Well, it's about that time again -- the Seahawks face off against the 49ers this week so I swapped scouting reports with my friend David Fucillo, editor for Niners Nation. Here's what he had to say about the Seahawks' rival and opponent this week. My questions in italics/bold, his follow.
1. Colin Kaepernick has had an up and down season thus far but his last two games he's looked really good -- what's the overall feeling for how Kap has played this year (and going back to last year), and what is the prevailing thought on his long-term future with the team?
It's an interesting conundrum to say the least. He has improved each of the last two weeks, but it is worth noting the Giants and Ravens do not exactly have stellar defenses. There are multiple reasons for Kap's improved play, and one of them has to be the play of the defenses.
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That being said, the big change the last two weeks for the 49ers offense has been putting Kap under center more frequently. Through the first four weeks, Kap was under center 12.1 percent of his snaps. The last two weeks, he was under center 69.5 percent of the time. Being under center has allowed the play action to get more play, and it allows Kap to keep an eye on the defense at the snap, rather than looking down for the shotgun snap.
Long term, I just don't know what to make of Kap. The Seahawks defense does not seem to be what it was the last few years, but it is still a challenge, both physical and mental. If Kap can put together a third straight solid game, I'll certainly be pleased. Prior to Week 5, discussion was reaching the point of whether Kap would be back in 2016 (his contract is easy to get out of for the 49ers). I honestly have no idea what his long-term future holds. A year from now he will either be the 49ers starting quarterback, or on another team. It's odd given what happened the last few years, but it is that unpredictable.
2. The Niners lost Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, and Aldon Smith during the offseason -- who has replaced those key players and how have they fared thus far this year?
Here are the losses and replacements on defense:
DT Justin Smith/Ray McDonald --> DT Quinton Dial/Glenn Dorsey
ILB Patrick Willis/Chris Borland --> ILB Michael Wilhoite/return of NaVorro Bowman
OLB Aldon Smith --> OLB Aaron Lynch
CB Chris Culliver/Perrish Cox --> CB Tramaine Brock/Kenneth Acker
The returns have been mixed. Dial and Dorsey are decent enough against the run, but they struggle to get much in the way of pressure. That lack of defensive tackle pressure is costing the 49ers. Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks can bring the heat, but without the defensive line getting much penetration, it takes that much longer for Lynch and Brooks to get near the quarterback.
Wilhoite is an adequate fill-in, but is not really a great long-term option at ILB. And replacing Willis and Borland is no easy task. The 49ers secondary replacements have been solid enough, but the lack of a consistent pass rush have made life difficult for the secondary.
3. We heard a lot about Jarryd Hayne early in the year -- what kind of role does he have with the team and will we see him take carries this week out of the backfield?
Hayne is the punt returner, and sometimes kick returner. Bruce Ellington handles kick returns normally, but he has been injured. Rookie WR DeAndrew White gets some opportunities as well. But Hayne's primary role is punt returner. He has also gotten work as a reserve running back. When Carlos Hyde hurt his foot this past week, Hayne handled most of the backup work, with rookie Mike Davis getting a little work of his own. You can expect to see Hayne returning punts, and getting a few carries this week.
4. In your opinion, what is the biggest strength for the Niners right now, and what's their biggest weakness?
The biggest strength is the wide receiver corps. They are not seeing a ton of work because of the offensive line problems, and Kap's early struggles, but when the offense gets going, Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin can do some damage. I suppose we could also say Carlos Hyde is a strength in the ground game, but the offensive line has particularly slowed this group. That and a nagging foot injury have slowed Hyde.
The biggest weakness is either the offensive line or the pass rush. The OL might be coming around with Andrew Tiller getting more work at right guard, but it still remains a problem. However, the 49ers pass rush is a serious problem. Aaron Lynch is getting a lot of QB hits, but he has been unable to consistently close the deal and get more sacks. The 49ers defensive tackles seem to be a big reason for that.
5. Who are two or three under the radar players that have been performing really well for the Niners this year?
RG Andrew Tiller - He had a great preseason, albeit against second and third string defensive players. Two weeks ago, he finally got a chance at right guard, albeit in a rotation with Jordan Devey. In Week 5, the two split snaps right down the middle. In Week 6, he ended up with nine more snaps.
TE Garrett Celek - Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald entered the season as the top two tight ends. Both have dealt with injuries, and while both are healthy, Garrett Celek had the most snaps in Week 6. He is not putting up huge numbers, but given the Seahawks struggles against tight ends, look for him to be involved in the game plan.
CB Kenneth Acker - I suspect the Seahawks try and target the second-year cornerback. He has been beaten at times, but he has had some solid moments. He'll be a guy to watch.
I think we are in for an ugly affair on Thursday Night Football. The over/under is set at 41.5 points, and it would not surprise me to see this game finish under the total. I could see a 19-17 type of game. I do think the 49ers could spring the upset, but at the very least I think they cover the spread. But whatever the final score, this is gonna be a brutal game.
Big thanks to Fucillo for the great report -- make sure to follow Niners Nation on twitter and head over there for more on the game. Also don't go over to there to start fights and troll, you mongrels.