Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I
Brad Wilbricht, publisher, AZRedReport.com: The start of the Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco has been a resounding success. How has Harbaugh and company been able to make such an immediate impact and do you see it carrying into the playoffs (not just the relatively weak NFC West division)?
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: One of Harbaugh's favorite mantras is "the team, the team, the team." And that perhaps has been the biggest product so far of what he's brought to the 49ers, instilling the team-first, all-for-one/one-for-all attitude and approach the Niners not only play with, but also believe in practically to a man. Like virtually all NFL teams, the Niners have a lot of divergent personalities and talents on their roster, and it's not often you can get 53 of those to all play as one. But that's the way it is now in San Francisco. It doesn't seem to matter to individual players about who is getting the ball, who is making the tackles, who is being featured on offense or defense. All the 49ers care about is winning and playing as a unified team. I could go on here about how Harbaugh and his terrific coordinators and staff of assistants have changed the culture and attitude in San Francisco, and all that would be true. Harbaugh identifies with and relates to his players, and the vice versa of that also is true since Harbaugh spent 15 years playing quarterback in the NFL and knows what his players are experiencing, going through, and at many times thinking. But the main thing is Harbaugh has this team playing as one – the offense, defense and special teams all as one – and realizing that's what it takes to win in the NFL, and that every player on the roster has a part in that and must take accountability for it. The 49ers have had winning talent on their roster for years – they start 12 first-round draft picks, including seven on offense – and have elite talent at a few positions. Some of that talent that never quite got there before is maturing under Harbaugh, and that's why I believe these 49ers are the real deal and have a real shot at making some noise in the playoffs. This is a team now, and a talented team at that.
Brad Wilbricht: With running back Frank Gore once again battling injuries, what are his chances of playing this week? Should Gore miss Sunday's game or be limited, how good is backup Kendall Hunter and are the 49ers comfortable with him as a lead back?
Craig Massei: Gore is battling ankle and knee injuries, and I am of the belief that he should just shut it down this week if he's not close to 90-100 percent healthy. But that's not likely to happen. Gore is a warrior, and he plays through pain and injuries. Just the same, the 49ers must monitor his health closely the rest of the regular season, because Gore has absorbed a lot of punishment in his seven seasons, and they can't allow him to break down like he did against the Cardinals in Week 12 last year, when Gore fractured his right hip and missed the rest of the season. Even if he does play Sunday – and at mid-week it's looking like he will – the 49ers will limit his exposure, because Hunter is a legitimate threat as Gore's backup and the 49ers also have Anthony Dixon to throw into the tailback mix. Hunter is small at 5-foot-7, but he is very explosive and brings a different dimension to the offense. The 49ers have confidence in him playing regularly and carrying the ball inside or outside. Hunter scored what proved to be the winning touchdown last week against the Giants on a 17-yard burst to the end zone, and he averaged 6.7 yards a carry in that game. Hunter had at least eight carries in five of San Francisco's previous six games, so he has become a regular part of the offense and would step in as the starter if Gore can't go. Hunter was a real find as a fourth-round draft pick this year, and even though Gore still ranks as the NFL's seventh-leading rusher today – even after finishing with zero yards rushing against the Giants – Hunter still has contributed 257 yards rushing at a 4.8-yard per carry clip this year. The 49ers would be perfectly comfortably going with Hunter as the starter, with the 240-pound Dixon stepping in as a big-back alternative.
Brad Wilbricht: Some have already identified Sunday's contest as a 'trap game' for San Francisco. What are the areas that concern you most about how the 49ers match up against Arizona?
Craig Massei: I actually think the Cardinals are a pretty decent football team, and so do the 49ers. The Niners won't be overlooking the Cards this week, that's for sure, particularly since this is their first division game since the season opener. Of course, Harbaugh won't allow his team to overlook anybody, because if you want to buy in to the one-week-at-time cliché that's so prevalent in the NFL, it certainly applies to the 49ers, who say each week they aren't and won't look ahead, and then go out and play like it. Arizona's record could be a lot better if it hadn't blown some fourth-quarter leads earlier in the season. It's such a fine line between winning and losing in the NFL, and the inconsistency at quarterback certainly has affected the Cardinals. But if the 49ers have a weakness, it is that they're vulnerable in their secondary against big-play receivers, and they really don't have anybody who can match up consistently with Larry Fitzgerald. It's been almost incredible how San Francisco's coaches have designed their game plans to play to the team's strengths while also masking its weaknesses, so they will come up with something to neutralize Fitzgerald. But if the Cards can give their QB time to throw, there will be some opportunities. And they will have to throw, because nobody runs on the 49ers. I suspect that after several plays of getting drilled for negligible gains, Beanie Wells will pack it up and become a nonfactor. So the Cards will have to pass to win. Arizona also must take some chances on defense and try to create turnovers, but nobody has been very successful doing that against the 49ers so far this season. They've committed just eight turnovers in nine games and lead the NFL in turnover differential.
Brad Wilbricht: Cardinals quarterback John Skelton stands in line to make his third consecutive start this week and is coming off a career-best 315 passing yards against Philadelphia. How does San Francisco's 26th-ranked pass defense plan on slowing down Skelton?
Craig Massei: By forcing him to pass and make plays through the air to beat them. Like against every other opponent this season, the 49ers will attempt to make the Arizona offense one-dimensional by shutting down the run and then getting in the head of the quarterback the rest of the way with steady pressure up front and mixed coverages on the back end. It has been a winning formula – made so because San Francisco can get consistent pressure by regularly rushing just four players – even though the 49ers are giving up yards through the air and, as mentioned previously, have some vulnerability in their secondary. A lot of those passing yards, however, have come against opponents who have fallen behind and then are forced to play catch-up. The 49ers will be looking to put Skelton and the Cardinals in the exact same predicament.
Brad Wilbricht: A win against the Cardinals, coupled with a loss by Seattle, almost locks up the division for the 49ers. If San Francisco goes on to clinch the division in the coming weeks, would it be an unquestioned positive or does it have the potential to limit the team's growth heading into the postseason?
Craig Massei: The division already is locked up. It was locked up weeks ago. That's the way most of us around the Niners have been looking at it since they reached midseason at 7-1 with a five-game lead in the division. But the key is, that's not the way the 49ers are looking at it. I suspect this team will continue to play and prepare each week like it has previously this season to get to this point. As incredulous as it may seem since San Francisco was basically a NFL non-entity entering this season, the 49ers have much bigger goals now than just winning the NFC West for the first time since 2002. This team has few weaknesses, and the biggest thing is it's still growing as a unit and has potential to continue to improve and get better. The 49ers will gear up for the playoffs and both prepare and plan accordingly during December, but I don't believe that's something that will slow down this team or thwart its development. This team is hungry. The 49ers see a lot out there for themselves, and this is a team I believe will remain focused and eager to go get it.
PART II: Check back on both NinersDigest.com and AZRedReport.com as the series continues with Brad answering five of Craig's questions about the Cardinals.
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