We asked Fooch over at Niners Nation five questions, and he delivered some killer answers. Check 'em out!
Dave Choate: At first blush, at least, Colin Kaepernick has not been able to duplicate his success from a year ago. Is this a case of stats misleading, and if not, why has Kaep struggled a bit this year?
Fooch: This is the oft-repeated question from opponents. The stats are down, and at times Kap has struggled. However, there are numerous reasons for Kap's struggles earlier in the season. Teams had the whole offseason to gameplan for him, the offensive line has dealt with some injury issues, and generally has been a bit more inconsistent, and the team has been banged up at wide receiver until recently. There is talk of simple regression by Kap, and that could certainly be part of the reason as well.
In reality, I don't think one single reason answers this question, but I know one answer that makes as much sense as anything: Michael Crabtree. The 49ers leading receiver last year missed the first three months of the season with an Achilles injury. He is now back, and his return has sparked something in the offense. Crabtree himself is a great route-runner, so he can get open. Additionally, his return means defenders can't focus as much on Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, further opening them up. Finally, Crabtree works hard to get himself open, and that combined with Kap's scrambling skills opens things up a bit more.
The offense is starting to come around, and we're seeing a more decisive Colin Kaepernick. It very well could be as simple as the return of Michael Crabtree. The rest of this month and potentially into the playoffs will tell us a lot more.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have been unable to slow opposing ground games most of the season. Knowing that, do you expect Frank Gore to get a heavy workload, or will Atlanta face a more balanced attack?
Fooch: I think you'll see a solid dose of Frank Gore, but I also think the offense will look to show some balance. The team won't be looking to throw 35 times or run 25-30 times, but I suspect they'll mix it up. Last week, Frank Gore rushed 22 times in the 49ers win over the Buccaneers. However, that was the most carries Gore has had since Week 7. Kendall Hunter got eight carries alongside him, and I suspect we'll see the 49ers mix in Hunter and LaMichael James.
The team is without Gore's lead blocker, fullback Bruce Miller, so I think we can expect to see the team mix things up. Miller suffered a fractured scapula last week, and is lost for the season. The 49ers primary fullback now is Anthony Dixon, who is a reserve running back who has taken on some fullback work. He is not a traditional fullback so it's hard to tell how a full day's work will look for him. The 49ers could decide to go with more one back sets, which could alter their offensive philosophy to some extent. I honestly don't know what to expect from the 49ers play-calling in this regard.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have had chronic troubles with their offensive line thus far in 2013. Paint us a picture of how your pass rush operates and which linemen are likely to get the worst of it.
Fooch: The 49ers can bring the heat in a variety of ways. Aldon Smith is the most notable name given his sack totals the last two seasons. Since returning from rehab, he has been a solid presence. He lines up over the shoulder of defensive tackle Justin Smith. They run a great move where Justin cuts in on the offensive lineman, and as Aldon loops from the outside in between the tackle and guard, Justin is able to prevent the tackle from getting back over. Some call it holding, I just call it brute force. 49ers fans see no holding, opposing fans disagree. What are you gonna do, right?
The "Smith Brothers" are the most notable part of that group, but the 49ers get pressure elsewhere. Ray McDonald lines up at left defensive tackle, and he can still bring the pressure. Ahmad Brooks lines up over his shoulder and is a very underrated pass rusher. He has a career-high 8.5 sacks on the season. Finally, the 49ers have added more pressure up the middle from their inside linebackers. NaVorro Bowman in particular is taking to pass rushing. He has four sacks after entering the season with four in his first three seasons combined. Watch for him bursting through over
Alex Boone Glenn Dorsey once in a while.
Dave Choate: Opponents seem to do reasonably well passing the ball against this defense. Is there someone in the secondary you'd recommend picking on?
Fooch: Teams can pass the ball in part because the 49ers have done a solid job building leads. The 49ers have lost four games, but in their ten wins they have the highest margin of victory (17.1 points). In building sizable leads, they've also given up their fair share of garbage yards. Last week against the Bucs, the defense struggled adjusting to Tampa's no-huddle at the end of the second quarter. The two touchdown drives put series yards up, but the 49ers buckled down. The defense sometimes seems to lose focus, which might be the best explanation.
The best chance at passing success is likely going to be attacking Carlos Rogers in the slot. The loss of Julio Jones obviously impacts this tremendously, but that's the best opportunity. PFF rates Rogers the worst cover corner, although subjectively I would imagine that has been in their nickel coverages, as opposed to when he's lined up outside in the base 3-4.
Donte Whitner used to be a significant liability, but he worked hard to improve his coverage work this offseason. He is grading out really well, but I suppose the Falcons could send Tony Gonzalez at him and see what they can get out of it.
Dave Choate: What's your expectation for the rest of your season? I don't think there's a Falcons fan out there who expects an Atlanta win in this one.
Fooch: The 49ers are getting hot as the season winds down. Getting hot in December doesn't guarantee playoff success (the Ravens lost four of five to end last season), but I'm pretty happy to see the 49ers playing well. The improved play has come due to the team getting healthier at wide receiver and on defense. Last season the defense dealt with numerous injuries. They are still dealing with injuries, but they appear to have a little more depth. Fingers crossed that remains the case.
At this point, the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle. The Seahawks can clinch home field advantage with a win on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Seattle has been incredibly tough at home, with their last home loss coming to the 49ers in 2011. They are playing as well as anybody, and are the odds-on favorite to win it all this year. The 49ers have struggled their last two times in Seattle, but they're coming together health-wise, so 49ers fans are optimistic they can make some things happen in Seattle. Alongside their tough defense, Colin Kaepernick seems to be returning to form. If he can develop some consistency over the next two months, anything is possible.