The NFC West was much maligned last year but the San Francisco 49ers are emerging as a legitimate team this year. They have to travel three time zones over to face the Lions who will have to deal with a short week following their appearance on Monday Night Football.
Matt Hamm writes about the San Francisco 49ers on Niner Noise and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions to help us get familiar with the Lions’ opponent this week.
Zac Snyder: What have been the biggest differences in the 49ers (besides wins) since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach?
Matt Hamm: Jim Harbaugh has simply brought the 49ers what they needed a real Head Coach. The last 3 coaches Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and especially Mike Singletary were in WAY over their heads. It was obvious during those regimes even to the casual fan what the team’s plan was. The 49ers were a laughing stock and it started with the head coach. This season Harbaugh has demonstrated that he actually has a plan, the players trust him and the play on the field so far this season has proven it.
ZS: Alex Smith has been one of the biggest surprises this season, what has changed with him and how does his emergence affect Colin Kaepernick?
MH: Alex finally looks comfortable in the huddle and in the pocket. Smith has never been given any freedom at the line of scrimmage to change up the play if he sees something in the defense. He has been given this liberty under the new coaching staff one that truly believes in him. The last 2 regimes obviously didn’t understand how to properly coach a QB. Smith’s college HC said in 2005 when he came out that Alex wouldn’t be functional until he understood everything and was comfortable with the offense, the coaches and himself. What we’re seeing now is all those things coming together for Alex. With that said we’re only 5 games into the season, Alex’s first productive year in his 7 year career. The beauty of drafting Kaepernick in the 2nd round this year after the new CBA was negotiated is that the 49ers aren’t forced to play him simply because he’s a high draft pick with a large salary. The plan was to sit Colin this season anyway, at the end of the day the best QB will be the 2012 starter and Kaepernick still has a chance to be that guy.
ZS: Frank Gore got his money, how has he produced compared to your expectations?
MH: The thing about it is Gore really didn’t get his money. Yes he got a new contract but he will have to play at a very high level to earn anywhere close to the $21M maximum contract value. The 49ers remain in control here, they have Gore’s right’s if they want them. Too much was made early in the season about Gore’s “struggles”. The offense was struggling as a whole, the run blocking was awful in weeks 1-3 and that’s not Gore’s fault. As the offense and especially the offensive line’s play has improved so has Gore.
ZS: Are 49ers fans confident in their team’s ability to win the NFC West or is there still a wait and see attitude?
MH: Being confident in the NFC West isn’t saying much. After all an 8-8 team won the division last season. The team holds a 2 game lead on Seattle which in most observers opinion is the worst team in the West coming into the season. The 3 and 4 game leads the 49ers hold over the Rams and Cardinals almost seems insurmountable at this point. 49er fans are very confident we will win the West this season simply because the rest of the teams stink. Whether or not the team can contend with the big boys in the playoffs is an entirely different story.
ZS: How do you think Sunday’s game between the Lions and 49ers will play out and what is your predicted final score?
MH: I see a defensive battle, both teams have very good front 7’s. I don’t think either team will have much consistency in the run game nor will either QB have much time in the pocket. The game will come down to turnovers, the Lions have looked great this season but I just don’t see them staying perfect much longer. I see the 49ers winning this one in a close game that will come down to the final possession. 49ers 21-Lions 17