49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

October 23, 2006

Question: It seems that Lewis will finally get a shot at free safety. I wonder what's taken so long. He plays hard and hits hard and can't be any worse than what they have... although special teams will take a drop-off. Also, even tough its obvious the Niners need to draft definsivley, can they honestly pass up the top WR if he's on the board?
-- Alex, Shingle Springs

Answer: That sounds like a rhetorical question, Alex, but I'll answer it anyway: Yes they can. There are several teams that show that an abundance of top-notch receivers -- the Raiders, Jaguars, Lions and Redskins spring to mind -- doesn't necessarily translate to on-field success. But we're getting waaaaaaay ahead of ourselves here. There are six looooooooong months before the draft, and I guarantee these questions will be pondered, debated and talked about ad nauseum until then.

As for Lewis, I agree. Dan Snyder once criticized Mike Nolan's Redskins defense as too vanilla. Well, this one isn't even vanilla. It's Low-fat Vanilla Lite, and it needs a shot of attitude. Lewis is one of the few defenders on the team with plenty to spare. Dude is fearless. You have to go all the way back to September of last season -- Mike Rumph's shot on T.O. -- for the last time a 49ers defender really caught the attention of the opposing receivers. Lewis can do that.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: I saw the question about the 2007 draft. Let me give a couple of names for people to watch this college season. Alan Branch/DT/Michigan/Jr (6-5, 335 lbs) and Marcus McCauley/CB/Fresno State/Sr (6-1 205, 4.3 speed, leaper). Things can change, but these guys look like our guys. I say Branch first and McCauley if he's gone. I have a question for you. Has anybody asked Nolan about one-gap vs two-gap play for D-line and what he thinks are the pros and cons? It seems to me, we play way too much two-gap and never mess up enough blocking schemes. Thanks.
-- Berger, Reno

Answer: After re-evaluating his defense this past week, it seems as if the D will play even more one-gap than they did early on. As far as the draft, Nolan insists that the team will continue to draft the best player available, regardless of position. You might want to take that with a grain of salt, however. I remember a conversation I had last March with personnel director Scot McCloughan during which he said the 49ers would consider every position with the sixth overall pick. "Even quarterback?" I said. "Yes," said McCloughan. "So you guys are considering drafting Vince Young?" "Yes," McCloughan said with a straight face. In other words, draft-time 'tis the season for fibbing.
-- Matt Barrows

October 17, 2006

Question: It is well known that next year's draft is going to be defense oriented, but what does Nolan plan to do about his defense for the rest of this season? I know he's not going to be content with allowing 30-plus points per game for the rest of the year.
-- Jhuri, Folsom

Answer: At this point, there's nothing dramatic the team can do. They've been dealt a hand (a three of hearts and a seven of spades) and they have to play it. A couple of the young players, Parys Haralson and Ronnie Fields, will get more playing time. And Nolan seems resigned to playing a 4-3 defense the rest of the season, which ought to cut back on some of the defensive confusion. The best reassurance for 49ers fans should come from last season. The D was horrible early on but settled down by midseason despite the fact that it was composed of back-ups and castoffs. Best hope? That will happen again this season.
-- Matt Barrows

October 13, 2006

Question: Battle got open for two touchdowns last week, but given his injury history, what are his long-term prospects in the NFL. Should the 49ers be looking at a wideout in the draft?
-- Nick, Sacramento

Answer: It might be hard to pass up Calvin Johnson or Ted Ginn in the draft, but the 49ers have got to be thinking defense this spring. It doesn't matter how many Pro Bowl wideouts you have if your opponent scores 30 points each week. As for Battle, he claims to have put his knee problems behind him and looked quite fit Sunday. But you're right -- given his injury history, you wonder how long his health will last.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: I hear talk about how Nolan likes linbacker Derek Smith, but I don't really see him or Ulbrich as being top-flight impact guys. They make tackles, but most often it's three yards downfield. How many sacks do either have? Should middle linebackers also be on the 49ers wish list?
-- Ed, Sacramento

Answer: Hard to answer that one. Are those guys Derrick Brooks and Ray Lewis? No. But you also could make the argument that they'd look better if the defensive line did a better job of occupying blockers up front. And as far as the 49ers' wish list goes, they should be looking for anyone who can upgrade their front seven.
-- Matt Barrows

October 10, 2006

Question: Matt, what's up with Jennings? Can he stay healthy or what? What a waste of money and cap space! Is he really hurt or just collecting a paycheck? Larry Allen, is he heading in the collecting a paycheck mode? We could have got that dude from Seattle for the money Jennings and Allen are making! Nolan, do you notice these two players! Looking at the D, what do you think is the Niners' weekist link, and who outside of M. Lawson, B.Y. and T. Parrish have real starter skills?
-- James, Murrieta

Answer: Wow, James is bringing the heat this morning. It looks as if Jennings won't miss any games with his latest injuries (finger and wrist), but it was a bit puzzling that mere days after he was voted a team captain by his peers he missed all but six plays with what amounted to a sprained wrist. The way he reacted to the injury, everyone in the press box thought he had separated his shoulder or broken his arm. Following a long-established 49ers' pattern, the team's highest-paid players (Jennings, Allen, V. Davis) are the ones getting hurt.

