To prepare for Sunday's game with the 49ers, Fooch of Niners Nation and I exchanged five questions about each other's teams. My answers will be up on Niners Nation later today, and right now you can check out what some readers of NN had to say about my questions. For Fooch's answers to my questions, take a look below.
1. Perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding this upcoming game between Detroit and San Francisco is Mike Martz. He had a messy divorce with the Lions after the 2007 season and since then both he and Lions players have traded jabs in the press. Even though we're only two games into the season, I'm curious about what your opinion of Martz is. Do you see him as someone that has immediately upgraded the 49ers' offense or someone that controls things a bit too much and is stunting the growth of the team?
Niners Nation: I think there has definitely been an upgrade in the offense that can be attributed to Martz's offensive scheme combined with the addition of more skilled receivers. Having a guy like Isaac Bruce, who knows the Martz scheme is a huge benefit, as seen by his monster day last Sunday. When Arnaz Battle can go back to being the #3 receiver, things are improving.
As for the Martz personality, I think it's a very good thing that he controls things as much as he does. From the beginning, head coach Mike Nolan has said he would leave the offense up to Martz. Nolan made his bones on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Martz has proven what he can do as an offensive coordinator in this league, so I'm glad he's taken the reigns as firmly as he has. If he were to leave for a head coaching job next season that would certainly create some havoc, but the level of improvement is certainly not a stunt in the growth.
2. Staying on the topic of Martz, what are your general thoughts on his play-calling so far? Just looking at the stats alone it appears he's running a much more balanced offense than he ever did in Detroit, but do you think that is because his running back is Frank Gore rather than Kevin Jones?
NN: As many people on Niners Nation mentioned, there was concern over his early play-calling. He seemed very predictable and the offense was not making things happen. While he did appear to abandon the run in stretches last week, the team was trailing and they had to make up points. If the 49ers can take a decent lead over Detroit I'd like to think we'd see more of the Gore ground game. The 49ers have trailed for most of the season so it's hard to get a complete handle on the balance situation.
I still expect big rushing totals from Gore and I would definitely agree that having Gore instead of Kevin Jones makes it easier for Martz to show some of the balance we all saw in St. Louis. Gore is not the same type of running back as Marshall Faulk was, but he does have some of the same skills. Gore was the leading receiver the last two seasons and that fits right into the Martz offense.
3. The 49ers' starting quarterback, J.T. O'Sullivan, wisely followed Martz to San Francisco after spending a year with Detroit as Jon Kitna's backup. In the time he was on the field he did look like a decent QB, but has he really become a legit NFL starter? To me it seems like Martz's system has benefited him more than his actual talent. Am I correct in that assessment?
NN: I think O'Sullivan definitely has some talent. Obviously he wouldn't be in the NFL if he didn't have something to bring to the table. I do think he is benefitting from knowing the Martz system, but I think his talent level has helped. From what I've seen so far, he's got a decent arm and has made some pretty tough throws right on the money. He's certainly not always accurate, but I think that will come with more playing time. I don't know how he'd be doing with another offensive coordinator but I would not call him a "system QB" quite yet. In college you can succeed as a system QB, but in the NFL, the players are all athletic and I don't know if a straight system QB would be 100% effective. I guess Montana could be coined a system QB with the West Coast offense, so that might kill that argument.
I do believe he can be a legit NFL starter in this league and will be so this season. Aside from making the requisite passes, JTO has shown some scrambling ability. Of course with the scrambling you get the good (4 rushes for 32 yards in week 2) and the bad (holding onto the ball waiting for something to develop, leading to a sack...or eight). He's clearly a tough SOB as his bounce back from 8 sacks in Week 2 would attest. I don't know what he brings to the table as a leader, but he seems to have the control and respect of the locker room, which is a key for any quarterback.
4. Back in the 2007 draft there was talk that the Lions might trade down and draft Patrick Willis. Considering Detroit's future starting middle linebacker is Jordon Dizon, I sort of wish that would have happened, especially since Willis is so talented. What specifically makes Willis such a dominant linebacker, and should Kevin Smith be afraid for Sunday's game?
NN: In the thread discussing these questions, the best description was pointing to his interception return for a touchdown last week and his rundown of Sean Morey in overtime last season. Those plays showed the speed and natural talent, combined with the sheer desire that makes him so great in the eyes of 49ers (and most other) fans. I think having Mike Singletary around only makes the situation better as Willis is quite the willing pupil to Singletary.
Looking at the whole picture of Willis, his ability to close on a ball carrier is huge. Nothing is more frustrating than broken tackles leading to first downs and touchdowns. You rarely see Willis not completely wrap up a player and stop the play. It's interesting that as the 49ers defense improves (which it should be doing this season), his counting stats like tackles will probably go down. Some might point to this as a sophomore slump, but 49ers fans know he's making an impact. Teams have elected to run their rushing plays away from him, a'la what happens with Champ Bailey. They're two completely different players, but I think it's safe to say opposing teams fear the wrath of Bamm Bamm.
5. Looking at the NFC West, the standings certainly aren't what I expected coming into the season. Arizona is 2-0, Seattle is 0-2, and San Francisco is in between at 1-1 (and the Rams just suck). Looking at the rest of the season, do you think this trend will continue with the Cardinals at the top or is it only a matter of time until the Seahawks retake first-place? And finally, could the 49ers make a run at the NFC West title?
NN: I definitely do NOT think the Seahawks are out of this race. They're dealing with an unprecedented string of injuries to their wide receivers. I don't think they're the clear-cut team to beat, but I do believe they'll be in this race in the end. Arizona looks to have made the correct choice in benching Leinart for Warner as Warner is making the plays needed to win.
As for my 49ers? Considering 9-7 should be enough to win this division, I do believe they have a shot at the division title. They do have a tough schedule ahead, but 9-7 is not completely out of the realm of possibility. A lot of it depends on how well J.T. O'Sullivan performs and how well the offensive line performs. If JTO can make plays like he did for much of the Seahawks game, this offense could be dangerous. If he struggles, Frank Gore might not be enough. Both JTO and Gore got beaten up pretty badly by the tough Seattle defense and if the o-line doesn't get its act together, it will not get any better anytime soon. While JTO and Gore are both tough, a person can only take so much of a beating before getting completely worn down.
Thanks to Fooch for answering my questions, and as stated already, my answers to his questions can be found later today over at Niners Nation.