Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive three-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and AZRedReport.com's Amberly Richardson begin their back-and-forth interaction with 10 questions from Amberly to Craig. How is the transition going for Mike Singletary? What's up with WR Bryant Johnson and the change to QB Shaun Hill? How important is Monday night's game for the 49ers? These Q&As and more inside.

Amberly Richardson, Publisher, AZRedReport.com: The 49ers are arriving in the desert rested, but are they ready to go? What was their main priority during the bye to prepare for the Cardinals and the rest of their season?

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, SFIllustrated.com: After the first half of season that the 49ers had, this team had literally dozens of things that needed to be addressed during the bye week, but I think the main priority for this team was just settling in under new interim head coach Mike Singletary and getting accustomed to his approach and expectations now that he is running the operation rather than being one of Mike Nolan's subordinates. Is this team ready to go? Who knows? The week off definitely came at a good time for the 49ers, and the symmetry of their bye week – which came exactly at the midpoint of the season – gives the team basically a chance to start over with a new eight-game season after it's horrible 2-6 first half. I have a sense that the 49ers will be up for Monday's game and you will see the first real effects of Singletary as coach, and that may turn out to be a real good thing for San Francisco. Then again, this team had problems deep to its core during the first half, and it certainly wouldn't be shocking to see them resurface to start the second half. But this team should look better than it did in its last game two weeks ago – a disgusting 34-13 loss at home to Seattle in Singletary's debut that was as bad as this team has looked this year.


Amberly Richardson: How important is this game to San Francisco? Will the spotlight of Monday Night Football make the 49ers play better or will the away game and divisional matchup pressure be too much for Mike Singletary's team?

Craig Massei: This is the most important game the 49ers will play the remainder of the season. No. 1, they've had time to adjust to the transition from Nolan to Singletary – and the transition from J.T. O'Sullivan to new starter Shaun Hill at quarterback – and they have settled in behind those two new key figures in key places. No. 2, they are playing before a national audience and truly would like to show the football world that they are more than what they've been so far during a very disappointing season. No. 3, this is a chance to at least stay within shouting distance of Arizona in the NFC West and move up on the other teams in the division to get a firm grip on second place. If the 49ers lose this game, they'll be 2-7 with a six-game losing streak and will spend the remainder of the season playing out the string. If they can pull off the upset, their season suddenly becomes relevant again, even with the uphill climb they'll still face.


Amberly Richardson: When the Cardinals and 49ers met in Week 1, Mike Nolan was holding the clipboard. How has the transition been for Singletary? Is he the long-term answer?

Craig Massei: It was a rather easy transition for the players, because Singletary has been here throughout the Nolan era – he had been Nolan's assistant head coach since Nolan arrived in 2005 – and he has addressed the team almost on a weekly basis since joining the 49ers, so they are accustomed to his intense approach and what he has to say. For Singletary, obviously, the transition is on the fly and learn as he goes. His actions and comments during and after his debut drew national attention, and he definitely learned from that. He has a big vision and truly believes he can turn around the 49ers, but it's a tall task. And he has a very limited time frame in which to show he can do it if he expects to return next season and beyond. That's not to say Singletary has to show he can turn around the 49ers immediately this season, but definite progress has to be shown for him to even be considered as head coach for next season. Is he the long-term answer? He might be. But nobody knows for sure right now. Only time will tell, and that time will be coming by the week for the next two months.


Amberly Richardson: Bryant Johnson seemed to fit right in with the 49ers in the early weeks, but his numbers have tapered off. What's the deal with Johnson?

Craig Massei: I wouldn't call Johnson a disappointment quite yet, but he seems to be steering in that direction after losing his starting position recently to rookie Josh Morgan, a sixth-round draft pick. Johnson had nine receptions in San Francisco's first two games and looked like he would be an integral part of the team's offense and passing attack the rest of the season, but that has not transpired. Johnson had only one reception over the next two games and has had two more games without a catch since then. He has battled nagging injuries, but simply has not been a very effective player when on the field. He has had problems getting open and has not made himself much of a factor in the team's attack for more than a month running now. With Arnaz Battle – San Francisco's leader in receptions among wideouts this season – out with an injury this week, Johnson should get a chance to get involved in the offense again and maybe even make a play at getting his starting position back. But if he doesn't produce, it may be his last chance.


Amberly Richardson: Shaun Hill was promoted to starting quarterback after San Francisco dropped a 34-13 contest to the Seattle Seahawks before its bye. Was that the right choice? Will we see any more of J.T. O' Sullivan or was his benching permanent?

Craig Massei: After a great start – he was the NFL's No. 4-rated quarterback near the end of September – O'Sullivan became a turnover machine. He had 17 turnovers in San Francisco's first eight games – more than any other NFL team to that point. I suppose the 49ers could have continued on with him to see if it would stop – if it was up to offensive coordinator Mike Martz, I'm sure that's what they'd be doing – but O'Sullivan's turnovers were killing the team and a change had to be made. Hill looked very good while going 2-0 as a starter late last season, and now that he has had more time to absorb Martz's system – something he struggled with during training camp over the summer – I believe he's a viable alternative to have step in and see if he can provide a spark and give the team something it has been missing. Hill manages the game well and protects the ball, and that's something Singletary is looking for. O'Sullivan is a better threat to get the ball down the field, but opponents seemed to figure him out very quickly and exposed his weaknesses. If the 49ers don't get any better with Hill at quarterback, you'll probably see O'Sullivan behind center again at some point this season. But if the team does improve with Hill at the helm, expect O'Sullivan to remain glued to the bench.


