is having a career season, becoming a bona fide force in his third season with the team. The 49ers also get great play from right end Justin Smith, a guy with a nonstop motor who was the team MVP last year in his first season with San Francisco and is another guy who doesn't seem to get the attention he deserves. Left end Isaac Sopoaga, who weighs in at about 330 pounds, completes the front wall of San Francisco's 3-4 defensive set, and the guys up front are setting the tone and playing assignment-true to plug the gaps and occupy blockers so that the linebackers can fly to the football. And to be sure, Willis is one of the best at that. He cleans up a lot of plays and makes everyone around him better. The Niners also are getting some good play next to Willis inside from Takeo Spikes, who has been nagged by injuries lately, and Manny Lawson is playing well against the run on the strong-side and makes a lot of plays with his sideline-to-sideline range.

PART III: Check back on both SFIllustrated.com and PackerReport.com as Bill and Craig break down Sunday's game in detail and give their predictions on the outcome.


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