Behind Enemy Lines: Seahawks-49ers, Part 1

In Part One of our exclusive four-part game preview, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and Seahawks.NET's Doug Farrar begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Doug to Craig. What's wrong with Alex Smith and the San Francisco's offense? How much do the 49ers miss Norv Turner? Why the drop in Frank Gore's productivity? And what's up with the offensive line?

Doug Farrar, Editor-in-Chief, Seahawks.NET: Is Alex Smith where the 49ers need him to be in his development? My first real viewing this season was the loss to the Steelers, and I saw a quarterback who hurried throws, seemed to be a bit balky in the pocket, and didn't really go through his reads that well - not to mention the fact that he was terrible in the red zone. Is it a case of Smith not meeting his teammates halfway, or is it the other way around? Or, is that just what a Dick LeBeau defense does to quarterbacks?

Craig Massei, Editor-in-Chief, SFIllustrated.com: If you didn’t like what you saw from Smith against the Steelers, then you really would be wondering what’s up with him if you go back and watch film of San Francisco’s first two games. Smith’s outing against Pittsburgh was his best game of the season, which tells you just how shaky Smith and the San Francisco offense have been so far this season, which tells you why that unit is ranked 31st in the NFL in total offense entering Sunday’s game. Smith has looked uncomfortable in the pocket from the get-go this season, and he is holding the ball too long and failing to spot open receivers. And when he does get the ball to them, those receivers have been letting him down much too often with dropped passes.

So, the answer is no, Smith is not where the 49ers need him to be. That wouldn’t have been the answer when the season started, because Smith looked great all year through spring and summer practice sessions, and he seemed to have that little something extra about him during the preseason that indicated he’s ready to take the next step to playoff-caliber quarterback. What you saw against the Steelers is what Smith has looked like so far this season – or worse. That said, he was the catalyst of the game-winning touchdown drive to beat Arizona and managed the offense well during both of San Francisco’s season-opening wins, even though the conservative play-calling did not exactly play to his strengths.


Doug Farrar: Last season, Frank Gore seemed to be productive no matter how many "eight-in-a-box" defenses he faced. It seems that this year, opponents are focusing on Gore more than ever. After averaging 5.4 yards per carry in 2006, he's down a full two yards per in 2007. To what would you attribute this downturn in productivity?

Craig Massei: It’s pretty simple: There’s no room to run. The offensive line – expected to be the strength of the team this year – has not been opening holes, and it’s almost inexplicable considering how well that unit played last year and the creases and crevices it created for Gore on a regular basis. Gore has slimmed down a bit from last year to add quickness and finish runs, and he doesn’t seem quite as powerful when he burrows for extra yardage like last season. But he still is The Man here in San Francisco and is every bit as good as he was last season. The explosion and burst are still there, and he makes things happen when he gets to the second level. The problem is getting to the second level. Gore often is swarmed near the line of scrimmage as San Francisco linemen either are getting weak push off the ball and/or failing to finish blocks and get to the second level. And he’s getting challenged now more than ever by opponents who are overloading their fronts with extra defenders. The run game is where it all starts for the 49ers, which is the primary reason their offense has yet to get started this season.


Doug Farrar: Though the 49ers made a real commitment to upgrading their receivers in the offseason, that unit appears to be a mixed bag so far. There's only one touchdown catch through three games - though Darrell Jackson appears to have dropped two - and Ashley Lelie looked very sluggish on one particular route against the Steelers. What's the problem here? Was Vernon Davis Smith's only real option before he was hurt?

Craig Massei: Davis won’t be an option the next couple of weeks as he’ll miss Sunday’s game with ligament damage in his knee. That really hurts the offense, because Smith and Davis – who developed a strong rapport on the field during the offseason – were just starting to click together in Week 3 after Davis – like several weapons in San Francisco’s arsenal – had been virtually a non-factor during the first two weeks. There have been several dropped passes, and though Jackson said today that he’s taking credit for only one so far this season, he actually has had about half a dozen catchable passes slip through his hands already, several of them in key situations.

That said, Jackson also has been making plays down the field, and he’s averaging 15.1 yards per catch on a team that has completed only 43 passes through three games. Arnaz Battle is solid and reliable as the starter opposite Jackson, but Taylor Jacobs has been slow to come around as the No. 3 option, and Lelie hasn’t even been able to get on the field because of his inconsistent route running and lack of rapport with Smith. It looks as though it’s going to be on Jackson to really lift this group of receivers above its undistinguished status of last season.


Doug Farrar: San Francisco's offensive line was one of the real surprises in the NFL last year. But in 2007, there appears to be protection problems, and Larry Allen didn't look too happy on the sidelines against Pittsburgh. Why is that line suddenly vulnerable?

Craig Massei: That’s the big mystery of the season so far for the 49ers. The team upgraded at right tackle when first-round draft pick Joe Staley beat out incumbent Kwame Harris during the summer, and the rookie probably is playing as well as any of the four veterans to his left, which means neither of those guys is playing as well as he did last year. Jonas Jennings is playing well at left tackle, but the interior of Allen, center Eric Heitmann and right guard Justin Smiley is playing well below their 2006 standards so far.

The biggest protection problems are coming in the interior from those three positions – and neither of the three is known for his pass blocking to begin with. The Niners still feel this unit, which was dominant at times last season, will hit its stride. But San Francisco has some good young players with starting experience – notably guard/center David Baas and guard/tackle Adam Snyder – sitting on the bench. So if the line doesn’t get its act together fast – and we’re talking this week against the Seahawks – there could be some changes in the not-too-distant future.


Doug Farrar: Are the 49ers feeling a pinch from the loss of Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator? I think there are some people in San Diego who wouldn't mind giving him back…

Craig Massei: You can say that again. Turner’s a great offensive coordinator, but he already proved he’s a lousy head coach at two other NFL stops, and the Chargers will rue taking the safe route with this good-old-boy-network hire until the day they replace him. That said, it’s a big topic here in San Francisco regarding how much the 49ers are missing Turner, considering the big step forward the offense took last year in Turner’s first and only season with the team and the apparent step backward it has taken this season under the direction of Turner’s replacement, Jim Hostler.

I’m not sure how valid that talk is. I think Hostler will be a good offensive coordinator, and the conservative play-calling of the first two weeks had to do with the circumstances of the game. But it does seem like Smith was much more comfortable and confident working with Turner and within the structure of his offensive philosophy. Turner knew how to set up opposing defenses, and that’s something that will only come for Hostler with time and experience. Naturally, when something goes wrong, people are going to wonder how much of the reason lies with the departure of a proven coaching commodity. And, to be sure, something definitely has gone wrong so far with the San Francisco offense.

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.



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