You guys love the conversations with fellow bloggers so much that I'm doing it again! Woohoo!
This week, I huddled with David Fucillo, aka Fooch, over at Niners Nation to talk about Sunday's Atlanta Falcons-San Francisco 49ers game. Fooch may be familiar to you from the Q & A FanPost and last year's game, but I thought this was a great opportunity to learn more about one of our historic opponents from one of SBN's great minds. Also, I offer my usual brand of mouth-breathing analysis.
Join us after the jump for a lengthy conversation about all things Falcons-Niners.
Fooch: Over at The Falcoholic it's been hard to answer questions about the 49ers offense heading into Sunday's game. The playbook isn't changing, but clearly play-calling will change.
Fooch: I expect the team to test you guys a bit more deep. I think you'll see Alex Smith on more designed roll outs to open up passing lanes.
Choate: Do you see Mike Johnson opening up the playbook a little bit more?
Choate: Ah, roll outs. Our worst enemy.
Fooch: Oh yeah? How so?
Choate: Mobile quarterbacks have traditionally been the bane of the Falcons defense.
Fooch: Alex Smith is mobile but the 49ers have been hesitant to use him in such a role. Norv Turner in 2006 was the last time we really saw that. Smith has shown impressive skills at times in scrambling, but it's usually when the 49ers are behind.
Fooch: In response to your Johnson question: Yes, I do think the 49ers will open things up more, even with some basic changes. We rarely saw play-action and it seemed liked Frank Gore was running up the middle with nothing outside the tackles. I think you'll see more of that mixed in
Choate: I think it'll take an aggressive effort to score a lot against the Falcons.
Fooch: The 49ers will be aggressive, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be.
Fooch: What can the 49ers expect from the Falcons defense?
Choate: Frequent pressure from the front four.
Choate: The linebackers do a little bit of everything in this scheme.
Choate: The secondary is really built around the big play, with the exception of Dunta Robinson, so you can expect Alex Smith to pay if he's inaccurate.
Fooch: Good to know. Smith has struggled with accuracy, particularly passes sailing. Mike Johnson said he thinks it's a matter of opening up passing lanes so Smith doesn't feel the need to throw over defenders but rather through the lanes around them. That's where the designed roll outs could play in.
Choate: Why has Michael Crabtree not really been a factor yet? Would his increased involvement make a difference for you guys?
Fooch: He missed all the pre-season games with a neck injury and was called out on it by Vernon Davis. He seems to be missing that extra gear at times and thus isn't getting separation from defenders. Of Alex Smith's 5 interceptions, four were passes to Crabtree.
Fooch: Mike Johnson studied the spread during his year between jobs (2008) and Smith and Crabtree both came from college spread offenses. I'd suspect you'll see more of Crabtree this week. I believe his involvement will help, but at the end of the day, the 49ers need a strong effort from Frank Gore to win this game. Frank Gore is sort of the measuring stick for the offense.
Fooch: As to your offense, we know about Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Do the 49ers have anything else to fear in the passing game, or is just odds and ends?
Choate: Harry Douglas will eventually get it going. He's a small, slot-type receiver with great wheels. But he hasn't shown up in a meaningful way so far.
Choate: You'll also want to keep a close eye on Jason Snelling in short yardage situations. He's got very soft hands for a big back and he's capable of turning a two yard pass into a first down.
Fooch: Do the Falcons use Snelling and Turner in the same backfield ever? Or do they go traditional RB/FB combination?
Choate: They may this week, but they haven't that much thus far. The element of uncertainty would be pretty cool.
Fooch: Yea, the 49ers have Brian Westbrook as a backup running back but he's been on the field for 3 plays in 3 games (1 against the Saints, 2 against the Chiefs). He's one guy you could see more of this weekend. I'd love to see the 49ers mix in Gore/Westbrook combo backfields
Choate: It sounds like both teams might get creative. It'd make it more interesting, at least.
Fooch: So I just go the injury report (I'll forward it to you). Sean Weatherspoon sat out practice again today. What kind of issues would his absence raise on Sunday?
Choate: Well, we'd be forced to go with Stephen Nicholas.
Choate: He's not as well-rounded a player as 'Spoon. But he's a good pursuit athlete and he's decent in coverage, so it wouldn't be an enormous downgrade. We'd miss Spoon against the run.
