Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Patriots, Part II

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and PatriotsInsider's Jon Scott go Behind Enemy Lines to take an inside look at 49ers/Patriots. Are we still seeing ‘Wow' moments from Randy Moss? Why was the move made to Colin Kaepernick at QB? What's behind SF's rushing success? How will the 49ers stop Tom Brady, and is Brady up there with Joe Montana among the greatest QBs of all-time? These Q&As and more inside.

Jon Scott, publisher, When Randy Moss left New England, many believed his short stays in Tennessee and Minnesota signaled the end of his playing days, especially with him sitting out the 2011 season. How has he been in camp and do you still see those "Moss moments" that make you go ‘Wow'?

Craig Massei, publisher, Absolutely. I have followed Moss' Hall of Fame career closely over the years, and while he may not be the player he was in his prime, I think it's accurate to say he hasn't slipped much from that level even at age 35. Why the 49ers don't use this guy more in their offense has been a subject of debate for the past couple of months in 49erland. In fact, I was just talking about it today with some other writers, and the working theory is that the team is saving him for games that really matter at the end of the season – sort of like Sunday's game. Yes, Moss has had some jaw-dropping moments this season – his jitterbugging, zipping 47-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Arizona on Monday Night Football in October immediately comes to mind. Moss scored San Francisco's first touchdown of the season in the opener at Green Bay, when he had a season-high four receptions, and it appeared then that he would be a regular weapon in San Francisco's offensive arsenal. But then Moss had only five receptions in the 49ers' next four games and just 12 total in their next 10, being relegated to a cameo role in the offense even though he still appears to be a game-breaking, big-play weapon. Moss is seeing more action now that reserve wideout Kyle Williams is out for the season and starter Mario Manningham is missing time with a shoulder injury. But he still has just five receptions in the past two games with those two out. Nonetheless, Moss is third among San Francisco wideouts with 21 receptions this season and his 15.5-yard average per catch is the best on the team among wide receivers. And there's a good chance we'll be seeing more of him down the stretch and in the playoffs. So, does Moss still have it? That's an easy answer: Oh, yeah.

Jon Scott: Colin Kaepernick has assumed the role of lead QB in San Francisco. Was that move made because Alex Smith failed to win the trust of the coaching staff, or is Kaepernick that much better of a QB?

Craig Massei:Actually, Smith gained the complete trust of the coaching staff this season, and even though he hasn't played a snap in more than a month now, he's still the NFL's third-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 104.1 and continues to lead the league with a 70.0 completion percentage. Smith didn't deserve to have his starting job taken away, and the 49ers would probably be fine if he still was their starting quarterback. But they have potential to be better than just fine with Kaepernick behind center. The 49ers had pretty much reached their ceiling with Smith as the starting quarterback; their offense wasn't going to get a whole lot better because he lacks the ability to throw deep consistently. That's not a problem with Kaepernick, who has a big arm and great size and athleticism for the position, not to mention an ability to run with the football that is rare among NFL quarterbacks. So, even though Smith was having a Pro Bowl-level season before he suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, the 49ers decided to stick with Kaepernick once they saw he was ready to handle the demands of the position and make an impact while doing it, as he so vividly displayed in his first NFL start while picking apart a good Chicago defense. Kaepernick has loads of talent and potential, gives the 49ers a deep passing dimension they didn't have with Smith, and he's a big play waiting to happen at any time. With San Francisco so close to being a Super Bowl team, some are calling it a risk to stick with Kaepernick over a healthy Smith. I'm among the large group that feels the 49ers simply have a better offense with Kaepernick at QB and are playing the best quarterback who gives them the best chance to win. The 49ers have a chance to be much more explosive with Kaepernick at the controls, and the kid is only getting started. His best is yet to come. The 49ers already have seen Smith's best, and obviously they are looking for something just a little bit better.

Jon Scott: Every year we hear how Frank Gore is the cog in the wheel that makes the 49ers offense churn out yardage. Is it more about the individual effort of Gore that impacts the 49ers success running the ball, or is it more than that? Who else can run the rock if Gore struggles or gets hurt?

