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5 Qs, 5 As with Niners Nation

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Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are back at it again, this time with the rivalry reshaping itself to highlight the 2019 season with the final game of the year. Oh sure, both will be playing in the 2020 playoffs, perhaps even against each other, but this is the dance that decides who leads.

It’s hard to feel super confident in the Seahawks given their most recent two divisional games, but what do we have to lose in trying to find cracks? To search for those openings, I sent 5 Qs and a bonus to Kyle Posey of Niners Nation. In return, he sent me five corresponding As.

This is them.

Q: The 49ers defense has had a lot more rough days in the second half of the season than they had in the first half. I’m a little shocked to see that they’ve dipped to 8th in points allowed, but San Francisco remains 2nd in DVOA on defense and 2nd against the pass. Which injury on defense has hurt the most and which players on that side of the ball do you expect to return or remain out this Sunday?

A: The 49ers should get Jaquiski Tartt back for the first time in a month. Tartt has been dealing with broken ribs. He means a lot to the coverage unit. If you recall, he was the safety that stripped D.K. Metcalf near the goal line. That will be a nice boost. Defensive end Dee Ford will miss his fifth game in six weeks. As far as your first question goes, it’s undoubtedly Kwon Alexander on the defense. His athleticism can be replaced, but it’s impossible to replace his energy and leadership, not to mention his playmaking ability. The 49ers were on a historic pace defensively through the air, and Alexander had a lot to do with that. His range as a tackler and ability to get into throwing lanes made a world of difference. He is shooting for a return in the playoffs, so a bye week is critical for San Francisco.

Q: If I was starting an offense today, I would begin with quarterback, and then maybe move to left tackle second, but either second or third could be a player just like George Kittle. He didn’t play in the first game against the Seahawks. How much does the needle shift for you when the Niners do or don’t have Kittle? Is he San Francisco’s most valuable player and how would you rank the Niners 3 most important players?

A: I don’t think there’s any question that Kittle is the most important player on the 49ers. From a gambling perspective, I’d say he’s one of the few players that isn’t a quarterback that is worth a point. Kittle is that important. He draws so much attention that he opens the door for Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel. He’s the reason the 49ers have the most explosive plays in the NFL. He’s a dominant blocker, which leads to big plays for the Niners speedy running backs.

That’s a good question, and my answer now is different than it was to start the season. Quarterback is obvious, so I’ll go three non-quarterbacks. Kittle, Fred Warner, and Arik Armstead. Those have been the best players, with Nick Bosa right there.

Q: I’ve been taking heat for years about what I’ve said about quarterbacks around the league and Jimmy Garoppolo has been no exception. However, there really wasn’t much to even argue about for the first two years of his Niners career because he wasn’t on the field often enough. He’s been healthy this year and my thoughts, personally, are that he is definitely a capable starting QB -- which is very hard to find -- and that Kyle Shanahan is doing a great job putting the offense in a position to succeed with shorter throws (only Drew Brees has fewer intended air yards per attempt, which is not necessarily bad company) and that Garoppolo’s numbers would be even better if not for so many drops. However, he’s also still taking risks over taking sacks or throwing the ball away and that leads to a higher rate of interceptions. Do you find his interception total to be deceptive at all, do you think it could be a problem in the playoffs, and do you have the utmost faith in Jimmy G as “the guy” in a way that Colin Kaepernick and/or Alex Smith were not?.

A: I missed what you’ve said, but now I’m curious. Jimmy G has definitely been a rollercoaster this season as he’s still figuring out what he can and can’t get away with in this offense. The interceptions don’t bother me, honestly. That number isn’t deceiving, despite what fans may think. Yes, he’s suffered from drops and other drops that have led to touchdowns. Garoppolo has also gotten lucky a handful of times this season on throws that could have easily been turnovers. I think him holding onto the ball and taking sacks has hurt the offense this season more than the interceptions. There are plays where Jimmy is holding onto the ball and it’s as if he forgets it’s not 7-on-7. That may be extreme, but his mental clock is inconsistent. It’s tough to describe as Garoppolo’s mobility and pocket presence is above average overall. The times where he holds onto the ball for four seconds instead of throwing it away kills drives, though.

Q: I’m looking for cracks on San Francisco wherever I can find them and I see that they did lose to the Seahawks and Ravens, both of whom pride themselves on running the football as much as any organization in football. (The same could be said of Shanahan’s 49ers.) They had two close games against the Cardinals, a team that is second in rushing DVOA. San Francisco is 12th in run defense and 23rd in yards per carry allowed. What sort of team would you fear most: someone like the Saints, who are leaning heavier on the passing game, or a team like the Packers or Seahawks, who have relied more on the run this year? Basically, any fear of Marshawn Lynch because oh lord we are hoping for a miracle.

A: I’m in the camp that defense is more about timely stops and turnovers, Week 10’s game between these two teams are a great example, and having speed and athleticism to stop the pass. Over and over we see offenses have rushing success, then a play blows up, and they can’t move the chains. So a team like the Saints or the good version of the Vikings scare me more than a team that relies on the run. Sidebar: saying a team relies on the run when their quarterback is Russell Wilson something in itself. I do think Lynch will be an asset in pass protection, but Carson is tough to replace. I love the way he runs and he’s the league leader in broken tackles for a reason. Him being a couple of steps faster than Lynch will be noticeable. I will say that if Tyler Lockett is getting double-digit targets this game instead of Jacob Hollister and D.K. Metcalf, I’d be concerned. Lockett is a stud.

Q: It seems the reviews on defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a former assistant in Seattle, are mixed. He has improved the pass defense every year and turned around from 32nd in takeaways to 5th, but with some of these performances recently, I sense that even despite injuries there are concerns about playcalling. Would you be rooting for Saleh to get a head coaching job so that Shanahan could try another direction at DC or are you hoping to retain him for as long as possible?

A: I’m rooting for Saleh as a person because he’s a smart guy that has the leadership qualities to be a successful coach. The 49ers are prepared and also make second-half adjustments when needed. That’s the sign of a good coach. He does stick to his guns, though. The lack of blitzing or in-game adjustments that need to be made between series is why fans are frustrated. I’d like to see him another year with this team, and think he’s a year away anyway from getting a job. If Saleh does go elsewhere, there’s too much talent on the field for there to be a dropoff.

Bonus Question: How was your Christmas?

A: Christmas is always fun when you have a seven-year-old. She’s still in the, “what should we get for Santa and his reindeer?” stage. My sister lives in Seattle so we’re flying into town Friday and will enjoy the weekend with family before the game. Hopefully, you had the chance to get away and enjoy the holiday with good food, family, and friends.