Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Lions, Part II

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and RoarReport's Nate Caminata go Behind Enemy Lines to break down Sunday's early NFC showdown between the 49ers and Lions. Is the Green Bay rout indicative of what to expect from the Niners in 2012? How much is the 49ers organization really behind QB Alex Smith? How will the Niners match up defensively with Detroit's offensive firepower? These Q&As and more inside.

Nate Caminata, publisher, The 49ers appeared to handle Green Bay well in Lambeau Field last weekend; a 'statement' game if there ever was one. Do you believe that's indicative of how San Fran's outlook is in 2012? Was there anything during the game that you think future opponents might be able to expose?

Craig Massei, publisher, The 49ers upgraded their talent and strengthened some of their weakest areas during the offseason – and there's really not too many of those – so I expected the 49ers to be a strong team and legitimate contender again this year, even though that might not necessarily translate into a better record than last season. Their preseason was very unrevealing, so I was a bit uncertain what to expect against the Packers, besides a competitive game between two of the top teams in the league. But the way the Niners dismantled the Packers was a real eye-opener; San Francisco dominated in almost every phase and the game wasn't nearly as close as the 30-22 final score. One of the Niners' strengths is that they are a complete team, and that was very much on display in Green Bay, when their offense played up to the level of San Francisco's great defense and superior special teams. On this Sunday, the Niners played like perhaps the NFL's best team and were good enough to beat anybody. With the way the 49ers are constructed and, especially, with the way they are coached, I would expect that game to be a blueprint for the way the Niners want to play each week and also indicative of the way they will play each week. The only thing I saw that opponents will look to expose in the future is San Francisco's struggles in pass protection. The Packers put a lot of heat on Alex Smith, sacking him four times and laying several other hits on him, and the team's best past protector, Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, had a difficult time holding the blind-side edge against Clay Matthews, who had 2.5 sacks and four QB hits.

Nate Caminata: Although it was relatively subtle, San Francisco appeared to have some interest in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Given that Alex Smith quarterbacked the team to the NFC Championship game, and prior considerations of the organization to make a change behind center, did that impact the relationship between Smith and the 49ers? Is the organization fully behind him, or will it take more convincing?

Craig Massei: The 49ers felt like the owed it to themselves to check out Manning during the offseason. General manager Trent Baalke has said the team's mindset is to always consider any option which can upgrade the talent level and make the team better, and a good example of that is the 49ers signing free-agent running backs Brandon Jacobs and Rock Cartwright in the offseason and drafting RB LaMichael James in the second round even though the team already is set at the position with the 1-2 tandem of three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore and backup Kendall Hunter, who combined for 153 yards rushing on 25 carries against the Packers last week. To get back to the question, yes, it will take some more convincing for the team to be 100 percent behind Smith as its quarterback, no matter how much coach Jim Harbaugh praises him publicly. Smith was a free agent in the offseason and the 49ers gave him only a three-year deal, the truest indication the team isn't sold on Smith as its long-term starter. After what he's been through with the Niners – which is more adversity than most players ever experience in their careers – Smith has developed pretty thick skin, and he understands the dalliance with Manning was just a part of the business. With that all said, the 49ers are indeed 100 percent behind Smith as their quarterback for 2012, and they are giving him every chance to succeed. He is really taking hold of the position and developing into a winning quarterback, and the better he plays, the closer he gets to becoming the franchise quarterback the Niners were hoping he'd be when they selected him with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft.

Nate Caminata: Of course, we have to bring up handshake-gate. Michigan faithful are familiar with Harbaugh, who quarterbacked the Wolverines during his collegiate days, and well aware of his personality type. What was the opposing take after last year's post-game fiasco?

Craig Massei: Personally, I thought Schwartz over-reacted and came out as the one looking bad in the mini-altercation, as I wrote at the time last season. But that's not to say Harbaugh gets a free pass on that one. There is a certain decorum that's supposed to be involved in the postgame handshake, particularly at the NFL level, and it certainly is not a time to show up the opposing coach, though I'm sure that was not Harbaugh's intention. As you know from his Michigan days, Harbaugh is obviously an aggressive guy with an aggressive personality who makes no apologies or excuses. But he also has to be responsible for his actions. He took his aggression a little too far during that handshake exchange last season at Ford Field. Just the same, Harbaugh's aggression that day was far from over the top and it probably would have been overlooked by most coaches. But it wasn't by Schwartz – whose personality type is in the same ballpark as Harbaugh's – and thus a little slap on the back that could have been nothing mushroomed into a controversy that gained national attention.

Nate Caminata: San Francisco has one of the few defenses in the league that can contend with Detroit's offense, and it appears led by a very versatile and talented linebacking corps. For those uninitiated, what makes the 49er defense so special, and how did success seem to happen relatively quickly? How do you expect the 49ers' defense to match up with Detroit's personnel?

Craig Massei: The San Francisco defense is even better than advertised, which is really saying something. For someone that has seen the 49ers build this defense over the years and gets to see it work on a daily basis, I can tell you that this is one of the best defenses I have ever seen in 24 years covering the team. It is a unit that has virtually no weaknesses. It could be the best defense in the NFL today, and if the Niners can keep this unit together for a while – all 11 starters returned from last season, and several of them are locked up under contract for years to come – it could put together a three- or four-year run that would mark it as one of the best defenses of this NFL era. That may be hype that's getting a little bit ahead of the present reality, but this really is a talented, aggressive, well-coached unit whose parts work together so well that it sometimes looks like a synchronized machine. The front wall of this 3-4 system is without peer in today's NFL, and the linebacker corps of All-Pros Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in the middle flanked by Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith on the edges is exceptional in every sense of the word. All-Pro Justin Smith anchors the front three, where unheralded Ray McDonald also has developed into a star-caliber performer. I suppose you could consider the secondary the weak link of this unit, but it sure doesn't look weak with free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers coming off Pro Bowl seasons. Strong safety Donte Whitner and right cornerback Tarell Brown aren't exactly slackers, either – both also are coming off strong seasons. Like they did against the Packers, the 49ers likely will go with a lot of nickel and dime packages against the Lions that will include extra defensive backs who will flood the coverage lanes. The Niners get good heat rushing just four defenders, and they'll attempt to flummox Matthew Stafford with different looks and extra DBs like they did to stop Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.

Nate Caminata:Harbaugh was certainly an NFL success story in 2011, but there's usually a method to the madness. San Francisco leaped to a 13-3 record and NFC Championship berth after sitting in the doldrums of the NFC West since Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens were Pro Bowlers for the club. What sparked the team's meteoric rise? Do they have the depth and capacity to continue their winning ways?

Craig Massei: The 49ers have been stockpiling some real talent throughout their roster for several years, but there always seemed to be something holding the team back – poor coaching, poor preparation, poor execution, poor play by certain key individuals, poor… a lot of things. The Niners had the stain of a bad team/organization, and it just wouldn't come off. That all changed when the team brought in Harbaugh and a new coaching staff that is just right to lead and direct this franchise – and probably any NFL franchise judging by the impact they've had so far in so short a time. Not to overstate, but Harbaugh before he's finished could become one of the great coaches of this NFL era. He has turned around programs and won big at each of his stops up the coaching ladder. There is something both special and unique about him. With a roster that's loaded and a sound structure in place, it's difficult to see the 49ers taking a real step back any time soon, unless the unforeseen – injuries, etc. – happens.

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