Well kids, it is week 8, which means that we're almost halfway through the season. In this week's installment of "Upon Further Review", Diego and I will be discussing whether or not Alex Smith has peaked or is regressing (surprise!), the 49ers suddenly "conservative" play-calling, Frank Gore's role going forward and our picks for Week 8.

Smith, Yet Again…Has He Peaked? Is He Regressing?
AJ: When it comes to 49er football, no discussion is complete without two fans starting a battle royale over the virtues of the 49ers' resident lightning rod, Alex Smith. After starting the season incredibly well, Smith has endured two underwhelming performances in a row. Some have surmised that the "flow" of the game has been disrupted by Colin Kaepernick's "Wild Kaep" cameos, and others that he just plain sucks.


The answer is more complicated than that (isn't it always?), however. Smith has not magically begun to suck, nor has his flow been interrupted. Smith is going through what every quarterback does: the ebb and flow of a typical NFL season. Even the most consistent players have off weeks (check Eli Manning's QB ratings from week to week last season and you'll see what I mean), and Smith is no exception. So my answer is that Smith has neither peaked, nor has he regressed. I fully expect him to have a few more "lights out" performances this season, just as I expect him to have a few less than stellar outings, but over the long haul, I expect him to be the highly efficient QB that he has proven to be over his last 25 games.

Diego: Immediately after last week's game against the Seahawks, I found myself in the car listening to 95.7 The Game and I heard caller after caller bash Alex Smith, the words "Arena League quarterback" still resonant in my head. Let's be clear about something: Smith has peaked … in this system. His job is to win football games, and (in this system) he has succeeded so far posting a 19-6 record with Jim Harbaugh as the head coach. It's been pointed out before but it's worth mentioning again: Tom Brady lost to the same Seahawks team the week before, he threw and completed more than twice the amount of passes Smith threw, yet only averaged 0.7 yards more per completion and had the same TD-INT ratio. Brady's team led 23-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter when he was intercepted by Earl Thomas in the endzone. Seattle won by one point, the Patriots defense unable to hold the lead. In retrospective, Brady probably needed to make that the throw that ended up on an interception.

Smith doesn't have that problem. He has been made well aware of the fact that if he doesn't force a throw, if he just tucks it and runs, if he takes a sack or throws it away, so long as he doesn't turn the ball over (and/or hurt himself) more likely than not he will get it back, the score the same as it was before, and he'll get another chance at putting up points on the board. In this offense, Smith is what he is: if the window is there to make a throw, he will make it - we saw it in the game against Buffalo. Yes, he is still not as accurate as you would like, and again that may not change, but so long as he continues to win why should the fan base scream for a change at QB? Furthermore, we have seen Smith thrive at times when asked to put the team on his shoulders. Sure, it doesn't always lead to a victory (at Houston and at Green Bay in '09, vs New Orleans and at Philadelphia in '10), but he has brought the team back into a game plenty of times putting them in a position to win, including his success last season in multiple times with the game on the line, chief among them the divisional playoff game against the Saints.

He will most likely continue to consistently inconsistent in the box score, but as long as he keep consistently winning he will continue to be the team's starting quarterback.


Why So Conservative on Offense?
AJ: When the 49ers went out and signed Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, then went on to draft AJ Jenkins and LaMichael James, many thought that the 49ers would be opening things up. Almost across the board, fans were boldly prognosticating that the 49ers would finally evolve into a chuck n' duck offense.

Needless to say, the fan base at large has been disappointed. But not me.

The 49ers' formula for winning is not about perpetual deep throws, stretching the field or tossing the rock with impunity. The 49er formula is simple, and by modern standards, quite boring. This team is built to run the ball, control the clock, maintain field position advantage, and force opponents to play the same game. When the 49ers do this successfully, they are almost unbeatable. So while some see a conservative offense, I see an offense that serves its purpose in a proven formula for winning. As Justin Smith recently said, "stats are for losers". Wins are what counts, and the 49ers seem to be doing just fine in that department.

