To preview Sunday's NFC West tilt between the Seahawks and 49ers in San Francisco this Sunday, I traded scouting reports with Niners Nation lead writer David Fucillo. Make sure you head over there for more on the Seahawks' upcoming opponent, and if you feel like trolling each other, make sure you do it in this week's new blog-endorsed trolling thread. 3000 comments and counting. Big surprise.
Follow David on Twitter as well - @NinersNation. My questions in bold italic, Fucillo's responses follow.
1. One of the narratives for the 49ers this year seems to be the 'regression' or leveling off of play by Colin Kaepernick. I haven't gotten a chance to watch much of the Niners of late, so what is your opinion on his play and do some of the criticisms being thrown around hold any water? How has he looked over the past few weeks throwing the ball?
The Kaepernick storylines have been the most repeated narratives of the season, and the storyline has varied depending on who you talk to. Kap got off to a strong start with a career passing day against the Packers, but he scuffled after that, showing glaring inconsistency. People have offered up a multitude of explanations. Mine reverts to his weapons. While it would be nice if Kap could turn Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin into dynamic wide receivers, that has simply not been the case. Maybe he becomes that kind of QB down the road, but he's not a guy who throws his receivers open quite yet. That's just life.
However, he is a quarterback who with the right weapons can return to his form of last season. He had Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis to start the season, but lost Davis to an injury in Week 2. Davis did return, but later suffered a concussion. When Davis has been absent, the 49ers offense has struggled immensely. There has been plenty of talk about the need for a deep threat at wide receiver, but Davis has been that deep threat. When he is off the field, defenders can double and triple-team Anquan Boldin without worry.
Which brings us to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. The 49ers were able to bring back Manningham after their bye, and he has slowly rounded back into form. His presence helped open up Anquan Boldin in Week 12 against Washington. The 49ers saw Crabtree return last week against the Rams. He had two receptions for 68 yards. While he appeared to lack that needed extra gear, his presence opened up Anquan Boldin.
I think the return of Crabtree and Manningham will trigger improvement in Kap. There is something to be said for his performance without the two receivers, but I am more comfortable making judgments after seeing what he does with Crabtree back in the mix. I realize great quarterbacks need to be able to make things happen even when things are not ideal, but for this season, I can live with waiting for better conditions.
2. What is the injury situation looking like for the Niners? I know San Francisco is due to get some of their receivers back in action this week and Joe Staley's status is still up in the air. What kind of impact will injuries have this week, in your opinion?
The 49ers are getting healthier, but do still have some question marks on the injury front. Joe Staley is the biggest name, having suffered a sprained MCL last week against the Rams. It appears to be a fairly mild version of it, however, as he was back at practice in limited form on Thursday. He told a local radio station that he anticipates playing Sunday.
For now, Staley will play his usual left tackle and Alex Boone will play right guard. If Staley ends up unable to play, Alex Boone would move over to left tackle, and second year reserve lineman Joe Looney would play right guard. Looney was solid moving in at right guard, and Boone was great switching to left tackle, but the 49ers obviously would much prefer Staley playing if he can.
Mike Iupati suffered a sprained MCL in Week 11, but it is a bit more serious, and he remains sidelined. Adam Snyder is filling in for Iupati at left guard, and is likely to continue in that role. Snyder is a solid enough reserve lineman, but he is not a guy the 49ers want starting for an extended period of time.
Michael Crabtree is not on the injury report this week after his first game back, which is a great sign. Mario Manningham has been limited in practice since returning from his ACL tear. I suspect the team is just trying to not overdo it with Manningham. Quinton Patton was a full participant at practice, after returning from a foot fracture. The 49ers are likely to keep him inactive, as they simply don't go four-wide with all wide receivers.
Other than that, the team is relatively healthy for now. Defensive tackle Ray McDonald has been dealing with a high ankle sprain, but he returned this past week, and was a full participant in practice on Thursday. Tight end Vance McDonald is dealing with an ankle injury, but should be good to go on Sunday.
