For the first of what will be a short series of cross blog collaboration posts between Field Gulls and Niners Nation (because what could go wrong), here's editor/lead writer David Fucillo with a scouting report on the 49ers' offense. My questions in bold, his answers follow.
I talked to Fucillo about the Seahawks' offense as well, so make sure you check that out. Big thanks to David for the insightful answers and look for breakdowns on the two teams' defenses tomorrow.
1. Colin Kaepernick has had a very good 2nd half of the season statistically and that's likely a big part of the Niners' hot streak over that time. What do you think have been the reasons for his resurgence after struggling some early on?
The biggest reason for Kap's resurgence has been the return of Michael Crabtree. All of his numbers are up across the board since Crabtree returned from his Achilles injury. Crabtree was Kap's go-to guy when he took over in 2012. His absence through the first 12 weeks of the season was felt by Kap, and the other receivers. Anquan Boldin had a monster season opener against the Green Bay Packers, but once defenses realized the 49ers had no other adequate wide receivers, they doubled him and Vernon, and dared the 49ers to beat them with their other receivers.
One of the reasons Kap can be inconsistent at times is his penchant for staring down his wide receivers. He doesn't do it every time, but early in the season he would stare down Anquan Boldin a little too often. He didn't get intercepted frequently because of how strong his arm is. Defensive backs could get in for a deflection, but they at least couldn't intercept the pass frequently. I would say it is possible this has led to some bad habits for Kap. Maybe it's a little too much Brett Favre in him (his favorite player as a kid). He knows he has a rocket for an arm, so he figures he can get it into the tightest of spaces.
The return of Crabtree has removed some of those double-teams, but it also has helped open up some running lanes. Teams can no longer regularly stack 8+ men in the box. If a team tries to spy Kap, it opens up some passing options. If the defense drops back into coverage, it is opening more running lanes. He still has a lot of room for growth, but the return of Crabtree has been huge for him.
2. What is the implication of the injuries to Will Tukuafu and Bruce Miller? Does this affect what the Niners can and can't do within their offense? Does Boobie Dixon take up the torch?
Bruce Miller is on IR with a fractured scapula, while Will Tukuafu remains questionable for this weekend. He sprained his knee against the Panthers, but nobody is saying anything. My guess is he sits, but it depends on if he can get some practice in.
In his absence, the 49ers have a few options. Anthony Dixon was splitting time with him at fullback after Miller went down in December. Dixon is normally a special teams guy, and occasional short yardage back, but he has gotten fullback work in training camp the last two seasons. He is better as a receiving option out of the backfield than Tukuafu was, but Tukuafu is the more physical blocker (Tuk is a converted defensive lineman). This past week, the 49ers actually mixed in rookie tight end Vance McDonald at fullback, so the 49ers could mix him in as well.
Without Miller, and potentially Tukuafu, you could end up seeing the 49ers go with more 3-WR/1-TE sets. The 49ers use all of their tight ends a lot, so conceivably, they could either go Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Quinton Patton, or they split Vernon Davis out, and use Vance McDonald or Garrett Celek as the tight end. They can mix and match due to the versatility of their lineup. I could see the 49ers trying more of that this week to spread out the Seahawks and maybe open up some holes inside the hashmarks.
3. We all know about the great year that Anquan Boldin is having and that the return of Michael Crabtree has boosted the passing offense, but what have the third/fourth receivers looked like over the past few weeks? Should they be a factor this week?
The 49ers active wide receivers will be Boldin, Crabtree, rookie Quinton Patton and veteran Kassim Osgood. Osgood is almost entirely a special teams guy, although he might get four or five snaps in the game. When the 49ers go four-wide, it usually includes Vernon Davis split out, and occasionally a running back mixed in.
Patton is a bit of a fan favorite (ok, a big fan favorite). The fourth round pick only has four receptions this season, but he's flashed enough that people are officially enamored. Last week, he had some solid blocks and converted a third down on the 49ers opening scoring drive. I don't imagine you'll see a whole lot of him, but he might sneak in occasionally. Other than that, the passing game is really all about Boldin, Crabtree and Davis.
4. Does Frank Gore ever plan on slowing down?
Not even a little bit! Frank Gore turned 30 this past offseason, and just keeps on rolling forward. His unique skillset allows him to keep going at this age, even after blowing out both knees in college, and two shoulder surgeries after his rookie year. Gore has never been a fast runner. Even though he has slowed down from his prime, he was never a guy with significant breakaway speed. Rather, Gore's success comes from having elite vision, and an incredible low center of gravity.
The vision comes in his ability to find holes, and follow his blockers. He can show incredibly shifty moves, but he does not need to rely on them to make plays. He can spot the holes in a defense as well as anybody. The low center of gravity is seen when he hits the line of scrimmage, and emerges through what seems to be a whole mass of humanity. Frank Gore will get his big runs, but what kills teams is his ability to squirt through the smallest of holes, and turn a one yard gain into four or five yards. It wears down opposing defenses, and eventually sets up that bigger 10-15+ run.
5. How healthy is the offensive line and how has the run game looked over the past few weeks?
The 49ers offensive line is about as healthy as it has been all season. Mike Iupati was dealing with a sprained knee, missing four games in December, including the last game between these two teams. Last week was the first week he was not listed on the injury report, and he had one of his best games of the year. Joe Staley suffered a sprained knee as well, but he avoided any missed time. Other than that, RG Alex Boone, RT Anthony Davis and C Jonathan Goodwin have been healthy thus far. There are really no health excuses to be made for the 49ers offensive line heading into this game.
The last two playoff games, the run game has been solid, but it has also been a mix of successes. Last week, Frank Gore wore down the Panthers, eventually bursting through with a 39-yard pickup late in the game. It wasn't a monstrous performance, but it was effective enough. The week before, Gore was limited to 66 yards by the Packers, but Colin Kaepernick chewed them up with 98 rushing yards.
The read option had some success, but Kap has been more willing to scramble out of the pocket. For much of the regular season, he seemed hesitant to scramble. It felt at times like he was being instructed to not scramble too much. Not having Alex Smith back there as backup might have impacted that. However, heading into December and January, that has changed. I think part of that is having Crabtree back opens up some running lanes, but I also think the fearlessness is returning.