This Week, we exchanged questions and answers with Chris Biderman, Editor-in-Chief of NinersDigest.com, the Scout.com affiliate for the San Francisco 49ers.
Here are my questions and his answers:
1. Chris Borland is getting a lot of positive attention for his play. What can Seahawks fans expect out of him this week, as well as other first or second-year 49ers relatively new to the rivalry?
Borland has been a tackling machine taking over Pat Willis "mike" linebacker position after Willis elected to forgo the rest of the season to have surgery on his big left toe. Borland has led San Francisco in both tackles and tackles for loss over the last four weeks and quickly inserted himself on the short list for defensive rookie of the year. Having a good supporting cast has certainly helped. Borland has benefitted greatly from San Francisco's sturdy defensive line anchored by Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, who are both having outstanding seasons. And having two high-caliber safeties in Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea behind him has also given him a little more free reign. Expect Borland, who is an explosive tackler, to have plenty of collisions with Marshawn Lynch in the trenches Thursday.
As far as other young defenders to keep an eye on, outside linebacker Aaron Lynch has become a key piece of the defense after being taken in the fifth round in May. Lynch was viewed as a first-round talent when he was a freshman at Notre Dame, with some believing he would be the second-best defensive lineman in the draft after Jadeveon Clowney. But off the field issues forced a transfer to South Florida, where he struggled with his weight due to a bout with Adderall and saw his production decrease significantly. That led to a huge fall in his draft stock, but he seems to have resurrected himself as a pro. He's tall and long, leading to obvious comparisons to Aldon Smith.
With Lynch in the fold, the 49ers have their best pass rushing trio in years with Smith and Ahmad Brooks rotating. It's no coincidence that since Smith returned from his nine-game suspension two weeks ago, San Francisco's defense had its best two pass rushing games of the Season against New York and Washington. Considering Russell Wilson is the most oft-pressured QB in the NFL, the 49ers pass rush figures to be a big key in Thursday's game.
2. Is San Francisco's 4th quarter scoring issues real or have they been exaggerated by the national media? Who is most to blame, if anyone?
They are real. For reasons that can't really be explained, Colin Kaepernick simply has not been good in the fourth quarter this season, which shouldn't really be a surprise to Seahawks fans given January's conference title game. He has not thrown a TD pass in the final quarter this season while his first scoring drive came last week against Washington, which culminated in Carlos Hyde's four-yard touchdown run that was the decisive score.
The offense's fourth-quarter struggles are an oddity, to be sure. And they aren't just limited to Kaepernick. Going back through each game, you can find situations where a number of players make little mistakes that have drastic impacts on the outcome. It's been the theme of the 49ers offense this season. While the talent appears to be there, it's been the little things; blocking assignments, route timing, that have led to struggles in the fourth quarter.
3. Describe the relative health of the 49ers at this point in the season. Are they breaking down, getting healthy at just the right time or somewhere in between?
The 49ers are relatively healthy, outside of missing their two All-Pro inside linebackers in NaVorro Bowman and Willis. They lost their starting center Daniel Kilgore for the season with a broken ankle in October, but other than that they are pretty healthy on offense. Kilgore's loss forced rookie third-round Marcus Martin into the starting lineup. Martin was viewed by many as the best center available in the draft. While he has upside, he's very green at the position. He's just 20-years-old, and only started at center for one season at USC. It's been a mixed bag for Martin in the early going, but he's shown signs of steady improvement each week. Seattle will certainly be his toughest test to date.
Otherwise, right tackle Anthony Davis' status is up in the air this week after sustaining a concussion late in the win over the Giants two weeks ago, which means Jonathan Martin could get his seventh start of the season. After making every start since getting drafted in the first round of 2010, Davis has been in and out of the lineup due to a few freak injuries this season.
Also, last season's starting cornerback Tramaine Brock is questionable this week with a hamstring injury. He injured his toe in Week 1 and was replaced by Perrish Cox, who has been revelatory to this point and doesn't appear likely to get supplanted by Brock once he's back healthy. Cox is tied for second among corners with four interceptions. Rookie nickel corner Jimmie Ward, taken in the first round, is out for the season with a foot injury, and has been replaced by fellow rookie Dontae Johnson. To this point, there's been no drop off with the lanky Johnson on the field.
4. Has Aldon Smith been rusty or a revelation since his return?
He's been really good. When the media was allowed to watch training camp practices, there was no question Smith was the most dominant presence on the field, so it was clear he was going to be a huge loss during his nine-game suspension. But San Francisco's defense was able to tread water while he was out, and enters Thursday as the league's second-ranked defense, despite the inconsistencies with the pass rush while he was gone.
In his two games back, he's pressured the quarterback 14 times, including two sacks Sunday against Robert Griffin III. Admittedly, Smith says he's been a little rusty and hasn't used all his pass rushing moves yet. But the biggest difference between Smith this season and last year, when he missed five games while attending an in-patient treatment facility after his second DUI arrest, is that he was allowed to remain at the team's facility during his time off. It meant Smith was able to participate in meetings and do what he could to maintain his conditioning. So far, it looks like it's made a big difference.
5. Is the relationship between Jim Harbaugh and other decision-makers in San Francisco as strained as reported? Is it a foregone conclusion that he'll be coaching elsewhere next year?
It's very difficult to say. Certainly friction between Harbaugh and the front office exists, as it did everywhere he coached before coming to the 49ers. But no one will go beyond the company line when it comes to addressing his future with the team directly. He still has a year remaining on his deal, although it appears unlikely he would enter next season without a new contract. And the common line of thinking is he would be traded by the team if it was unwilling to give him a new deal.
Given all the national reports about the negativity surrounding Harbaugh's tenure, it's fair to ask if the 49ers have a Harbaugh problem or a front office problem, given all the leaking that's reportedly been going on to National writers.
It's also fair to ask if the leaking was strategic. After making three-straight deep runs into the postseason, human nature suggests the team would become weary and complacent after so much late-season heartbreak. Harbaugh does it his best work in chaotic situations, so perhaps those leaks were a ploy to create chaos in order to galvanize the team and forge an "us against the world" environment.
Personally, I have a hard time believing the front office thinks there is a better option elsewhere than Harbaugh if the expectation is to compete for a Super Bowl every year, even with the tension between him and the front office. But Harbaugh is totally and completely unpredictable, so no outcome would be surprising.
Speaking with the Enemy: SF 49ers
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