Behind Enemy Lines: Part I

Silver & Black Report teamed up with Niners Digest to discuss this week's Battle of the Bay between the San Francisco 49er's and Oakland Raiders. Here's what Niners Digest's publisher, Chris Biderman, had to say.

CM: The obvious question that seems to be on all of Raider Nation and the 49er Faithful minds: Do you think Jim Harbaugh will be the head coach of the 49er's next year? And if not, do you think a trade to the Raiders is any possibility?

CB: Before the last week, I was more bullish than most on Harbaugh coming back in 2015. But between CEO Jed York tweeting an apology before the Thanksgiving loss was over and Harbaugh refusing to address any questions about his relationship with York, the writing seems to be on the wall. At this point, the only thing likely keeping Harbaugh with San Francisco is a Super Bowl championship. That appears unlikely, given the 49ers are currently long shots to make the playoffs at 7-5. But if they win out, and the offense (Harbaugh’s side of the ball) plays well over the remaining four games - including in a win in Seattle - Harbaugh could do enough to save his job.

The elephant in the room is there’s no way the 49ers could possibly upgrade their coaching situation, if, in fact, the expectation is to compete for a Super Bowl each season. There are a number of variables at play if and when San Francisco is in the market for a head coach. First and foremost, do they hire internally, or risk losing key members of one of the league’s best coaching staffs to Harbaugh when he leaves. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has done outstanding work this season guiding the league’s fourth-ranked defense despite notable absences. Fangio, to me, seems like the best candidate for the job. And by giving it to him, they could keep key coaches like secondary coach Ed Donatell around, along with dependable defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.

As far as a trade to the Raiders, I have a hard time seeing York willing to trade Harbaugh within the Bay Area, giving Harbaugh a chance to upstage his 49ers. There’s also the possibility of the Raiders playing in Levi’s Stadium, which would make things even more awkward for San Francisco. Sad to say, if the Raiders were to move to Los Angeles, Harbaugh going there appears more likely.

CM: How much of a distraction has the whole Harbuagh situation been to the team?

CB: It’s hard to say. Most of the players appear unfazed by the situation. But human nature would suggest it’s having an impact. Particularly the offensive players who have been struggling. With Harbaugh’s future up in the air, what’s the offense going to look like next year? If Harbaugh stays, does coordinator Greg Roman stay?

But for the most part, the player are down playing the whole thing.

CM: With both Navarro Bowman and now Patrick Willis out, rookie linebacker Chris Boreland has really excelled in his position in the defense and is leading the team with 80 tackles. What can this be attributed to?

CB: Before the scouting combine, some talent evaluators had first-round grades on Borland coming out of Wisconsin, where he finished with the second most forced fumbles in FBS history. But after measuring out with the shortest arms at the position, along with a sub-par 4.8 40-yard dash, he fell to San Francisco in the third round. It’s a good thing he did, because otherwise the 49ers would be in really bad shape at inside linebacker without Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Having a strong supporting cast around him certainly helps, particularly at defensive line. Justin Smith is playing at the highest level since his All-Pro season in 2011, thanks to finally being healthy. He dealt with a triceps tear in 2012 and a shoulder injury last season. And Ray McDonald, after being acquitted of domestic violence charges, is also playing some of the best ball of his career. Borland told us today he’s been able to make so many tackles (70 in November) because he’s gone largely unblocked because of his teammates in front of him.

CM: The Niners have a very strong pass defense that is led by a strong secondary and good pass rush. How has the Niners pass defense been able to avoid any slump despite losing Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown to the Raiders? Where is the weakest part to attack for Derek Carr?

CB: The 49ers wanted to get younger at the position and felt Rogers and Brown’s best days were behind them. They might be right on that front. The position has been upgraded this year with Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox playing on the right and left side. Culliver, a former third-round pick 2011, looks to be realizing his potential after missing all of last season with an ACL tear suffered in training camp two summers ago. He’s long, fast and physical making him a good fit for the defense. And he’s in a contract year, which would certainly provided incentive to have a strong season.

Cox, also in a contract year, has been a revelation. His coverage numbers put him near the top in the league at the position after taking over for starter Tramaine Brock in Week 1 when he left with a toe injury. Cox has played so well it seems like Brock would have a hard time cracking the starting lineup. Rookie nickel corner Jimmie Ward was put on injured reserve last month with a foot injury, forcing fellow rookie Dontae Johnson to the slot. If there’s a weak point in the secondary, Johnson might be it. But it’s not because he’s played poorly. Johnson is simply inexperienced. He’s tall and lanky, which might make him susceptible to quicker players. But to this point, oppositions haven’t been able to take advantage.

CM: Have the cries about Greg Roman been legitimate or have the plays just not worked? Would the Niners be more successful if they went back to the ground-and-pound strategy that worked so well their first couple of years?

CB: The offensive struggles have been the making talking point this season, and rightfully so. The 49ers have gone through most of the year in an identity crisis for a few different reasons. First, the staple of the offense has been its reliance on tight ends. Vernon Davis has been dealing with ankle, knee and back injuries and hasn’t been himself in 2014 - after a team-high 13 touchdown grabs in 2013. He’s on pace for his worst season since his rookie year in 2006 with just 23 catches for 210 yards. His 9.1 yards per catch is the lowest of his career. The explosion that made him a potent downfield threat in recent seasons hasn’t been there.

The other notable development has been the inconsistency along the offensive line. Right tackle Anthony Davis has been in and out of the lineup while dealing with a multitude of injuries, including to his shoulder, hamstring, knee, ankle and, most recently, a concussion Nov. 16. He is still feeling symptomatic this week, leaving his status for Sunday in doubt. The 49ers are starting 20-year-old rookie Marcus Martin a center, a third-round pick out of USC. Martin has been solid, but is still learning the nuances of the position having played there just one season in college. He was slated to come into the year as the backup, but starter Daniel Kilgore broke his ankle in Nov. 19’s loss to the Broncos.

Those issues, along with a “simplified” offensive structure, according to Roman, have been the culprits for the team’s inconsistent offense. The running game is averaging 4.0 yards a carry, down from 4.4 and 5.1 the previous two season with Colin Kaepernick at the helm. It appears defenses are no longer kept on their toes by San Francisco’s versatile running game. Part of that is because the designed runs for Kaepernick haven’t been called. And when they have, they haven’t worked.

Without a strong running game, it’s put everything on Kaepernick’s shoulders. He’s struggled to become the drop-back passer the coaches were hoping he would evolve into and still needs a good running game be successful.

CM: It seems like QB Colin Kaepernick has failed to develop into a quarterback that can go through his progressions well. Is this a fair assessment? What do you think has been his biggest struggle this season?

CB: It’s been a strange year for Kaepernick. Without Davis, with Michael Crabtree struggling and running game losing its typical effectiveness, there have been too many obstacles for Kaepernick to overcome. He’s the most-sacked quarterback in football (38 times) after being sacked a total of 39 times in 2013. Part of it is the offensive line, but he also does poorly when pressured. He’s an easy quarterback to sack. Instead of being able to keep his eyes down field and make subtle over in the pocket to avoid defenders, his first instinct is to pull the ball down and run. Teams have been weary of that to and have prevented him from escaping the pocket and making freelance plays. The blueprint to beating the 49ers: shut down the running game and keep Kaepernick inside the pocket.

That being said, it doesn’t appear the offense being tailored to his strengths. The 49ers are rarely using the pistol, which was a staple in his first two seasons. They are also calling play-action plays far less than before, which is likely due to the running game being in decline. And when they do run play action, Kaepernick’s completing just 49 percent of his throws. It’s a vicious cycle.

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