Craig Massei: Yeah, Gore's a stud all right. He's been San Francisco's best offensive player for, like, his entire career with the team. That's not an overstatement. The offense continues to revolve around the churning, charging rushing of the three-time Pro Bowler who last week produced his sixth 1,000-yard season. The all-time leading rusher in San Francisco history, Gore is still playing at an elite level and he runs with power and burst like he did in his prime. But he has some big, capable guys up front leading the way for him in San Francisco's power rushing attack. Most notable is left guard Mike Iupati, a mauler who often pulls to lead interference in front of Gore. Right tackle Anthony Davis also is a strong blocker, which can be said generally about San Francisco's entire offensive line along with starting tight end Vernon Davis and fullback Bruce Miller. Gore had a productive and effective complement in backup Kendall Hunter, who had rushed for 371 yards and averaged 5.2 yards a carry before he tore his Achilles and was lost for the season three weeks ago. Veteran Brandon Jacobs took over as Gore's backup the next week, but he was ineffective and has since been suspended for the remainder of the season due to conduct detrimental to the team. Rookie LaMichael James, the 49ers' second-round draft pick, made his NFL debut last week against Miami and brought a speedy change-of-pace dimension to the attack similar to Hunter while getting eight carries. We're likely to see more of James the rest of the way as he adjust to the pro game, with Anthony Dixon getting a few of the short-yardage carries that don't go to Gore.

Jon Scott: The 49ers defense is ranked second overall in yardage allowed (275.5) and first in points allowed (14.2) per game. They've been in just one game where an opponent passed for more than 300 yards (Aaron Rodgers Week 1) yet have faced two of the top five most prolific passing quarterbacks in the league (Brees, Stafford) with Brady (5) next. How will they prevent Brady from having a successful day, and is success defined more by yards or points for opponents?

Craig Massei: The 49ers actually were even more effective against Rodgers, Brees and Stafford than the numbers those quarterbacks put up against them would suggest. This is just a really solid defense that has impact players, few weaknesses and generally brings it against anybody, anywhere at any time. Brady and Co. present the ultimate challenge, but it isn't like this defense hasn't faced similar challenges before and still been successful. The Niners probably will attempt to pressure Brady more than they have other quarterbacks, and they're good at that, particularly with NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith coming off the edge to lead the charge. But they'll also be changing coverages constantly and playing a lot of man and bump coverage in the secondary. Like they do against every opponent, the 49ers will mix it up with their great defense and will try to beat the Patriots by throwing a lot of different looks at them and letting their talented defenders – which includes three first-team All-Pros and two others who made the Pro Bowl last season – play their games and do their jobs.

Jon Scott: The question of best QBs in NFL history continues to swirl around the current QB group of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or the guys who came before them (Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Jim Kelly). With Brady already admitting that Montana was his idol growing up, do you think that Brady's list of accomplishments has afforded him the courtesy of being on equal footing as Montana and company? Where should he rank in NFL history (top 5, top 10)?

Craig Massei: With Brady being raised a few miles from where the 49ers play their home games, there has been a lot of talk about him out here this week along with comparisons to Montana, etc. There is no question Brady will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Without question, if he were never to play another snap, he would rank in the top 10. But since he figures to still have a few snaps left in him – or more than a few – I believe that by the time Brady is done he will have climbed into the top 5, maybe higher, and will at least land somewhere in that 5 to 10 range. Will he be considered at the very top along with Montana? I don't think Brady's quite there yet. But that's not to say he can't or won't get there. I remember thinking when Brett Favre was in his prime – watching him play in person several times per season over a long stretch in the 1990s – that Favre had a real chance to go down as the greatest quarterback ever. Despite his prolific numbers, Favre never made it to the top, and while Favre is top 10, it's arguable he's not even quite top 5. I don't think we'll be arguing about that with Brady when he's done, and he has a legitimate shot to go down as the greatest ever if he can build a bit more on the impressive and formidable things he already has accomplished.

Craig Massei's prediction:Beat the Patriots at home in December? Yeah, right. I don't take New England's greatness at this time of season lightly, and the Patriots have been rolling down the stretch again this year like a juggernaut. But I like the 49ers chances in this game, because they can match up with the Patriots on both sides of the ball, and let's face it – they're more battle-tested. The 49ers have played a tougher schedule on a weekly basis, and it's given them thick skin. They're actually a better team than their first-place (but three-loss) record would suggest, and they've handily beaten both of the NFC teams New England already has lost to this season, Arizona and Seattle. The 49ers will do things to the Pats that Seattle did to them defensively, and that will cause Tom Brady and Co. some problems. And, while it has appeared the 49ers have been holding back on offense most of the season, I don't think that will be the case Sunday in a game they need to win. If the Niners let it hang out on offense with Kaepernick in his fifth NFL start, they can win a shootout with the Pats.

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