To get ready for Sunday's game, I exchanged five questions with David Fucillo from Niners Nation, SB Nation's San Francisco 49ers blog. My answers to his questions can be found over at NN, and his answers to my questions are below.
1. What the 49ers did last season took nearly everybody outside of San Francisco by surprise because Jim Harbaugh turned things around so quickly. What formula did the 49ers use to go from the bottom of the league to near the very top in just one season?
While I expected improvement, even I was surprised by how quickly the team turned things around that much. I believe this turnaround showed as much about the importance of good coaching as anything else. The team added some key free agents on defense, but the change from Mike Singletary to Jim Harbaugh was like night and day. While Coach Singletary did bring positives to the table (motivating Vernon Davis), his game-day preparation was quite poor and the 49ers showed that virtually every week. Coach Harbaugh has this team as prepared as any in the league.
In terms of on-field performance, last year saw the team step forward on the back of a strong defense, top-notch special teams and an offense that avoided mental mistakes. The defense improved its athleticism across the board, which allowed them to play frequently in pass-first defenses while still being able to stop the run. Brad Seely's introduction as special teams coach turned a solid unit into what I would contend was the best in the league last year. On offense, Alex Smith took what defenses gave him and did not try to do too much. I think we'll see more chances taken by Smith in 2012, but even still, they are focused on taking what the defense gives them, while trying to dictate what exactly the defense will give them.
2. This year, there has been a lot of talk about the development of Alex Smith. Is it safe to say he no longer can be considered simply a game manager?
My own issue with the "game manager" description is that it really could cover a variety of quarterbacks. Elite quarterbacks are technically game managers as well since they are managing the offense. I understand what people are insinuating with "game manager" in describing Alex Smith, but I think it's too broad a term in general. When running the Colts offense and making all the play calls, wasn't Peyton Manning managing the game?
But to the point of Alex Smith's development, I think we will still see him in a mode of taking what the defense offers. After all, it seemed like the Packers were blowing coverage left and right. That's partially on the Packers D, but also on the 49ers offensive game plan putting the players in space. I don't think Alex Smith will ever be a guy who drops 4,000+ yards and 35 touchdowns on a regular basis. And in the context of the 49ers game plan, that is perfectly fine.
In reality, I think he already showed he can be more than a game manager last year against the Saints. It was only one game against an iffy defense, but he had little trouble moving up and down the field when it mattered most.
3. The 49ers added guys like Brandon Jacobs, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to their offense in the offseason. How have they fit into the offense so far, and what do you expect to see out of them going forward?
Thus far, it has been hit and miss for the 49ers free agent additions. Brandon Jacobs injured his knee against the Houston Texans in Week 2 of the preseason and has been out since. He sat out practice on Wednesday and would seem questionable for Sunday. He was looking like a strong short yardage option, but there's a good chance the Lions do not see him on Sunday.
Randy Moss and Mario Manningham were very quiet in the preseason, and Manningham missed the final two preseason games after a death in the family. Manningham was fairly low key, catching four passes for 29 yards. I think he will slowly work his way further into the game plan, peppering the middle of the field a bit. But for now, he seems like a work in progress.
Moss still seems to get a lot of respect from DBs, which resulted in his getting open underneath against the Packers. However, somehow he got past the Packers defenders and was wide open in the end zone for a fairly easy touchdown. I'm curious to see if defenders start to challenge Moss a bit more rather than provide him with a big cushion as we've seen thus far.
4. The 49ers' defense is considered one of the best in all of the NFL right now. They contained the Lions last year, and they did an excellent job against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. Just how good can this defense be?
This defense is arguably the best in the NFL, but I don't know if it will ever get the kind of discussion we see with the Ravens Super Bowl defense, the '85 Bears and other dominant units. The 49ers get talked about for their dominant rush defense, but it can be easy to overlook their pass defense because they do give up a lot of yards. Against this defense last year, Matthew Stafford threw for 299 yards, Drew Brees threw for 462 yards, Michael Vick threw for 416 yards and Tony Romo dropped in 345 yards. The 49ers won all but one of those games because they play a bit more of a bend-but-don't-break style that seems to allow for a sizable chunk of passing yards.
They get the job done, but I think the excess of yards is what keeps people from discussing how great they are. As far as why I think they're such a great unit? They have athleticism that is as good as any in the league. Against the Packers, they played in mostly dime defenses, yet their defensive linemen and linebackers had the athleticism to shut down the Packers rushing attack. Being able to shut down the rush while operating in a pass defense gives them a huge edge.
5. After coming so close last year and based on the start they're off to this year, is it Super Bowl or bust for the 49ers this season?
I believe it is Super Bowl or bust. They could very well not make it, but with the return of almost the entire defense and upgrades on offense, I see no reason this team can't be a favorite to end up in New Orleans. There are plenty of good teams in the NFL, but aside from maybe Baltimore (if their no-huddle offense really is legit), I don't know of any team that has the combination of all three units like the 49ers. The team does have to prove they can consistently move the ball on offense, but if they can do that, it seems to me like they can play with anybody in this league. Of course, I can't forget to include the "Any Given Sunday" mantra.