As for the defense, I'd throw the two cornerbacks into that mix. The cornerback-needy Redskins must be kicking themselves for letting Walt Harris get away, and Shawntae Spencer, despite some inconsistency, promises to be -- if not great -- very good. The biggest problem is definitely the pass rush. Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, Damon Huard, even Andrew Walter -- they all had way too much time to throw. With that kind of time, even a run-of-the-mill guy (for example, Huard) will look like a 10-time Pro Bowler. If you ask me, the 49ers should settle on a 4-3 defense and go shopping for two true defensive ends in the offseason whether in free agency or the draft. Get those and everything else falls into place.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: What are the 49ers' draft picks for 2007, whether real or rumored?
-- Michael Lajigian, Rocklin

Answer: The Niners have all their own draft picks in rounds 1-6, plus two additional picks in round 4 (Washington's from the Brandon Lloyd trade and the New York Jets' from the Kevan Barlow trade). They have one pick in the seventh after adding one in the Cody Pickett-to-Houston trade and losing one in the Dorsey-for-Dilfer trade. They also have a chance to pick up some compensatory picks for Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Those, however, won't be sorted out until the end of the season.
-- Matt Barrows

October 9, 2006

Question: On the great screen pass from Alex Smith to Maurice Hicks, Smith dropped straight back into the pocket, then let the screen develop by rolling to the right so that Hicks could get in the clear. My question is whether the play is called for Alex to drop back and then roll to the right, or was rolling to the right improvisation on Smith's part?
-- Mark, Stockton

Answer: It was improv. Hicks stumbled out of the backfield and Smith said he rolled to his right to buy a little more time. Turns out, the stumble was a perfect touch. Hicks was all alone when he got the ball, then tucked in behind pulling linemen Justin Smiley and Eric Heitmann on his way to the end zone.
-- Matt Barrows

October 9, 2006

Question: Can you update us on some former 49ers? Have these guys found work - Corey Smith, Terry Jackson, etc. (The cut-down group)? What have your beat-writer friends in other cities told you about Mike Rumph, Kevan Barlow, Andre Carter, Julian Peterson (trades and FA group)? Just curious how they are all performing, and if some have found work. I do think the loss of TJ has really hurt our coverage unit.
-- Lebowski, Los Angeles

Answer: Hi Lebowski. Jackson lost his spot on the team because the 49ers decided to keep two pure fullbacks, Chris Hetherington and Moran Norris. What must be frustrating for Jackson (and for Hetherington and Norris) is that only one fullback is active for the game. In other words, the 49ers would have gotten more bang for their buck had they kept one of the fullbacks and Jackson, a special teams ace. I think Keith Lewis is a good replacement (did you see him single-handedly take on half the Chiefs punt unit and still tackle Donte Hall last week?), but that the coverage teams would be that much better if both he and Jackson were on them. At age 30, however, I don't expect him to get picked up by another team.

Smith also is looking for a job. That he didn't make a 49ers squad in desperate need of a pass-rushing linebacker probably was a signal to other teams that he wasn't worth their time.

Meanwhile, Rumph is a starter in Washington, but only until Shawn Springs returns from injury. Andre Carter has one sack for the Skins and Brandon Lloyd has six catches for 75 yards. None of those players have set the world on fire by any stretch of the imagination, but Washington typically plays better in the second half of the season. We'll see.

Predictably, the best former 49er has been Julian Peterson. He's got two sacks and is third on the team in tackles. Wouldn't he have paired well with Manny Lawson?

The biggest surprise? Barlow, who has and low-low 2.9-yards-per-carry average but who has scored four short-yardage TDs. Hear that, Frank Gore?
--Matt Barrows

Question: Matt, what the hell is going on with the 49er defense? I can't even begin to think which area on the defense is in the most need because they all are inconsistent and terrible for so-called professionals. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing a 49er defense this bad. At times I have liked the direction that the 49ers are headed under Mike Nolan, however, the honeymoon is over and it's time to call it like it is because this defense has regressed, not progressed. What are the current and future plans to better this defense in 49er land? Thanks.
-- Sacramento

Answer: Don't worry. D-coordinator Bill Davis "promises" the unit will shape up soon. Funny, I remember hearing the same thing last year...

