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I caught up with David Fucillo of NinersNation this week to get a little scouting report on the state of the enemy, so if you haven't yet watched the GoogleHangout that Jacson and Kenny hosted last night with David (do it), then here's a little bit more in written word. Thanks to David for taking the time to hook me up with some answers to my questions!
DK: What does the injury situation for the Niners look this week? Is Justin Smith going to play, in your opinion? If not, who will see time in his spot?
David Fucillo: Justin Smith is of course the big name on the injury list with his elbow injury. He has sat out practice on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I personally don't think he'll play, but if he did play after a full week of no practice, it would not surprise me. Smith is one of those types that can sit out the full week and be fine Sunday. But I think the 49ers will look to get him back to 100% (or close) in time for the playoffs. A bye would be a big deal, but having a healthy Justin Smith for any playoff games is more important. If he is unable to go, Ricky Jean Francois would get the start in his place. RJF is the primary backup for all three positions on the defensive line, and does a little bit of work already when the 49ers move into their passing defenses. He is obviously not Justin Smith, but he is a solid backup for the line. He is more on the athletic side, as opposed to big and imposing, like Smith.
The other significant injury is to wide receiver Mario Manningham. He has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury and has not practiced during that time. He has been limited in practice this week, which would seem to indicate a step forward. In Manningham's absence, the 49ers passing game has focused on Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Delanie Walker.
DK: What are a few of Colin Kaepernick's biggest strengths? What about his weaknesses? Relatedly, has the quarterback controversy settled down for 49er fans, or are there still people calling for Alex Smith to start?
DF: Kaepernick's strengths have to be his scrambling abilities, laser arm and confidence. For a guy in his second season and still incredibly early in his starting career, Kaepernick displays incredible confidence, which might be his most important attribute. He has a great ability to shake off bad plays and make things happen, without trying to force things on subsequent plays. I don't think you can teach that.
While Kaepernick does have a big arm, one area where he is still developing has to be his touch. He can hit receivers in stride quite well, but on some of the shorter stuff, he will fire in a pass way too hard. He dislocated one of Randy Moss' fingers earlier this season after firing in a pass harder than was needed. On his interception against the Patriots, Kaepernick underthrew Moss on a pass that should have had a bit more on it. He has the arm to make virtually any throw, but he has to work on that touch a bit.
The QB controversy has more or less settled down. There are still people who want Alex Smith back, and let us know about it with every Kaepernick mistake, but they are much less vocal in light of the 49ers' run of success under Kaepernick. For some, nothing short of Lombardi No. 6 will be a success for Kaepernick.
DF: LaMichael James brings a huge speed and athleticism element. Kendall Hunter brought that, but James is playing like a man possessed since he was finally activated. He is a guy that is great in space where he can make opponents miss. He has the ability to play with power when needed, but his game is speed and athleticism.
He has two roles with the 49ers. The first is spelling Frank Gore. Although Frank Gore can still be a work-horse, he is now most effective when he is getting under 20 carries a game. He is approaching 30 and has a lot of miles on his tires, so keeping him fresh is key.
The second role is as the 49ers primary kickoff returner. That is an easy way to get him out in space and he has been quite effective in that role, including setting up the game-winning touchdown on Sunday with a 62-yard return.
DK: Everyone knows about Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, but who are some less heralded players on the Niners' defense that have been standing out this year?
DF: Chris Culliver is one of the less heralded 49ers on a national level. The second year cornerback is still learning the NFL game, but he is quickly looking like a guy who could be one of the better corners in the NFL for a long time to come. He has shown some of the skills of a shutdown corner, making some big plays particularly in the end zone. He remains the 49ers third corner, but when they move to their nickel and dime, Carlos Rogers moves into the slot and Culliver takes over his spot outside.
OLB Ahmad Brooks is overshadowed by Aldon Smith, but Brooks has developed in to a solid, complete linebacker on the other side of the line. He is second on the team in sacks with 5.5, and has developed into a solid player in the run game. He is a natural pass rusher, and while he lacks some of Aldon Smith's elite athleticism, he is a force to be reckoned with coming in from the outside.
DK: What, if anything, has been the achilles heel of the Niners' defense this year? Any weak points?
DF: The 49ers defense has a couple areas of concern that pop up from time to time. When they get into more zone coverage, particularly with a lead, a smart quarterback can pick it apart. We saw this with Tom Brady in the second half on Sunday. His yards per attempt was fairly low, but he was taking what the 49ers gave him extensively.
The easiest "Achilles hell" for this game in particular is that absence of Justin Smith. It's not a concern when he's healthy, but his absence really is a concern for the 49ers. He doesn't put up huge numbers, but he is a do-everything guy that does a lot to open space for Aldon Smith. Although Aldon Smith has plenty of sacks in his own right, he has benefited tremendously from having Justin Smith in front of him to occasionally suck up a double-team. Not having him would be a noticeable blow.
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