Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, SFIllustrated: The midseason turnaround was predicated on a formula the 49ers determined could give them their best chance at success this season - a tough, disciplined, opportunistic defense combined with a power running game on offense that could control the tempo of games. It worked great for the team in a 9-3 home win over Minnesota followed by a 19-13 road victory at Detroit, then again versus the Seahawks in what was San Francisco’s biggest victory in the past three seasons. It also worked well the week after that at St. Louis, when the 49ers had that game all but won, only to see the Rams - who hadn’t done squat (or scored a point) against the San Francisco defense the entire second half - drive the length of the field in the closing minutes for the winning touchdown. The 49ers haven't been the same since.
The team was playing with building confidence and even a trace of swagger, but then the discipline began to erode on defense, the takeaways disappeared and inconsistency has prevailed on both sides of the ball. The 49ers continued to play well defensively the next week at New Orleans, but the Saints started loading the box to stop the run and San Francisco's passing game couldn’t respond, and the defense eventually wore down against the explosive Saints. Against the Packers last week, the passing game again let down the team, and the defense played poorly in what was the most disappointing outcome of the Mike Nolan era.
I’m not so sure the 49ers were exceeding their expectations during their winning streak - they were playing up to their capabilities and playing to their strengths. But the defense stopped forcing turnovers, started having breakdowns in the secondary again, and the passing game failed to respond on offense. This team’s not good enough to win unless it follows the formula mentioned above, and there you have it - a season-killing three-game losing streak after reaching the high-water mark last month with the milestone victory over the Seahawks.
Doug Farrar: Since the upset over the Seahawks on November 19th, Alex Smith has thrown three touchdowns and seven interceptions against the Rams, Saints and Packers – three substandard pass defenses. Why is he struggling, and how can he pull himself out of this slump? How has Trent Dilfer helped Smith's development? What has Norv Turner done for him?
Craig Massei: That's the key that has put a lock on San Francisco’s once-promising season. Opponents have been daring Smith to throw down field, bringing their corners up in man coverage, and Smith simply hasn’t been able to connect with his receivers, who aren’t exactly helping him out with their route-running. For the most part, Smith’s decision-making still has been good, but he has gone the wrong way a few times when receivers were open elsewhere, and all of his mistakes seem to be magnified. He is a very promising player, but he's not at the level yet that he can carry the offense, and a lot of responsibility to make plays has been thrust upon him now that running back Frank Gore has emerged as a force that needs to be reckoned with. And Smith has simply missed on some consequential throws - the kind a winning quarterback needs to make - as he'll be the first to tell you.
To be fair, several of his interceptions came at the end of the past two games when the 49ers fell behind by multiple scores and Smith was forcing the action to try to make something happen quickly. Still, those are situations in which he needs to get better to ultimately succeed. Dilfer has helped tremendously in Smith's development in practically every way imaginable - as a mentor, a confidant, a friend and a teacher.
That's the short synopsis, but I could go on and on about what the presence of Dilfer has meant to Smith in particular and the 49ers in general. I'm pretty confident in saying Smith wouldn't be this far along in his development - and, until the past three weeks, he looked pretty far along for a 22-year-old starting NFL quarterback - without Dilfer around. You could essentially say the same thing about Turner, who has been a godsend for Smith and his development, too. Turner is blueprinting his offense to play to Smith's strengths and is bringing him along gradually with game plans that protect Smith and ask him to manage the offense and game. The attack has been opened up out of necessity the past two weeks, and Turner's play-calling has put the 49ers in a position to make several plays down the field in the passing game. They - starting with Smith, of course - simply have not executed.
Doug Farrar: One aspect of the 49ers offense that has no holes is the running game. Tell us why Frank Gore has been so great this season, and give us the inside take on underrated blocking fullback Moran Norris.
