One of the great things about being a part of a network like Scout.com is that we have access to quality coverage of other teams across the NFL landscape. We decided to check in with Chris Biderman, Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest, so we can get the skinny on the upcoming opponent.
The 49ers are one of the few teams in the NFL that has resisted the move to the "spread them out" brand of offense; often times using two tight ends or an extra lineman or two. Has that changed with the return of Crabtree and the acquisition of Stevie Johnson?
It certainly looks that way. No team has run the ball more than the 49ers since Jim Harbaugh took over the offense in 2011, and it’s led to defenses adjusting according. Last year, San Francisco saw eight-man fronts more than any team in the league. The passing game finished 30th, in part because Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin were the only receiving threats until Michael Crabtree returned following an 11-game absence while recovering from an Achilles tear. Davis (13) and Boldin (7) accounted for all the team’s TD catches. The additions of Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and rookie fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington would indicate the 49ers are going to be more multiple in their personnel sets in 2014. When Crabtree came back, Kaepernick’s passing numbers jumped from 173 passing yards per game to 203. Crabtree is entering a contract year, and, predictably, is in the best shape of his career, down 20 pounds from last season when the injury hampered his conditioning. With Kaepernick entering his third season as starter, expect San Francisco to open things this year to compliment a strong running game.
How much of a dropoff can we expect, going from Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and possibly Ray McDonald to their backups? Are the 49ers sticking with vets or will the young kids from the past two days have the chance to step up?
There’s no doubt the 49ers defense won’t be as good without Bowman and Smith, arguably their two best defensive players. With those guys in the lineup, San Francisco has been in the top three in scoring defense in each of the last three seasons. That being said, the 49ers feel pretty good about the players they have stepping into those roles. Look for veteran Dan Skuta to replace Smith at right outside linebacker in base situations with second-year player Corey Lemonier playing in nickel sets. The 49ers selected Lemonier out of Auburn in the third round last season and believe the former defensive end has enough talent to start in the league. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is also the outside linebackers coach and has worked extensively with both Lemonier and Skuta in the offseason knowing a suspension for Smith was likely. At inside linebacker, it’s going to be Michael Wilhoite replacing NaVorro Bowman. Wilhoite stepped in and played for Patrick Willis for two games last season. It’s clear Wilhoite won’t play at the elite level of Bowman, who was a candidate for defensive player of the year in 2013, but he looks like he could turn into an above-average starter in the league. Third-round pick Chris Borland out of Wisconsin could also get some playing time, particularly in short-yardage situations. Will the 49ers defense be “elite” as it has been with Bowman and Smith out? It’s unlikely. But the coaching staff and talent is in place to remain one of the better units in the NFC.
What kind of progression has been seen as Colin Kaepernick enters his fourth year in the league? What are some areas where he could be exploited or contained?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman remade the offense this spring and looked to simplify things, particularly before the snap. The 49ers often called two plays in the huddle and would check to whatever the defense dictated. That process could be gone this year, forcing Kaepernick to make more reads after the snap. Kaepernick received criticism last year for his inability to get deep into reads, which has been his primary focus this offseason. With an expanding passing game and more weapons, that’s where he’ll need to improve the most. When it comes to defending Kaepernick, the best way to do it is stopping the running game and forcing the 49ers into long-yardage situations. If the Cowboys can prevent San Francisco from getting good yardage on the ground in early downs and force Kaepernick to beat them from the pocket, he could struggle. And it’s also imperative to contain Kaepernick inside the pocket and not let him break containment. It will be interesting to see if Dallas’ defensive linemen can stay in their lines while running Rod Marinelli’s scheme that relies heavily on stunts. If they can effectively stunt and maintain gap integrity, it could prevent Kaepernick from breaking out of the pocket and making plays on the move.
Many thanks to Chris Biderman for taking the time to bring us up to speed on the 49ers. For more San Francisco coverage, check out Niners Digest.For more Q&A goodness, check out Blogging The Boys and Niners Nation talk shop.