On San Francisco's Offense:
Jeanna Thomas: Since Colin Kaepernick took over as the starting quarterback for the 49ers, he’s been generally quite impressive, but he really took it up a notch against Green Bay on Saturday, setting a league record for the most rushing yards by a quarterback with 181 total. He was also pretty successful through the air, with 263 passing yards and just one interception. Does this guy have weaknesses?
East Bay Sports Guy: This is hyperbole, for sure. But Kaepernick’s ability as quarterback is without peer. He leads all quarterbacks in QBR over the past nine weeks. He leads the league in the yards per attempt (YPA), which is significant given that Kerry J. Byrne of Cold of Hard Football Facts found "The winning-est quarterbacks in history are typically the quarterbacks with the best passing YPA average." He’s the most accurate quarterback on throws of 20 yards or more. He’s easy to pressure (49ers allow pressure 35% of snaps), but he’s impossible to sack (He’s sacked only 17.6% of the time). In essence, he possesses all the skills that make Matt Ryan great, except Kaepernick can run the ball.
With that said, the offense under Kaepernick hasn’t been better, per say. Has it been more explosive? Of course. But not better. In total, Kaepernick is no more efficient at converting third downs or red zone opportunities. The running game has stalled since he took overand offensive penalties and wasted time outs have soared. I think all of this adds up to one damning flaw: Kaepernick has great difficulty managing the game. Not only does this mean rallying teammates to the line of scrimmage in an efficient manner, but also making the correct reads and audibles.
While he’s improved week-to-week, I still think he has trouble deciphering defenses and making the correct call based on his read. Such a weakness really plays right into the strength of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. So, it should be an interesting match up.
JT: It seemed like, after Kaepernick was named the starter, that Vernon Davis, an excellent tight end and a mainstay on my fantasy football teams from season to season, saw his role in the offensive scheme diminished. Is this accurate, and if so, what is the reason? Can we expect him to play a more significant role on Sunday against the Falcons?
EBSG: The disappearance of Vernon Davis has been a talking point for a while now. A few weeks ago, Davis blamed his lack of production on "chemistry." But this is something of a red herring. Against Chicago, the combination of Davis and Kaepernick was unstoppable. For a time, the accepted theory was that defenses were deliberately taking away Davis in order to limit the 49ers big play ability. This certainly might be the case.
I think Davis has limited himself in this offense. He’s passive when the ball is in the air, opting to attempt body catches instead of using his hands to pluck passes out of the air. Because of this, I don’t think Kaepernick feels confident in trying to get the ball to Davis in tight spaces.
I would expect Davis to be a focal point, and he was last week to a degree. He was target 5 times, the most since Week 11. Even if he is a focal point, I’m not sure it matters. He hasn’t had a multi-catch game since Week 13, when he had two catches for 15 yards. In short, I wouldn’t lose sleep over him.
JT: What do you see as the Niners’ greatest strengths and weaknesses offensively?
EBSG: I think our greatest strength is our quarterback, though he’s not necessarily the greatest player. The offense, at this point, revolves around Kaepernick. We saw this on Saturday. If he can read the defense and can get in a rhythm, the 49ers don’t lose.
Conversely, he might be our greatest weakness as well. The Falcons can still win if Matt Ryan plays poorly. The 49ers cannot say the same about Kaepernick. If he has an off day, the offense is dormant, and the team will lose. This happened against St. Louis and Seattle.
On San Francisco's Defense:
JT: The torn tricep for Justin Smith is probably the most notable injury on the Niners’ defense, and he did play through it on Saturday, and presumably will take the field against the Falcons on Sunday. Did the injury limit his performance on Saturday, and is it a concern moving forward?
EBSG: I didn’t notice any difference. He played 55 of the defense’s 60 snaps. He limited DuJuan Harris to just three yards per carry on runs to the left. He also allowed Aldon Smith to get five quarterback pressures, the most since the New England game. He might not be his old self, but he’s good enough to keep the defense running effectively.
JT: We love our safety tandem of William Moore and Thomas DeCoud here in Atlanta, but San Francisco has a pretty impressive tandem as well in Dashon Goldson (3 interceptions, 1 forced fumble) and Donte Whitner (1 interception, 2 forced fumbles.) What role do you see your safeties playing against Atlanta on Sunday?
EBSG: I’m not as big of a fan of Goldson and Whitner as most are. Though smart and saavy, Whitner’s play hurts the defense more than it helps. He’s missed 13 tackles, while allowing quarterbacks to complete 78.7% of passes thrown for 358 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s dangerously bad. Goldson is better, especially in coverage, but isn’t elite. Outside of their ability to land violent hits, neither Goldson or Whitner should strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.
Their ability to keep Julio Jones and Roddy White in front of them will be paramount on Sunday. Rahim Moore already showed the danger of not losing containment. I’m hoping that the 49ers don’t suffer the same fate as the Broncos, but I’m not confident that they won’t.
About the Niners in General:
JT: Mike Nolan was previously the head coach and GM in San Francisco, and contributed to building your current team. How do Niners fans feel about him? Are you at all concerned that his familiarity could be a benefit to the Falcons as they prepare for Sunday?
EBSG: Fans remember Mike Nolan’s tenure as a bad dream. Sure, Nolan is competent defensive coordinator, but he was overmatched as a head coach. His mishandling of Alex Smith and inability to develop young players mired the 49ers for seasons.
I’m not too concerned with Nolan’s familiarity. The team is much different. I’m more concerned about his familiarity with the spread/read-option quarterback. He has after all faced a number of good ones and has beat them all.
JT: Needless to say, the decision to start Colin Kaepernick has proven to be wise. Were 49ers fans supportive of the choice initially?
EBSG: It was very, very controversial and still is even now. The same fans that once chanted David Carr’s name on national television have turned into rapid Alex Smith supporters. Ultimately, there are two opposing camps: one that appreciated the stability Alex Smith provided, and one that hungered for an explosive offense. Kaepernick’s performance against Green Bay has assuaged some fears, but there is still a lot people crediting Green Bay’s defense for the win, not Kaepernick’s play.
A resident of Oakland, East Bay Sports Guy (otherwise known as Scott Preston) often spends his time wearing v-necks--sometimes deep, sometimes not--and watching the teams that play in the Coliseum. You can follow Scott on Twitter @EBSportsGuy.