Behind Enemy Lines - Seahawks/49ers, Pt. 3

In Part Three of our four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar continue their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Doug to Craig. Does the 49ers' defense need a complete overhaul? Does Mike Nolan have what it takes - and is he getting the front-office support - to restore the 49ers' great tradition of yore? These Q&As and more inside.

Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: San Francisco's defense has been problematic all season. Currently, it ranks 20th in the NFL against the run (yards per game) and 24th against the pass. Is this defense a player or two away from a big jump in productivity, or is a complete overhaul needed?

Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, SFIllustrated.com:
Well, let's make that a player or three … or four. With the kind of defense head coach Mike Nolan - who built his reputation on defense - wants to run, it's all about the system, and performing your duty and playing your role in the system. So, the player that Nolan plugs in at a certain position is less important than the actual scheme itself as long as that player does his job and is where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there. San Francisco's dramatic improvement on defense during its three-game winning streak in November - including the victory over the Seahawks - was more a result of defenders finally "getting it" and playing within the system rather than a surge in performance by individual players themselves.

That said, talent ultimately rises to the top, and that's where the 49ers have fallen short in recent weeks, because they were getting optimum results out of mediocre talent while they were winning. Now, the same players aren't making the big plays and forcing the turnovers that were prevalent when things were going good. So, the answer is, there will be no major overhaul, just new players plugged in next year to a system that's had two seasons to get established. From certain viewpoints, however, that may end up looking like an overhaul to some, because it already is pretty well acknowledged that the 49ers will have possibly four new starters - and perhaps even more - on defense next season. They're going to spend big money to attract one or two top free agents, and they plan to go defense-heavy in the draft, where they expect to have at least seven picks in the first four rounds.


Doug Farrar: Linebacker Brandon Moore leads the team in sacks with 6.5. Is Mike Nolan switching between 4-3 and 3-4 looks this season, and how does that work? Does that increase the opportunities for Moore to get pressure when he's at the line (if he is), or is he better when he's shooting gaps?

Craig Massei: Nolan is a 3-4 man all the way, and that's the defense he wants this team to run. The problem, however, is that it became apparent during the preseason that this team doesn't have the personnel to stop the run when it's in a 3-4 set. So the 49ers became a 4-3 team by necessity this year, and that has been their base set most of the season, although it often morphs into a 3-4 during the course of games depending on the play situation and the personnel in the game. Moore gets most of his sacks coming off the edge. He plays in the middle on first and second downs, and then moves to defensive end on third-down passing situations with another linebacker coming into the game to take his place at that position. As the team's best pass-rushing linebacker, he's obviously pretty good at shooting gaps, but that's not usually his role when he's playing in the middle, and he blitzes from that position only on an occasional basis.


Doug Farrar: How has linebacker Manny Lawson worked out in his rookie year? Is he the difference-maker needed after Julian Peterson's departure?

Craig Massei: Lawson has been no difference-maker this season. That said, he has shown some nice flashes and has been one of San Francisco's best defensive players over the course of the season. But he hasn't been the impact pass rusher some expected. In fact, he often comes off the field now in third-down passing situations because he's so important to the scheme on base downs and the team doesn't want to wear him out. That's a situation that made everybody go, "Huh?" out here for a while, but now it's starting to make more sense. Lawson, making the transition from playing defensive end in college, has become an athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebacker who can chase down running plays and has made a smooth transition in pass coverage. But that's not exactly the kind of player most people thought the 49ers were getting when Lawson came in as a first-rounder who was trumpeted as one of the nation's best college pass rushers last season.


Doug Farrar: Walt Harris leads the team in interceptions with a career-high six - pretty impressive for a defensive back in his 11th year. Who else in that secondary is a real threat, and who can be exploited in coverage? Who replaced Tony Parrish?

Craig Massei: Thank gosh for Walt Harris, who has been a true stud in the secondary this season and should make the Pro Bowl, though he might not because of the team he plays for, even though he was NFC defensive player of the month for November. Harris has given the 49ers more than anybody could have expected, and it's a good thing, because the rest of the secondary again has played poorly this season. The Seahawks catch the 49ers hurting at cornerback after Donald Strickland and Sammy Davis - the team's second and third cornerbacks in recent weeks - were placed on injured reserve Tuesday with injuries suffered in last week's loss to the Packers.

Strickland had been starting in place of injured left corner Shawntae Spencer and Davis was the third corner/nickel corner. Fortunately for San Francisco, it appears Spencer - who has missed the past three games with an ankle injury - will be able to play Thursday as he was upgraded from questionable to probable on Wednesday. He'll be rusty, so the Seahawks may be able to exploit him. Besides Lawson, the linebackers also can be exploited in coverage, and the safeties are susceptible, too. Mark Roman replaced Parrish as the starting strong safety back in October and, while he hasn't been the liability in coverage Parrish was, he has been an up-and-down performer against the pass.


Doug Farrar: In Mike Nolan's second season as the 49ers' head coach, improvements seem to be popping up just about everywhere. The team has risen from the NFL's basement and can be seen as a legitimate spoiler (certainly most Seahawks fans are respecting them as such). If Nolan were to win out, he'd double last year's win total. Do you think he has what it takes to resuscitate the team's great tradition, and will that "legendary" front office actually allow him to do it?

Craig Massei: Heck, Nolan is the front office. He runs the entire show. He has more power than most NFL head coaches, probably more power than any first-time NFL head coach should be allowed. But he seems to be adjusting nicely to his role as Mr. Everything Fixer-Upper. Nolan's meticulous attention to detail has him giving focus and thought to just about every area of rebuilding the franchise, and his grand plan and vision has been all about getting it right and establishing the foundation for the team to thrive over the course of several seasons rather than enjoying flash-in-the-pan success over a season or two.

I believe in the structure Nolan has put in place (though not as strongly as he believes, I'm sure). It looks like he is really doing things the right way and, importantly, knows what he's doing. He talks a lot about how he's declined to go for the "Quick Fix" over his first two seasons so that the team can prosper in Year 3 and beyond. And that's what it's all about now. The 49ers will have more salary cap space than any NFL team next year, and they're going to spend big money to grab a couple of top free agents. With big hopes for a great draft next year, the 49ers are expecting big things next season. Nolan still has strides to make as a game-day coach, but I think he has what it takes to lead a franchise rebirth.

The 49ers are fortunate he came along, because the franchise was in utter shambles when he arrived. But the structure is in place now, so next year will be telling. The 49ers have to seriously contend for the playoffs in 2007 - or better yet, make them. It's been four seasons now since that happened, and that's too long in today's impatient NFL, and the first time there has been that kind of drought in San Francisco since the 1970s.


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