Choate: Tell us a little about Shawntae Spencer. Some guys on your site seemed to believe he had a chance to shut down Roddy White.
Fooch: Prior to last season Spencer had been viewed as an under-achieving injury prone cornerback who was maybe a #2 corner, but probably just a nickel back. And then all of a sudden Spencer was starting opposite Nate Clements and by season's end was viewed as the #1 corner on the team
Fooch: He's not a guy who picks off a ton of passes but he quietly puts together solid games. He's a tough one to describe. I view him not so much as a shutdown corner, but as more likely to contain his guy. Yea White might get decent numbers, but generally speaking, when Spencer has him in one-on-one coverage he won't kill the 49ers.
Fooch: Now if the 49ers go into a zone and Spencer lets White past him for Dashon Goldson or Michael Lewis to pick up coverage, the 49ers might be screwed. So I do think he can contain Roddy White but he's not in the Champ Bailey, Darrelle Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha mold of shutdown corner week in and week out.
Fooch: Can you tell me a little bit more about the Falcons running game. It seems like it's a traditional power game as opposed to what the 49ers saw last week against the Chiefs. In that game the Chiefs used Thomas Jones in the traditional role while Jamaal Charles is a speedier back who can get outside to the corner a bit easier
Choate: Good to know. Without Jerious Norwood, it's pure power running. Turner and Snelling are both big backs with decent speed and power.
Choate: The Falcons used them very effectively against the Saints to wear down their front seven, and you'll see that again. They may get 40 carries between them.
Fooch: If the Falcons passing game is firing on all cylinders, the power running game could certainly wear the 49ers down. But I think the 49ers biggest strength is against power running games. The 49ers are strong up the middle. At the first level, Aubrayo Franklin gets a lot of penetration at the nose tackle position, with Justin Smith always involved on the line.
Fooch: At the next level Patrick Willis is an all-world tackling machine while Takeo Spikes can still handle his business. And the secondary's biggest strength is probably in run support.
Choate: Interesting. I'm suddenly not looking forward to that matchup. Haha.
Fooch: I know I'm playing them up a lot, but if I have any confidence in the 49ers, it's in their ability to stop the running game.
Fooch: But of course, if the 49ers can't stop the pass, it won't really matter.
Choate: I don't think this game is going to be a blowout like some at Niners Nation seem to think.
Choate: I am predicting a Falcons win. But I refuse to take you guys lightly.
Fooch: Well one thing worth noting is that under Singletary the 49ers have generally been able to get up for big games. The 49ers took Minnesota and Indy to the wire last year, and swept the division-winning Cardinals. This year the 49ers obviously held their own against New Orleans. Obviously you guys kicked our butts last year but this year's team is certainly getting better press, which might help the 49ers
Fooch: But the offense is a huge wildcard this year with the change in OC. It all comes back to that for the 49ers.
Choate: Is there potential for a breakout game from the offense?
Fooch: There is certainly the possibility of a breakout game. Of course if Alex Smith's accuracy issues aren't improved the offense could certainly stagnate for most of the rest of the season
Fooch: But I think there's a better chance for a breakout offensive game than there has been up to this point.
Choate: Not in my backyard!
Fooch: The other issue is the 49ers performance in 10am pacific games. Except for games against teams like St. Louis, Buffalo, and I think Detroit, the 49ers have huge struggles in East Coast early games. Something like 6-43 in recent years...I don't know the exact number but it's fairly ridiculous.
Choate: Holy crap. Have they considered coffee?
Fooch: Maybe some greenies like they had in baseball back in the 60s and 70s!
Choate: That's the spirit!
Choate: The Falcons have only lost one home game with Matt Ryan at the helm. So we've got that going for us.
Fooch: I'm always a fan of pulling out random stats to support the cause.
Choate: Agreed. They're bulletproof.
Choate: Give me three keys to the game, if you don't mind.
Fooch: In no particular order:
Fooch: 1. 49ers getting some kind of consistent pass rush bringing pressure against Matt Ryan
Fooch: 2. The 49ers offensive line establishing some consistent push, thus giving Alex Smith time to pass and more importantly, opening up lanes for Frank Gore to get some big gains
Fooch: 3. Alex Smith finding some semblance of consistent accuracy in his passes
Fooch: What would you say are the three keys for the Falcons?
