John Crist: There are some people that believe Alex Smith still has a chance to salvage his career after going through some rough patches as a young player, both on and off the field. Why did Shaun Hill win the job before the season? And now that Smith is back in there, what has changed?
Craig Massei: Hill won the job during summer training camp for the simplest of reasons: he was the better quarterback. The battle between the two QBs for the starting role was no contest as Hill picked up where he left off last season, when he led the 49ers to a 5-2 finish, and Smith looked like the same inconsistent QB that he was earlier in his career. Hill clearly was the better of the two during summer practice and the preseason, but Smith started showing a lot of growth in the system as the weeks passed and the season began. The 49ers turned to Smith when it became obvious opposing defenses were catching up to Hill and realizing his limitations.
What has changed with Smith back there? Well, the 49ers have a real quarterback who can stretch the field now. Smith brings a lot more play-making ability and the ability to get the ball down the field to receiving targets. He also has much better vision in the pocket and has come a long way since the last time he was running the huddle. Smith had a four-turnover game last week against Tennessee that cost the 49ers a possible victory, which brought back memories of his struggles as a NFL youngster. But those turnovers aside, he has played very well since taking over behind center and appears to be a much better quarterback who – dare we say – could be the team's long-term answer at the position.
JC: Frank Gore has to be licking his chops after watching Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells run all over the Bears in Week 8. It's amazing Gore is still as good as he is after all the injuries he's suffered over the years. What specific part of his game impresses you the most?
CM: I'm a huge admirer of Gore and what he can do on the football field. It's my firm belief that Gore would be considered an elite back in this league if he played for a better team and had more opportunities in the spotlight. I'm always wondering how much longer he can last, given his injury history, but it's fair to say he is in his prime and at the zenith of his career at this very moment. Gore has never looked better.
He really is the complete package: a guy who can move the pile with his power between the tackles, has the speed to break big plays and the shiftiness in the open field to make defenders miss. He also is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield who has led the team in receptions twice already in his five-year career. And to top it off, he's also a pleasant, humble individual who has a great attitude and wants to win badly. But to answer your question specifically, I guess I'd have to say his toughness and durability. He takes a lot of pounding but keeps coming back for more and seems to be stronger in the fourth quarter than in the first.
JC: After watching the Michael Crabtree situation from afar, I'm shocked that he was inserted into the starting lineup right away after finally signing a contract. Perhaps even more shocking, he has enjoyed immediate success. Is he that good, or are the other San Francisco receivers that bad?
CM: LOL, John. Actually, San Francisco's situation at wide receiver was the best it has been in the past half-decade before the 49ers even drafted Crabtree. They signed free agent Brandon Jones in the offseason and had returning starters Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan, along with some rising young talent, back from last season. Crabtree's long contract impasse was alienating a lot of people out here and I was beginning to wonder if he would ever play for the 49ers, more less make any kind of contribution this season. But that said, once Crabtree finally got on the practice field with the team, he showed that he's the real deal. The coaching staff was so impressed with Crabtree that he seemed to move up daily in the team's plan to the point that he was a starter in his NFL debut. Coach Mike Singletary's explanation for that was that he's going to put the best players on the field to give San Francisco a chance to win, and that he had to be fair to the entire team and give the 49ers their best chance to win by playing Crabtree.
The kid looks like he's really going to be something, and he might already be San Francisco's best wideout. I don't necessarily think that says San Francisco's other receivers are that bad – just maybe not as good as the 49ers and some others thought they might be. But Crabtree? That guy is good. Already.
JC: Singletary has to love having Patrick Willis in the middle of his defense at the linebacker position. Most everyone in Chicago knows Willis is one of the best in the business, but they don't know why because they don't see him much. Does he remind you of anyone?
CM: That's the thing that makes Willis so special in my eyes: there is nobody like him. His speed and acceleration to the ball makes him unique and unlike any middle linebacker I have ever seen. He literally runs right through blockers to make plays. It's an amazing thing. He's a true force for 60 minutes, and he does so much to make the players around him better. And he can pack quite a wallop when he delivers a blow.
I think one of the things that will stand out most while watching an entire game with Willis in it is his sideline-to-sideline speed and his ability to break down in the open field and make sure tackles. He rarely misses any tackle that he is within range of making. There are a lot of comparisons made between Willis and Ray Lewis, but Willis – while he doesn't play with the sheer violence of Lewis – is a much more naturally fundamental player.
JC: The 49ers don't have a lot of name recognition in their secondary right now. As bad as the Bears have been in recent weeks, their passing game has actually been effective. What can we expect to see from a game-planning perspective to keep Jay Cutler and Co. in check?
CM: You'll probably see a lot of nickel back Dre' Bly, who I imagine will be in the game on most passing downs. The Niners did a good job of making life uncomfortable for Peyton Manning and Co. two weeks ago during their near-miss 18-14 loss at Indianapolis, and I imagine you will see a lot of the same looks this week.
The 49ers will attempt to pressure Cutler and force him into mistakes, so expect to see a lot of stunts and blitzes from several different angles. The Bears will see some man coverage also, so they definitely will have opportunties to exploit a San Francisco secondary that can make plays but has only been so-so through the first half of the season.
To read Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions from Craig, Click Here.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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