Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Dolphins, Part I

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and DolphinDigest's Alain Poupart go Behind Enemy Lines to preview Sunday's game between the 49ers and Dolphins. Are the 49ers a better team with Colin Kaepernick at QB? Why has Vernon Davis been so quiet? What's the best way to attack the SF defense, and what makes Aldon Smith so good? Why hasn't former Dolphin Ted Ginn contributed more? These Q&As and more inside.

Alain Poupart, Associate Editor, What's your take on the whole Smith/Kaepernick issue; do you think the 49ers are a better team with Kaepernick?

Craig Massei, publisher, I don't think there's any question the 49ers are a better team, and particularly a better and more explosive offense, with Kaepernick at the controls. Last year, before Jim Harbaugh's first season as 49ers coach began, I expected Kaepernick to be the team's starter by midseason in what I thought would be a rebuilding year. But Smith resurrected his career under Harbaugh's tutelage and the 49ers finally turned it around after eight non-winning seasons and reached their potential as a team. Smith was a big part of that and finished ninth in the NFL in passer rating. He was playing even better this season, particularly when he went down with his concussion last month, when he was playing some of the best football of his career. Smith was third in the NFL with a 104.1 passer rating and led the league with a 70.0 completion percentage when he was hurt Nov. 11 against St. Louis. He hasn't played a down since, because his injury opened the door for Kaepernick, who is more athletic and physically talented than Smith – or most other quarterbacks, for that matter. It's somewhat cruel to say, because Smith really had been playing well, and he has been dumped on so many times before since the 49ers made him the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft. But the fact is, the 49ers had reached their ceiling with him as their starter. That's not to say they couldn't reach the Super Bowl with him at QB, but Kaepernick gives them a better chance to get there – and to win once there. He lacks Smith's experience, to be sure, but as he has shown since taking over behind center, Kaepernick is a big play waiting to happen on almost any down, and his rocket arm brings a deep-passing dimension to the offense that Smith just can't provide. The latter element is what hurts the 49ers the most with Smith at QB; he is not good at bringing the team from behind when the 49ers find themselves trailing or in close battles. Despite his success and solid numbers under Harbaugh, Smith is more a product of a great offensive system and the talent around him, not to mention a defense and special teams units that keep the 49ers in every game they play. The bottom line is the difference between the two quarterbacks: Kaepernick already is a quarterback to be feared by opposing defensive coordinators; with Smith, opponents know what is coming and what they need to do to stop him.

Alain Poupart: Why has Vernon Davis been more quiet this season than he was last year; is it all quarterback-related or is he drawing more attention from defenses?

Craig Massei: It's difficult to understand why the 49ers aren't designing more plays to go to Davis, who truly is a unique and lethal weapon in their passing arsenal. The guy is a special talent, too big for safeties to cover and too fast for linebackers. He's also athletic and can be spectacular with the ball in his hands. The biggest reason, as you mentioned, is that teams are giving him constant attention, covering him sometimes with cornerbacks and usually with a safety over the top on passing downs. The 49ers know opponents have to concern themselves with Davis and they attempt to exploit that by using him to occupy defenders and give the offense open opportunities elsewhere. Still, it doesn't seem to make sense not to get what could be your best offensive weapon more involved in the attack on a regular basis. Davis was practically a nonfactor in last week's loss to the Rams with just two receptions for 15 yards. In San Francisco's past six games, he twice has gone an entire game without catching a pass. Davis is on pace for 49 receptions for 669 yards this season, which would be by far his lowest totals since his breakout Pro Bowl season of 2009. I keep thinking the 49ers are just saving Davis for when they really need him, but it seems that time has already come and passed, and he's still being underutilized in the attack.

Alain Poupart: What makes NFL sack leader Aldon Smith so good?

Craig Massei: The kid is really something else, a rare combination of size, speed and deceptive power. Smith has the speed and agility to get around the edge in a hurry, but he can also bull rush much bigger offensive tackles who are guarding the edge and not expecting a full-on frontal assault. Smith turned 23 earlier this season and already is maturing into a dominant pass rusher. He already has tied the team record for sacks with 17½, and he still has an entire quarter of the season to build on that number. Smith's secret weapon is the meat hooks attached to his shoulders – he has an incredibly long wingspan and huge hands at the end of his arms. This allows Smith to work tackles with his hands and keep them off his body. It also gives him a wider area of space to bring down opponents, as you will see him sometimes doing that with diving arm tackles. Another thing that helps Smith is the players around him, particularly All-Pro tackle Justin Smith, who lines up next to Aldon Smith on base downs. The Smiths work in unison on a lot of pass-rush stunts, and Justin Smith requires a lot of attention from opponents in his own right, freeing up Aldon Smith for one-on-one opportunities that he has the talent to win on a consistent basis.

Alain Poupart: What's the best way to attack the 49ers defense?

Craig Massei: Good question, because I don't know if there really is a best way. In a general sense, San Francisco's defense really is a unit with few weaknesses – the Niners rank No. 2 in the league in passing defense and No. 3 in rushing defense. And those numbers don't lie – the 49ers are tough in both areas. There is no one particular area or player to exploit, no glaring weakness. This can be a truly dominant defense, and has been several times during the past two seasons. But if you keep hammering away at it, eventually it will crack. San Francisco's defense was fantastic most of the way last week at St. Louis – truly a shutdown performance during which St. Louis scored a safety and a defensive touchdown before its offense could put any points on the board late in the fourth quarter. But that was enough to keep the Rams close in a game the 49ers dominated most of the way, and in overtime, St. Louis was able to get a few first downs against a tiring defense to assemble a 22-yard drive to a long game-winning field goal in the final seconds of overtime. And just like that, the 49ers and their great defense were beaten. That just goes to show that no defense is unbeatable if it doesn't get enough help from the other side of the ball, and it can't always make up for mistakes on the other side of the ball, either.

Alain Poupart: Finally, you know we have to ask about former Dolphins first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr. Has he frustrated 49ers fans yet for his tendency to head for the sidelines and why hasn't he contributed more on offense?

Craig Massei: Ted Ginn Jr. was a veritable weapon as a kick returner last year, when he ranked third in the NFL with a 27.6-yard average on kickoff returns and fourth in the league with a 12.3-yard average on punt returns. His production in the return game was a significant factor in San Francisco's overall success, and he didn't look like a guy that was scared to turn the ball upfield, either. That has not been the case this year, as Ginn has been hampered by some nagging injuries and hasn't had the same impact. And the 49ers hardly even use him anymore as a wide receiver, where Ginn had fallen to at least fifth on the depth chart this season before a season-ending injury two weeks ago to Kyle Williams. Ginn has two receptions for one yard this season, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about where his place is in San Francisco's passing game. He still has impact as a return specialist, but he has been in a slump lately in that area – Ginn's game averages on punt returns in the past three games are 4.8 yards, 6.5 yards and 3.0 yards – not exactly a game-breaker. Ginn never really has done much for the 49ers as a receiver – he has a total of 33 receptions in his three seasons with the team, and I'd say the biggest reason for that are his unreliable hands. The guy just can't catch the football on a consistent basis.

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