We're about 24 hours away from kickoff for tomorrow's home opener between the Niners and the Vikings. We've had some pretty good exchanges between Niners Nation, SBNation's 49ers website (which just went past the 2,000,000 hit barrier, so congrats to Fooch and company there), and our site, so it was hard to find questions that hadn't been answered in either of those threads thus far, but Fooch and I managed to find some anyway. He sent five questions to me, which I've answered and sent back to him, and I sent him five questions, which I'm posting here now. Enjoy!
1) General wisdom says that if you whiff on a #1 draft pick, particularly if it's a QB, it sets your franchise back. The Niners seem to be defying that logic a bit. How is it, exactly, that the Niners have shown a decent amount of improvement over the past couple years despite, apparently, completely blowing it with Alex Smith?
The 49ers have started to develop as a franchise and it's definitely been in spite of the Alex Smith. For the 49ers brain trust they've managed to hit on a decent number of late round picks. They've also grabbed a big name in free agency 2 of the last 3 years and those players have worked quite well (Justin Smith and Nate Clements).
Of course the 49ers development has really seemed to happen primarily over the last 10 games, also known as the Mike Singletary era. Singletary has helped to bring a new attitude to the team. The team finished strong under him last year, but their training camp this year seems to have given them an edge early on. The team went with almost entirely all padded workouts from the get-go, which fits into their aggressive, physical with an F mentality. The 49ers were long considered some kind of "finesse" franchise, but Singletary has turned them into an aggressive punch em in the mouth team. While they may not have as much talent as another team, they certainly have no trouble physically hurting you. We'll see if this can last the entire season.
2) Through the first two weeks of the season, the Niners have allowed Shaun Hill to be sacked eight times, second-most in the NFL. Do you think this has to do with personnel, schemes, the quality of the defenses they've played, or a combination of all those things?
It's been a mix of reasons. The offensive line has struggled in pass protection, particularly at right tackle. The offensive line is the key to this season in my opinion and didn't get a lot of time together as a single unit in training camp due to injuries. So maybe that's just taking some time to develop. However, Hill has also had some sacks that he's basically walked into that could have been avoided on his part. The defenses the 49ers have played haven't exactly been world-beaters (Seattle and Arizona) so it will be very interesting to see how they perform against a unit like the Vikings.
3) Patrick Willis is one of the great middle/inside linebackers in the league today. Who else on the San Francisco defense really sets the tone for the team on that side of the ball?
Justin Smith is a guy who won't fill up the stat sheet, but you'll think back to the game and realize he was all over the place making plays. Nate Clements struggled in the preseason but has seemed to have no troubles turning up his game once the real games began. He's a great open field tackler against the run and loves breaking up passes. They're two of the leaders on defense. Aside from Willis, Smith and Clements, the 49ers defense has a lot of talented guys, but they fly under the radar. For example, Shawntae Spencer surprised a lot of folks winning the #2 corner position and on game-day you barely hear about him. However, one might say that a solid corner is like a referee. If you're hearing a lot about them (aside from INTs) they're probably struggling that day.
4) What sort of offensive attack do you anticipate the Niners coming out with on Sunday? Do you think they'll continue to try to pound Frank Gore at a run defense that hasn't been quite up to snuff the past couple of weeks, or do you think they'll put things in Shaun Hill's hands?
The 49ers will continue to pound Frank Gore up the middle. They'll provide Shaun Hill with some chances to make plays, but this team's offensive philosophy is Gore, Gore, Gore. They'll run Gore at you even when you know Gore is coming at you. It wasn't pretty week 1 when Gore averaged 1.4 yards a carry, but they stuck with it in week 2 and he busted 79-yard and 80-yard TD runs up the middle. Shaun Hill is not the most gifted QB and the 49ers have built their offense to avoid having him need to be a huge playmaker for them.
5) Who are some of the more underrated members of the Niners' squad that could have a big impact on this Sunday's contest?
I mentioned Shawntae Spencer above. On defense, aside from Spencer, keep an eye out for NT Aubrayo Franklin. He's been very solid in the run defense and has shown an ability to track down ball carriers. Also, Dre Bly has seemed to found his groove with the 49ers as their nickel back. Favre will definitely have to keep an eye out for him.
On offense, Isaac Bruce may be hard to consider underrated, but I actually think it's easy for folks to overlook him these days. He's getting up there in age, but he continues to make plays for this offense. If the 49ers need a big catch in the 4th quarter, there's a 75-80% chance Isaac Bruce makes that catch, particularly if it's a 3rd down play.
Big thanks to Fooch for answering these questions for us, and another congratulations to him on Niners Nation's most recent milestone.