Amberly Richardson: Speaking of Seattle, in that game Vernon Davis was slapped with an unnecessary roughness call that sent him into the locker room early. Did Davis receive the message from his new coach that those types of penalties won't be tolerated? Or will we hear about more pants dropping from the head coach?

Craig Massei: It was what Davis did after the penalty – his nonchalant attitude with Singletary after coming over to the sidelines when the play was over – that got him sent to the locker room. It wasn't the penalty that got Davis dogged, it was how he reacted afterward when confronted by the coach. I think everybody got the message after Singletary pretty much singled out Davis and threw him under the bus. Davis actually is a pretty good guy – a young player with a big ego who's still learning – and I don't expect this whole episode to have any kind of lasting effect on him. He still respects Singletary – and vice versa – and he's not the kind of guy that really gets embarrassed by this sort of thing or anything like that. As far as Singletary dropping trow in the locker room … Well, I don't think you'll be hearing about that happening again. Singletary is learning on the job, too.


Amberly Richardson: Frank Gore is racking up the yards; he is just 60 yards away from 1,000 total yards from scrimmage. How reliant are the 49ers on Gore? Is getting the ball to Gore their best option?

Craig Massei: Are you kidding? Sometimes, getting the ball to Gore seems like their ONLY option. He's clearly San Francisco's best player, and if the team were doing better, you'd probably hear him talked about more with the elite backs in the league. Gore makes the offense go. If he's not going, then neither is San Francisco's offense. Not only does he lead the 49ers in rushing, but he also leads the team with 32 receptions and is well on his way to leading San Francisco in both rushing and receptions for the third consecutive season. The 49ers rely on Gore to set the tone offensively with his relentless running style, but they also count on him to make plays as a dump-off option in the passing game. Getting the ball to Gore on a regular basis clearly is this team's best option, particularly since he seems to hold up well to the pounding he takes. The 49ers can't get the ball to him enough.


Amberly Richardson: Which offensive player should San Francisco try to get more involved?

Craig Massei: Funny you should ask, because it's something I've been talking about for more than a month. The 49ers need to get the ball more to Davis, who is supremely talented and makes things happen with the ball in his hands, particularly when he's in the open field. The problem is, the 49ers simply aren't dialing up enough opportunities for Davis to get the ball in the open field. Yeah, he still drops passes on occasion, but he can get open – both deep and in the intermediate zones – and the 49ers need to feature him more as a receiver. Davis is a very good blocker that the Niners often keep in on passing downs to help with the team's suspect protection, but it seems like that is not making the best use of his talent.


Amberly Richardson: With Kurt Warner at the realms and sure-fire targets down the stretch, the Cardinals are putting up big passing numbers. How equipped is San Francisco's secondary to deal with the likes of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald? Who will be put on those two? We also can't forget about Steve Breaston, is there enough coverage for Arizona?

Craig Massei: Well, we must remember that the San Francisco secondary actually was built to stop the likes of Fitzgerald and Boldin. That's why the Niners spent $80 million on a cornerback named Nate Clements a couple of seasons ago. It will be the same duo of cornerbacks Clements and Walt Harris – both Pro Bowlers within the past four seasons – that will be sticking to Boldin and Fitzgerald on a regular basis. The 49ers like to use a lot of defensive sub-packages using extra defensive backs – sometimes six defensive backs – so the Cardinals are sure to see several of those kind of alignments. One thing that will be different from the opener is the 49ers no longer have No. 3 cornerback Shawntae Spencer as their nickel back. Spencer is out for the season with a knee injury, and Donald Strickland and Tarell Brown are picking up the slack in his place. Is there enough coverage for Arizona's high-flying passing game? That remains to be seen. The secondary, as a whole, has not been playing very well against the pass this year and has been burned by lesser attacks than the Cards offer.


Amberly Richardson: The 49ers defense is 12th in the league in tackles (with 564), while the Cardinals are a lowly 29th position (with 478). Who is doing most of San Francisco's wrapping up and why have those players been so effective?

Craig Massei: San Francisco's tackle totals are partly a result of the team's defense being on the field so dang long every Sunday afternoon. The San Francisco defense ranks 21st in the league in third-down efficiency, which mean its not helping itself get off the field much, either. That allows a lot more opportunities to make tackles when an opponent consistently has a fresh set of downs to be working with. That said, the 49ers do have a couple of tackle machines, and they stand right next to each other in the middle of the team's defense. Middle linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes both are having solid seasons, and they rank 1-2 on the team in tackles at midseason. That's not surprising with Willis, who led the NFL in tackles last season and was a first-team All-Pro and the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in his debut season. But Spikes – who didn't enter the starting lineup until Week 4 after joining the team in August – has been something of a pleasant surprise in the way the veteran has stepped in and stepped up his performance at age 31 in his 11th NFL season. Those players have been effective because San Francisco's defensive system steers ball carriers toward them, but also because they are playmakers who have been making things happen on their own.

PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and AZRedReport.com as Amberly and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with Amberly answering 10 questions from Craig.



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