Diego: While Smith has struggled these last couple of weeks, it is very short-sighted to place all the blame on him. Sure, it comes with being the quarterback, but we are starting to see teams around the league adjust to the 49ers' offense, and it is time that Greg Roman and company make some adjustments of their own. The running game is not the concern, the 49ers are averaging an outstanding 176.6 yards/game, good for second best in the league. The passing game is the complete opposite, at just 199.9/game, good for fourth worst in the league. The key to it all? Vernon Davis. It is no secret: if Alex Smith has a good game, chances are Vernon Davis was on the receiving end of several passes for a chunk of yards and a touchdown or tw. In the last two games both the Giants and the Seahawks made it a point to take Davis away as an option, and it is no coincidence Smith has struggled. So what is the adjustment? The onus is on the rest of the receiving corps to pick up the slack, but it wouldn't hurt to design their routes to fill in the spots where Davis drives away multiple defenders. Want to run that seam route with Davis? Run another receiver for a hook route right where the linebacker vacated. (see Michael Crabtree's 10-yard catch on 3rd & 9 in the 49ers touchdown drive vs the Seahawks). Wheel route? Run a drag route to the flat where Davis breaks for the vertical.

I had not seen anybody complaining about Greg Roman's play calling until just recently, less than a month ago he was being heralded as an evil genius, but sooner or later defenses were going to find ways to defend what was Roman was throwing at them, and now it is time for NFL defenses to be faced with new and improved wrinkles from this offense, which we all know has the potential to be a juggernaut.


Given His Recent Injury, How Do the 49ers Use Frank Gore Going Forward?
AJ: Frank Gore is one of the best offensive players in the NFL today. But, he's also a running back with a lot of miles on him, entering a time in his career when many ball carriers begin to decline.

While Gore is hardly on the decline, the 49ers strategy of limiting his touches by spelling him on occasion with younger runners Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon has worked. Big time. Gore has rushed for 601 yards through 7 games, and is averaging a stellar 5.8 yards per carry. Given their success, look for Gore to continue to get around 15 carries per game in order to keep him productive.

Diego: There is a second intent when folks ask these types of questions about Gore, and that is a lot of fans, for some reason I cannot understand, would like to turn the page on Gore sooner than later. Well, it is time that the fan base stops under appreciating Frank Gore. There it is, I said it. As a lesson in life: stop expressing concern about what you don't have (in Gore we're talking about killer speed, ankle-breaking moves) and start being grateful for what you do have (for Gore that would be, uh, I don't know: statistically a top-five rusher in the league, the franchise's all-time leading rusher who is averaging more yards per carry (5.8) than ever before, a complete-three-downs back who is a savvy runner, excellent pass-catcher, and arguably the best pass-blocking running back in the game, a leader … that's just off the top of my head).

Gore's workload has clearly decreased this season compared to previous years, on pace to have the least amount of rushing attempts since his rookie season, and at this point of his career that is actually a positive as the effective performances by Kendall Hunter and others in the rushing game are allowing Gore to remain fresh, which is undoubtedly a reason why he is having a career year. Gore's sore ribs were a result of some good hits on him, and he has been feeling better every day since last week's game. Thankfully he is getting a week and a half to heal up, and the 49ers should continue to use him as they have all season – not only is San Francisco's record 24-7 when Gore rushes for over 100 yards, but the team is also 8-0 in that same scenario under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage.


Week 8 Picks

In Week 7, AJ went a completely ridiculous 12 for 13 (.923). As such, he'll be changing his name to Nostradamus. Just kidding. Diego wasn't too far behind going 11 for 13, and he is tied for the lead in the overall standings of the Webzone staff NFL Pick 'em Contest. Let's see how the UFR crew fares this week:

Bucs at Vikings:
AJ: The Bucs almost pulled off a stunning win at home last week against the Saints. I expect more of the same this week. They'll almost do enough to win. But "almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Vikings.