Craig Massei: Because Gore is great. He's going to have to do it over time, of course, but for a second-year guy to be doing what Gore's been doing all season against eight-man fronts when everybody on the planet knows what the 49ers want - and need - to do on offense is a testament that this guy is a cut above. I don't mean to sound like his publicist, because it's not like Gore is unstoppable or anything like that, but he has that blend of power, agility and explosiveness that makes him special. The big knock on Gore has been his injury history - torn labrums in each shoulder last year, major surgery on both knees in college - but he has held up well to the punishment and grind this year and his injuries don't appear to be an issue. He's two seasons removed now from his last knee surgery, and I think we're finally seeing what the guy can do.
He's on course to shatter the team single-season rushing record, and he has a chance to win the NFL rushing title this season. That kind of says it all about what Gore has become as a running back, and I have to emphasis that Gore's doing it as part of an offense where he's basically the only legitimate top-line threat. Seahawks.NET knows its football, because Norris has been one of the unsung factors in Gore's success, laying out defenders in front of him. Gore only needs a crease to get to the second level, and Norris has been destroying defenders to give it to him behind a pretty good run-blocking offensive line. Norris, signed as a free agent in the offseason, had to beat out incumbent Chris Hetherington for the starting role at fullback, but that didn't take long, and now Hetherington is a forgotten man on this team, while Norris has emerged as a mainstay who last month received a three-year contract extension from the 49ers to lead the way for Gore for seasons to come.
Doug Farrar: Gore also leads the team in receptions with 49. What should this tell us about the receivers, and who among those receivers will be Seattle's biggest concern?
Craig Massei: As mentioned in our conversation about Smith, the San Francisco passing game in some ways still is in its developmental stages. The 49ers want to get Gore the ball as often as possible in the open field, but most of his receptions have come on check-down patterns when Smith has to dump off the ball.
Antonio Bryant was a beast at wide receiver from the moment he arrived on the scene as a free agent earlier this year, and he established himself as arguably the best player and top talent on the team coming out of training camp. He then looked like an emerging star with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to begin the season, but opponents have wised up since then and now regularly shade safeties to his side. But I also think Bryant has regressed during the season, and he has had some personal issues - he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, resisting arrest and speeding several hours after the Seahawks/49ers game on Nov. 19 - that I believe are messing with his head and affecting his performance. He's still a home-run threat, but he's sort of a wild card in the attack at this point.
Arnaz Battle is a solid possession receiver who will make some catches Thursday, but you don't have to worry about him hurting the Seahawks down the field. In the final analysis, the answer to your question may come as a surprise: Rookie tight end Vernon Davis may be Seattle's biggest concern in the passing game. He was just coming back from a broken leg that forced him to miss six games the first time the two teams played, but now he's healthy, playing practically every snap and rounding into play-making form. The first-round draft pick had a 52-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown last week against the Packers, running through tackles and over defenders on his way to the end zone. He's a beast, and he also has the speed to get deep against safeties. You can't cover him with a linebacker.
Doug Farrar: Currently, the San Francisco offensive line ranks ninth in Adjusted Line Yards (Football Outsiders' proprietary statistic which separates the performance of a line from the performance of a running back) and only 19th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Research tells us that the run game is slightly more reliant on the line, and a successful passing game is often as much or more about the quarterback than those who block for him. How is the line helping and/or hurting the offense right now?
Craig Massei: Those statistics must mean something, because that's about dead-on how I would evaluate San Francisco's offensive line right now, both looking at it exclusively and then comparing it to other units around the league. This a young, developing line that is full of high draft picks and has outstanding potential. At various points of the season, it has appeared to be one of the top strengths of the team. It is a very good run-blocking line across the board, which is what you'd expect with a unit that has beefy Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings on the left side.
The pass blocking hasn't been at the same level, but it still has protected Smith well this season - much better than last season. The line has consistently given Smith time to throw - and he has been sacked fewer times this season (23 in 357 passing attempts) than last year (29 times in 165 attempts), which shows the marked improvement. The line certainly isn't hurting the offense right now, but that said, over the past two games it has not played at the consistent level it established earlier in the season.
PART II: Make sure to check back on both SFIllustrated.com and Seahawks.NET as Doug and Craig continue their back-and-forth interaction with Doug answering five of Craig's questions.