I've had the opportunity to meet, and work with, the editor of Niners Nation and SBN Bay Area, David Fucillo, and it's safe to say that he knows his San Francisco 49ers (not to mention pretty much every other sport that happens in the Bay Area... or Earth). David was nice enough to trade scouting reports with me on this weekend's game and I have to say he provided a really thorough, honest look at the Seahawks opponent this Saturday.
Here's what he had to say..
DK: What do you think has been the biggest difference in this year's team from last? A lot of people are quick to call Jim Harbaugh the coach of the year but do you think there are other factors at play?
DF: The 49ers winning ways are due to a few factors. Jim Harbaugh is the face of the change and his work with the team has been key. He brings a motivational factor that does more than what Mike Singletary tried. As soon as he was hired he got together with Alex Smith and seemed to get in his corner from the get go. I think he realized that the lockout was coming and Smith was really the best option he had for 2011. Whether he is the long term answer is another question entirely, but for this year, I think Harbaugh's handling of Smith has been superb.
However, in Coach Harbaugh, the team also got a great coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has taken a defense with modest but not huge turnover and has turned it from a strong unit to a great unit. Greg Roman gets questioned by fans rather frequently, but I think the offense is providing more than it has in recent years.
Arguably the biggest factor "off the field" has been GM Trent Baalke. Although he has had some misses in free agency and the draft, he had arguably the best offseason of any GM in the NFL. He hit on Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, letting Takeo Spikes walk (replaced by NaVorro Bowman), letting Aubrayo Franklin walk (replaced by Isaac Sopoaga at NT and Ray McDonald moving in at DE), drafting Aldon Smith, Bruce Miller and Chris Culliver, signing David Akers.
People say the 49ers are very similar to last year and thus think Harbaugh is the difference. However, if you look closer at the roster, there are significant changes and Baalke hit on most of those changes.
DK: The 49ers defense has been very strong, anchored by Justin Smith and newcomer Aldon Smith. What will the 49ers do to stop the Seahawks and are there any less heralded players on the D that we should watch for?
DF: The 49ers defense has been a significant team effort. Justin Smith has been the anchor of the defense, but the contributions come across the board. Aldon Smith is getting much of the publicity lately as he is closing in on Jevon Kearse's rookie sack record. He is primarily playing in the team's nickel defense, which means more snaps against passing teams that throw out frequent three receiver sets, and fewer snaps against more traditional offenses. The good news for the 49ers is he has taken advantage of his opportunities even if he is not an every down player.
The rush defense has really been the key for this team. The front seven is technically sound in tackling and maintaining discipline, which has allowed them to avoid giving up too many big runs. They haven't given up a 100-yard rusher or a rushing touchdown this season, and I think part of that is due to the athleticism and tackling ability of their front seven. They will potentially be without Patrick Willis, which hurts, but Larry Grant has played extremely well in his place.
The pass defense is an interesting one. They give up a fair amount of yards between the 20s, but like the rest of the defense, they clamp down in the red zone. The 49ers have a ball-hawking secondary that will sometimes take a few too many risks and it can burn them. However, much of their risks come through the scheming of Vic Fangio and the team's risk-taking is often fairly well calculated.
NaVorro Bowman is a guy to keep an eye on this Saturday. He leads the team in tackles and handles much of the dirty work while Patrick Willis has dropped back in coverage a bit more.
DK: On offense, how will the 49ers look to attack the Seahawks? Who are Alex Smith's main targets and who does he have the most rapport with? Can we expect Frank Gore to be 100%?
DF: The 49ers will look to establish the run game on offense. Early in the season, Frank Gore struggled to get much going. The offensive line has come together a bit better and Gore has benefited to a certain extent. He has been banged up at times this season, but he seems to be back on track. The team has mixed in backup rookie RB Kendall Hunter a bit more frequently. He can help spell Gore, but he also brings a speedier element out of the backfield.
In the passing game, Michael Crabtree has emerged as Alex Smith's primary weapon. He looks elsewhere, but Crabtree has been his main guy. In recent weeks, he has looked Kyle Williams way a bit more frequently. The second year player was drafted in the sixth round and has excellent acceleration but had not been able to work his way into the rotation. However, injuries to Josh Morgan and Braylon Edwards provided some opportunities and he has begun to take advantage of them.
DK: We all know about Aldon Smith and his quest to get the Rookie Sack record, but what other players in the 49ers rookie class have produced or shown some potential?
DF: Cornerback Chris Culliver has emerged as a solid option for the 49ers. He converted from safety to cornerback late in college and is still learning the position, but he has emerged as the team's #3 cornerback. I'd imagine Seattlewill try and attack him during the game. He has his struggles at times but you can see the talent.
Kendall Hunter has been fairly solid as a backup behind Frank Gore. He hasn't gotten a ton of consistent work, but he brings some great speed out of the backfield. He has been particularly solid on passes out of the backfield.
While Aldon Smith has been the highest profile pick for the 49ers, fullback Bruce Miller has been the best under the radar pick. He was drafted in the seventh round as a defensive end/OLB but with the plan to convert him to fullback. He has made the transition and within a few weeks had emerged as the team's starting fullback. It has been pretty amazing how quickly he has made the conversion, but he has been integral to the 49ers run game.
DK: Score prediction, and why?
DF: I'll go with 49ers winning 24-13. Marshawn Lynch has been key to this offense and if the 49ers are going to win it will be because they have contained him. Given that I never actually pick against the 49ers (and thus never bet on them), logic dictates they will contain him in my mind. Although Steven Jackson is a tough test next week, Lynch has been circled on the calendar the last few weeks given his recent performances. The 49ers rushing touchdown record (first to give up no rushing touchdowns through the first 14 games of the season) has become a note of pride for the defense.
I included at least one Seattle touchdown in part because the 49ers secondary occasionally shows a frustrating ability to get burned deep. I could see Doug Baldwin hauling in a long pass for a score. The 49ers offense showed some red zone improvement last week against the Steelers and will need to execute well in the red zone again to get up over 20 points.
Big thanks to Fooch for taking the time out of his insanely busy schedule to answer my questions, much appreciated!