3. I must admit I haven't heard as much about Justin Smith this season as I did last year. I'm personally a big fan of Smith, so it's a little surprising that he's not getting as much national hype (or, that's my perception, anyway). Is his play up to par this year? Has he shown age at all thus far?
Justin Smith is not putting up monster numbers, but as is often the case, that doesn't remotely tell the story. Smith is not showing signs of age, and is looking as strong as he did prior to tear his triceps last December. A perfect example of Smith's impact can be seen in the 49ers win over the Rams. On the Rams second play of the game, Kellen Clemens dropped back to pass. Smith pushed his offensive lineman in to Clemens, sending Clemens to the ground. Ray McDonald touched him for the sack, but this play was all Justin Smith. This kind of thing happens every game, and unfortunately does not show up in the stat book. Maybe they can create a different kind of "assists" category for tackles and sacks where it involves a player who doesn't get a hand on the player, but does force him into the arms of another play.
Justin Smith remains the presence he has always been, but obviously chasing around Russell Wilson should make for interesting theater. If the 49ers are going to win this game, they will need to get pressure on Wilson and force quicker throws. I don't think Smith can necessarily do it all himself, but he will be a much needed weapon in this game.
4. How has the Niners' rookie class looked this season? Any standouts? Any major disappointments?
The 49ers rookie class has had one home run, one decent single, a couple early outs, and then a whole lot of taking pitches (with Seattle's Robinson Cano news, I might as well go with the baseball metaphor!). Free safety Eric Reid has been as good as the 49ers could hope. He's not perfect, but he has ably replaced former All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson. One negative has been the two concussions he has suffered (including one against Seattle), but he has actually altered his tackling to protect himself from concussions. The concern remains, but he's proactive in trying to solve this problem.
Nick Moody has only played in three games as a rookie, having suffered a hand injury that put him on short term IR after Week 1. However, he has been a solid special teams player in those three games. The team seems confident in his special teams skills, so I can give the pick a solid single for now.
Second round pick Vance McDonald has been a disappointment thus far. He came out of Rice as a great pass catcher, but he has not been able to make much of an impact in the passing game. His run-blocking has been subpar as well, which is a disappointment. I don't really know what the issue is at this point, but he continues to get his share of snaps in the 49ers tight end-heavy offense.
Other than that, the 49ers are doing a lot of red-shirting of sorts this season. The most notable is running back Marcus Lattimore. He started the season on the NFI list, is back at practice, and will likely be placed on injured reserve once his three-week practice window is up. The plan is for him to be full-go next season. Second round pick Tank Carradine is another guy who appears to be red-shirting. He was activated off the NFI list, but the team is still working to get him up to speed. There are reports the team re-started his rehab schedule because of some questionable work before the draft to get him up to speed, but that's speculation for now. The more realistic issue is that he didn't get to practice all offseason or through the first six weeks of the regular season, so his switch from Florida's State defense to the 49ers defense is a work in progress.
Overall, the 49ers have found their safety of the future, but beyond that, there are still question marks with this draft. It's disappointing to not have immediate impact players, but next year will tell us significantly more about the draft.
5. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that San Francisco has to do to win this game?
The 49ers need balance on offense. It's cliched to some extent, but they really need to find consistency in the passing game, while also getting Frank Gore going. The 49ers ground game has been slow going the last few weeks, and part of that is due to defenses crowding the box and forcing Kap to beat them. I honestly believe the return of Crabtree will open things up as teams are spread out by Crabtree, Boldin and Davis. Add in the fact that Crabtree brings strong run-blocking, and I really think we see the 49ers run game take a big step forward. Colin Kaepernick actually needs to execute in the passing game for that to happen, so I think it's a little bit of both that will be necessary.
Huge thank to David for the in-depth report. Follow David on Twitter - @NinersNation.