It's getting much closer to game time, so it's time to talk to the enemy. I sent over 5 questions to SB Nation's excellent 49ers blog, Niners Nation. David Fucillo, the lead dog over there, replied with detailed answers. Check 'em out.
Blogging The Boys: What has Jim Harbaugh been like as a coach so far? What is his style, and what changes has he made in San Francisco?
Niners Nation: It's been kind of hard to fully assess Coach Harbaugh in part because he has worked hard to limit the information getting out to the press. He rarely discusses injuries other than to say a player is "working on something." After about three or so weeks of training camp, he closed out the press for everything except for the first half or so of practices. He's providing the minimal amount of information he possibly can, which is not surprising given his background as a player. Under previous coaches the 49ers were much more open with practices.
For now he seems to bring the necessary motivational and teaching skills to the job without turning into a taskmaster like Mike Singletary. He's not a rah rah type of coach but more just a high energy guy without being a Pete Carroll level of annoying. When a tight end was missing from a formation in practice he hopped in to a drill and got physical with an OLB. Given his QB background if he sees a mistake by a QB he'll hop in and run the play or show them specifically what the mistake was.
As far as game-planning or scheming or whatever, he promised to bring in a version of the west coast offense. Week one saw a fairly conservative play-calling scheme and it's hard to tell what exactly the offense is compared to last year. I think it will be a developing system that will take time to fully implement in San Francisco.
BTB: Are you a believer in Alex Smith? Is the 49er fanbase? How did he play last week?
NN: I'm not a believer so much as just hoping he can figure things out. I think he has the skills to be a solid QB in the NFL and am hoping that he is being put in a position to maximize those skills. My personal belief is that while he does lack some of the skills to be a top-end QB, he's also frequently been put in a bad situation prior to this season with questionable offensive lines, dubious play-calling and question marks at the skill positions outside of Frank Gore and Vernon Davis. This year, I'm hoping having an offensive-minded head coach and a plethora of weapons can be the difference.
The 49ers fan base as a whole remains divided on Smith. Some think he should be long gone, others are beaten down by it and want the story to just go away and others remain optimistic. Of all the topics out there, Alex Smith leads to the most vitriol on the site.
BTB: A few of the writers at my site all agree; the 49ers defense looks strong up the middle and along the line. Talk about that part of the team.
NN: The 49ers front seven is looking like a strength so far. Big things were expected from parts of it, but the overall play of the front seven on Sunday against the Seahawks was really impressive. The Seahawks offensive line struggled mightily and Tarvaris Jackson remains Tarvaris Jackson, but even still, it was a strong performance.
On the line, Justin Smith is one of the pillars of this defense. While Patrick Willis gets much of the praise, Smith had arguably the better overall season in 2010, justifiably earning his second straight Pro Bowl and making his case for being the best 3-4 defensive end in the league. You'll see him frequently in the Cowboys backfield getting pressure if not some sacks.
The rest of the line is developing quite nicely. Their other defensive end, Ray McDonald, made his first start since 2008 after inking a five year deal and was an absolute terror in the Seahawks backfield. It's only one game but he looks like he could be a pretty legit bookend to Justin Smith. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga is a fairly quiet guy but in his regular debut as starting nose tackle he held the line well, albeit a bit under the radar.
The linebackers are led by the second pillar of the defense, Patrick Willis. There's really nothing to be said about Willis that hasn't already been said. He's arguably the best inside/middle linebacker in the game right now. The team has worked to build some talent around him and right now he is paired with second year linebacker NaVorro Bowman who replaced incumbent Takeo Spikes. The two of them will be expected to contain the run inside if it gets past the defensive line. They're both quite athletic and are strong at the point of attack. The combination of those and the defensive line will look to be the keys to stopping Felix Jones inside.
BTB: What are the weakest points for the 49ers right now? As an opposing coach, what areas would you exploit?
NN: The secondary has significant question marks for now. Veteran strong safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rogers are looking like solid acquisitions so far, but cornerback Tarell Brown and the free safety position remain question marks. The Seahawks picked on Brown for much of the game and had success against him so I would expect the Cowboys to do the same. The same holds true for going deep on plays the free safety is covering. The 49ers batch of free safeties often can be caught over-pursuing receivers and get burned that way.
On offense, for now the best bet is to stack up inside against the run and make Alex Smith beat you or force the 49ers to actually call for some sweeps and screens to loosen up your defense. The 49ers didn't make a ton of offensive adjustments against the Seahawks and while they did grab 19 points before the two return touchdowns, they were struggling to get anything going. They very well could have been playing possum a bit, but that remains to be seen.
Additionally, in early downs and passing situations (so most of the time), bring the house when you decide to blitz. Against the Saints and Texans, the 49ers offensive line was getting hit with blitzes all day and could do nothing to stop them. This in turn meant Smith had little to know time to go through his reads and make the pass and he struggled mightily.
BTB: Ted Ginn? I'm thinking we don't kick to him. Tell us about his exploits.
NN: We highly encourage you to kick to Ted Ginn. Who's Ted Ginn after all? Definitely punt and kick to him. I promise it is a good idea.
Ginn's touchdowns were a surprise but his ability to return the ball is not. Last year, Ginn actually finished third in the NFL in yards per punt return. While he may never prove to be the wide receiver Dolphins fans were hoping for when they picked him, there is no doubt that he is a big play threat as a return man. Against the Seahawks he single-handedly slammed the door shut on a possible comeback. He received some big blocks, but he also battled through some legit tackle opportunities to break both plays. Considering the 49ers were on the verge of blowing a 16-0 lead when he came on the scene, I'd say that was the difference in the game.
In regards to punting, I've got to think Mat McBriar punts away from him all day long. If return touchdowns don't encourage that, I'm not sure what would. As for kick returns, it's hard to tell what to do with the boom/bust quality of the new kicking rules. I'd imagine the Cowboys could go for kicks with a bit more hang time. The key for the Cowboys will be maintaining their coverage lanes.
Thanks for the knowledge!