It’s Friday before a game, so that means we talk to the enemy to get some understanding of the Cowboys opponent. This week it’s a fantastic blog, Niners Nation. Check it out.
Blogging The Boys: The Chip Kelly Era has arrived in San Francisco. How do you feel about that personally, and how do you think the majority of the fanbase feels about it?
Niners Nation: People are pretty excited about Chip Kelly. That does not mean they are exactly psyched about the state of the offense, but the idea of Chip Kelly and some of what we're seeing is exciting so far. It is worth noting that this is still a team quarterbacked by Blaine Gabbert. The team has talent, but it is deficient in several areas. However, fans are more inclined to blame general manager Trent Baalke for the roster issues. The quarterback position remains a problem, with Blaine Gabbert struggling, and the team not prepared to start Colin Kaepernick in part because of his continued recovery from surgeries last fall. That being said, Kelly has handled the issues around the team perfectly and brought the locker room together, and considering how things ended in Philadelphia, that's pretty big.
BTB: The 49ers defense was lights out against the Rams to start the season, but has really struggled in Week 2 and 3 giving up points. What's happening there?
NN: Well, the Rams were entirely one-dimensional, with Case Keenum unable to get anything going in the passing game. That being said, they looked good containing Todd Gurley, having great tackling technique while remaining disciplined on assignments. Let's just say, that did not continue against much better offenses in Carolina and Seattle.
I have a hunch the 49ers defense is going to be better at home than away, which is often what happens with teams that are not exactly world beaters. There's talent on the defense, but inconsistency and discipline will be two things to watch all season long. They've got a lot of new young players, spending a first round pick on Oregon DT DeForest Buckner this year, and a first round pick on Oregon DT Arik Armstead last year. They've got Glenn Dorsey back in the mix, which is key for the line.
In the secondary, cornerback Jimmie Ward is unlikely to play this week due to a quad strain. Keith Reaser is the guy who will likely replace him, and look for rookie fourth round pick Rashard Robinson to get some snaps as the first cornerback off the bench. The key again is there is a lot of young talent that will be inconsistent for stretches.
BTB: I see the 49ers offense struggles to convert 3rd downs. Is it the play-calling? The personnel? Some combination of those?
NN: Yes? The 49ers had a couple big issues last week against Seattle. They were throwing short of the sticks in part because the Seahawks were playing off and happy to give up the shorter stuff. And while that can sometimes lead to yards after the catch, the Seahawks are strong when it comes to containing YAC. It felt like the 49ers did not sufficiently adjust in that regard.
At the same time, the 49ers have serious talent questions at the wide receiver and tight end positions. Torrey Smith is a deep threat who is not overly utilized. After that, the 49ers have a mix of Jeremy Kerley and Quinton Patton, and recently signed Keshawn Martin. Not exactly a who’s who of pass catchers. And the tight end position has its own set of issues. Vance McDonald has been a regular target for Blaine Gabbert, but he missed Wednesday practice and was limited on Thursday. Friday will tell us more, and even if he plays, he might be banged up.
BTB: I've seen a lot of talk lately about the failure of GM Trent Baalke and the talent level of the roster. Assess that situation for us.
NN: We could talk about this for a couple days and not come to a resolution. Before we get to personnel, let's get to the real issues. Jim Harbaugh left after the 2014 season, and there is a strong belief it was because he and Trent Baalke did not get along. Since then, Colin Kaepernick has had turmoil with the front office, and it is primarily his relationship with the GM that has been problematic. He signed for less guaranteed money thinking the team would use some of the savings on some of the 49ers pending free agents the last two offseasons. They did not, and the relationship soured. He's not exactly viewed as a people person.
On to football. Baalke is the kind of GM who builds from the inside out, focusing on the offensive line and defensive line. He has been strong when it comes to adding talent on the line. The problem is outside of that. Particularly on offense. Baalke has had a large share of hits and misses. The failures have come in large part on the offensive side of the ball, primarily at wide receiver. The team spent a first round pick on A.J. Jenkins in 2012, and he was a total bust. The team spent fourth round picks on wide receivers in 2013 (Quinton Patton), 2014 (Bruce Ellington), and 2015 (DeAndre Smelter), and then a sixth round pick this past year (Aaron Burbridge). Patton is starting opposite Torrey Smith, but he has not done much of anything. Ellington is on injured reserve, and Smelter was waived with an injury settlement. The team spent money on Torrey Smith, but they haven't had a good wide receiver draft pick since Michael Crabtree.
On the other hand, one strength for Baalke is late round picks. Some late round talent that are contributing are OT Trent Brown (7th), DT Quinton Dial (5th), CB Keith Reaser (5th), OLB Aaron Lynch (5th), and Daniel Kilgore (C). The problem is his early round picks are not making nearly enough of an impact. Free safety Eric Reid has been the biggest success, and will likely get a contract extension. Jimmie Ward dealt with a foot injury in 2014, bounced back with a solid 2015, and has been off to a solid, but sometimes inconsistent season in 2016. Arik Armstead is looking solid as a pass rusher, but is dealing with some shoulder issues this year.
BTB: What's the scenario for the 49ers to win on Sunday, what has to happen and who are the main players needed to putt it off?
NN: The 49ers are underdogs, but this is a winnable game for them. However, if they are going to win this game, it will be from a strong defensive effort and a big game from Carlos Hyde. Dak Prescott is obviously off to a strong start, but I'd like to think there will be a bump or two in the road. 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil uses a variety of biltzes and I imagine he mixes it up against Prescott to try and confuse him. And with La'el Collins expected to miss the game and Tyron Smith dealing with back issues, it could open the door for the pass rush on the blind side.
Of course, Ezekiel Elliott will also have something to say about this. The Cowboys offensive line is still better than the Rams, so I'm not exactly expecting a repeat of Todd Gurley's performance. But the 49ers will win this game if they can bottle up Elliott and be technically sound in their tackling.
On the offensive side of the ball, the 49ers need a big game from running back Carlos Hyde. They have struggled on third downs, so how about they just convert new first downs on first and second down? Easy enough, right? But seriously, if they can get into 3rd and 3 or less with some kind of regularity, I think Blaine Gabbert can actually get some things done. They can't win with the deep ball, but they can win on the shorter game.
Thanks for the knowledge, Niners Nation.