Choate: Well, the first one ties in with what you just said.
Choate: 1) Avoid allowing consistent pass rush pressure against Matt Ryan
Choate: 2) Establish the ground game early and keep it going all day long
Choate: 3) Pick off Alex Smith repeatedly
Fooch: Well those certainly sound like reasonable expectations
Choate: You never know.
Fooch: Like you mentioned, I do expect this to be closer than a lot of people might otherwise think. But really the curiosity factor as to the 49ers offense is sufficient to get me tuning in.
Choate: Me too.
Choate: On paper, your team is strong enough to hang in there, at minimum.
Fooch: The 49ers season has been all about what they have on paper. Unfortunately they keep forgetting to bring the paper to the game with them
Fooch: I've always been entertained by the Falcons. Michael Turner cost me in fantasy last year but I can live with that. Against any other team I'd probably pull for the Falcons, but obviously that won't be happening this week.
Choate: Can't say I blame you. Though it's never too late to join the fanbase.
Fooch: There are plenty of matchups to watch but I actually am really intrigued by the Spencer-White matchup. I wrote about it at NN because watching two quality opponents in that rare one-on-one battle is a lot of fun. Outside of the corner/WR and O-Line/D-Line battles, you rarely see that in football.
Choate: It'll be very interesting to watch. Because I look at Roddy White, and he does one thing exceptionally well: Get open. He may drop a few passes. But he'll have the opportunity to get his hands on the ball.
Fooch: Do you have a particular matchup (player vs. player or unit vs. unit) that you'll be paying particular attention to?
Choate: Honestly, I'm not familiar with your offensive line. But I'm eager to see what Jonathan Babineaux (DT) does against the interior of your O-line.
Fooch: Right now the interior consists of David Baas at center, Chilo Rachal at right guard, and rookie Mike Iupati at left guard. Iupati has struggled at times but is looking like a real keeper at left guard. Rachal has really struggled and some are calling for his benching. Baas has been a backup offensive lineman (mostly guard but tackle as well) for much of his career but starting center Eric Heitmann broke his leg the first week of training camp and Baas has done a solid job replacing him
Choate: That should be a compelling battle, then.
Choate: Babineaux is a slasher. Guy generates excellent pressure and is great at shedding blocks.
Fooch: The Falcons run a 4-3, correct? Which side would he come in on the interior? Or does he move around?
Choate: He'll generally be coming at the left side of your line.
Fooch: In that case it should be really interesting seeing him coming at Baas and Iupati
Choate: I think so.
Choate: Rookie Corey Peters is no slouch on the other side, either. But he hasn't picked up any sacks to this point.
Fooch: The 49ers offensive line has been up and down and was a major weakness last year. Definitely an important key if the 49ers want to have a chance
Choate: Our pass rush has improved, so that'll be intriguing in general.
Fooch: Anybody under the radar 49ers fans should pay attention to on Sunday?
Choate: I would say Brent Grimes. He's a little-known starter at corner for the Falcons, but he's got a great vertical and terrific instincts. He picked Drew Brees last game, and last season.
Fooch: Delanie Walker is the backup tight end. However, he's got the speed of many wide receivers and at times has been used as a kick returner. The team likes to use him occasionally on reverses because he has the speed to hit the outside corner and power to break tackles. He creates a lot of mismatches because of his combination of size and speed
Choate: Yeah, I've been tracking him a bit. I'll be keeping an eye on him in this one, that's for sure.
Fooch: Alright, I need to cut out soon. Feel like making a final prediction for the game?
Choate: I'll stick to my guns and say 31-17 Falcons.
Choate: You got one?
Fooch: I have no confidence in any of my predictive powers (as regular readers of NN will attest). But I'll go with a 49ers 27-20 victory
Fooch: I refuse to pick against the 49ers ever.
Fooch: Homer Central here.
Choate: Well, I can't quibble with that. At least you're keeping the faith. I've never been very good at that.
Fooch: It gets harder and harder each week but I stick to it
Fooch: Best of luck and hopefully we have a fun game this Sunday
Choate: Best of luck to you! May it be injury free.