The short answer is that there's not much the team can do in the short term aside from trading for Albert "Van Damm" Haynesworth. The bottom line is that the 49ers have decided that their first priority is upgrading the offense as shown by their last two drafts. The thinking is that a quarterback and offensive line take longer to jell and that a quality defense can be put together more quickly. Look for the team to use the bulk of its 2007 draft picks on defensive players. The upcoming draft is thought to be particularly deep in defensive linemen.
-- Matt Barrows

October 3, 2006

Question: Hi Matt. I have reservations about whether the Niners are headed in the right direction. As someone who covers the team, can you comment on whether you think the team is taking the steps necessary to become respectable again? For instance, why won't York hire a GM and do you think, like I do, that they need more "football guys" in the front office? What do you think of Nolan's personnel decisions and gametime coaching decisions? Do you have the confidence in Alex Smith? If you were a betting man, when can we expect to see postseason play?
-- Steve, Melbourne, Australia

Answer: G'day, Steve! If I were a betting man, I'd say the 49ers will go 6-10 next season, 8-8 in 2008 and then flirt with the playoffs the year after that. Why? Because the offensive line will have been mostly in tact for four years and the team's young playmakers (including Smith) will be in their play-making prime. Of course, this is contingent on the defense not allowing 41 points a game and not getting shredded by the likes of Damon Freakin' Huard. After virtually ignoring the D last season, Nolan et alia certainly will concentrate on it over the next two offseasons.

Do I think the team is going in the right direction? Yes, although it's difficult to be optimistic after the worst shutout loss in franchise history. The 49ers have gotten rid of nearly all the dead weight (Woods, Rumph, etc.) they've had in recent years and replaced them with promising young talent. They do have football guys in the front office in Scot McCloughan and Lal Heneghan who are held in high esteem by their NFL cohorts.

Nolan's game management? Yes, it needs work, but he's only four games into his second year as a head coach. He should be getting help in that area, at least on the offensive side of the ball, from Norv Turner.

Let's not forget that two years ago the 49ers were at expansion-team levels as far as pure awfulness. In fact, you could argue that they were worse than an expansion team because at least an expansion team has young, raw talent and unlimited salary-cap space.

What you saw in the Kansas City game were the after-effects of several years of gross mismanagement. To put it another way, the 49ers had to climb out of a much deeper hole than most bad teams. They're not out of it yet, but they're certainly closer to the top than they were a year ago.
-- Matt Barrows

Question: What are your thoughts on the Niners offensive line? In the preseason, coach Nolan exuded confidence in their quality and depth. In the last two games, the offensive line looks like a weaknesses instead of a strength. Nolan is pondering a shuffle but says he has no depth to do so? What happened? Four of five starters are still playing with Snyder (who is apparently worthy of a mulit-year deal?) backing up Allen. What happened to the "quality and depth" Nolan talked about in August? What do you see from your vantage point?
-- Steve, Sacramento

Answer: I think a lot of the O-line's recent struggles are a result of how quickly the team has fallen behind in the last two games. The 49ers' philosophy for winning games is this: Keep the game close and eventually wear down the opposing defense with the running game. That's impossible when you're trailing 24-0 at halftime. Defensive ends, like rookie Tamba Hali on Sunday, simply pin their ears back and rush upfield on every down. If the 49ers run a draw and gain seven yards, who cares? In close games, the O-line has allowed one sack; in blowouts they've allowed eight. It's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, but their performance often is contingent on how well the 49ers' defense is playing...

As far as Snyder, I'm as bewildered as you are. He did very well as a rookie at left tackle a year ago and obviously is a coaches' favorite. And yet Nolan said Monday that he will continue to be a "swing" player, that is, the guy who becomes johnny on the spot when another o-lineman goes down with an injury. Is that a valuable role? Definitely. But you would think a starting job, say right tackle, is even more valuable. I'll put Nolan to the fire on this one on Wednesday.
-- Matt Barrows

October 2, 2006

Question: Matt, what do you make of Vernon Davis' inabilaty to get involved in the passing game? This guy was supposed to drastically improve an anemic offense and become one of Alex Smith's go-to guys. In three games, however, he has been practically non-existent. Now he's out a month and I find myself looking forward to Eric Johnson being out there so the 49ers can get some production out of the TE position again. Not a good sign for a #6 overall pick, is it?
-- Kevin, Vancouver, Wash.

Answer: I don't think it's time to hit the panic button yet. Davis has all the raw, physical tools to be a big part of the offense. He's very strong, a willing blocker and is faster than most of the DBs in the league. He also wants to be great, which is a big part of the equation. What he needs is refinement. His hands aren't very good and his pass-catching technique needs work. I agree with you, Kevin, that it's a bit bewildering that the highest-paid tight end in the league isn't a great pass catcher. But that's something that can be coached. Don't forget, Jerry Rice dropped so many passes his rookie year, people accused him of having hands of brick. I think he turned out ok.
-- Matthew Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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