Diego: Tampa Bay has yet to win on the road, they're inconsistent, they can't defend the pass, and I think I watched a very good running defense last week get consistently gashed on a short week. Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin will lead Minnesota to a 6-2 record. Wow. Vikings

Colts at Titans:
AJ: The Colts are led by a very good rookie QB. But "chuckstrong" or not, I'll need to see more from the Colts before I pick them to win on the road again. Titans.

Diego: The last time Tennessee played at home I made the mistake of picking against them. Surely I won't do that again. Colts

Falcons at Eagles:
AJ: The Eagles are incredibly talented, and incredibly inconsistent. The Falcons are incredibly consistent, and that's all they'll need to win on the road. Falcons.

Diego: I don't want to pick the Eagles, I really don't, they continue to disappoint me, but they have so much talent, are coming off a bye week, and they have a chance to take the lead in their division. Down goes the last undefeated team. Eagles

Panthers at Bears:
AJ: Cam Newton is slumping…and pouting. Look for the Bears defense to give him something to pout about. Bears.

Diego: Carolina has collaboratively the most disappointing back field I have ever seen. Taking out Cam Newton's rushing yards, they are averaging just over 68 rushing yards per game. Are you kidding me? Bears

Redskins at Steelers:
AJ: RG III is good. But the Redskins are a season away from being able to win consistently on the road. Even against a team as old and beat up as the Steelers. Steelers.

Diego: RG3 has a good chance to put up another amazing performance for my fantasy teams, err, I mean the Redskins. Nonetheless, so long as Washington's pass defense continue to be flat out pathetic, quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger will continue to keep RG3's performances from translating into wins. Steelers

Raiders at Chiefs:
AJ: Brady Quinn is now the Chiefs starting quarterback. Seriously. Raiders.

Diego: It says a lot about the Raiders that this is probably the hardest pick for me to make even if they're facing Brady Quinn. Raiders

Saints at Broncos:
AJ: Drew Brees will probably throw for 350 yards and 3 TDs this week. Too bad the Saints are playing against Peyton Manning at home. Broncos.

Diego: Peyton Manning. Super Bowl XLIV. Never forget. Broncos

Chargers at Browns:
AJ: Phillip Rivers could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against almost any team…except the Browns, who are still the worst team in the NFL. Chargers.

Diego: Actually, AJ, you would be surprised ... Browns

Dolphins at Jets:
AJ: The Dolphins are improved…but not enough to pick them to win on the road against a hungry opponent. Jets.

Diego: The Jets' record doesn't show it, but they have been playing much better since the 49ers embarrassed them on their own field back in week 4. Jets

Jaguars at Packers:
AJ: The Packers have improved week over week since their disappointing start. The Jags haven't. Packers.

Diego: Murder has never been so blatantly announced. Packers

Patriots at Rams:
AJ: The Patriots haven't exactly impressed this season…but they have more than enough juice to beat the Rams, even on the road. Patriots.

Diego: I really think St. Louis can pull the upset. Rams

Seahawks at Lions:
AJ: Bold Prognostication: Megatron unleashes the fury on Richard Sherman. After the game, he chases Sherman off the field asking, "U mad bro?" Sherman then bursts into tears and gets a bro hug from Pete Carroll. Lions.

Diego Wouldn't that be nice? But Detroit can't even beat a piñata right now. Seahawks

Giants at Cowboys:
AJ: Conventional wisdom says to pick the home underdog. My gut says that Tony Romo will be handing out interceptions like Halloween candy. Giants.

Diego: The Giants are on a three-game winning streak, and they will be ready to get revenge for their opening game loss to Dallas at home. Giants

49ers at Cardinals:
AJ: Calais Campbell told the media that he hated the 49ers "with a passion". That passion will run a little deeper after the 49ers beat the bejeezus out of the Cardinals on Monday Night Football. 49ers.

Diego: Fact: Arizona is averaging nearly four more rushing yards per game than ... Frank Gore. They are also giving up an average of five sacks per game. So they can't run and they can't pass protect. They average 2.5 takeaways per game in their four wins and less than 2 takeaways per game in their 3 losses. The 49ers are turning the ball over once per game. I don't even think it will be a close one. 49ers