Happy Turkey Day, 49erland, and welcome to another installment of Upon Further Review. Given recent events, there has been no end of "gobble gobble" going on and not just because Thanksgiving is around the corner. On Monday night, Colin Kaepernick had one of the best Monday Night Football appearances in team history a game eerily reminiscent of Steve Young's decimation of the Bears way back in 1987 (also a Monday Night game). Aldon Smith added to his already impressive career, posting a MNF record 5.5 sacks. And Jim Harbaugh started a 49er themed soap opera called "hot hands."
In this week's installment, we'll be asking the question that's on everybody's mind (Who should be the 49ers starting QB going forward?), the question that should be on everybody's mind (Is it time to start comparing Aldon Smith to the best pass rushers in 49er history?), looking at the key matchup in Sunday's game versus the Saints, adding a little 'some-some' at the end and as always, making our picks for the week.
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Who Should Be the 49er Starting QB Going Forward: Smith or Kaepernick?
AJ: I can hear the booing already but make no mistake, as soon as he's cleared to play (as of this writing, Smith has not been cleared to play this week and Kaepernick will be starting against the Saints), the 49ers need to get Alex Smith back out onto the field. I know what you're thinking: here's another Alex Smith homer but rest assured, that is not the case.
Like everyone else who watched Monday Night's game, I came away favorably impressed with Colin Kaepernick. He displayed poise, confidence and was able to play very well considerably better than anyone had cause to expect. Most surprising, in my opinion was his accuracy. For a QB with limited experience, he displayed an uncanny ability hit his receivers in stride and with practice, I believe that he'll get better. I believe that he has a higher ceiling than Smith, and after Monday night, I believe that he has the ability to lead a football team. But he still shouldn't be the starter going forward. Not this season, anyway.
Why? Because Kaepernick was good but he was good for a reason. The 49er coaching staff forced the Bears into playing man coverage though use of scheme and personnel and that left Vernon Davis in single coverage almost all night (typically against Lance Briggs or Major Wright both of whom were terribly overmatched). Consequently, Davis was the 49ers leading receiver on Monday night. Additionally, the Bears stacked 8 to 9 players in the box for most of the night, leaving one safety high which opened up the seam and post routes that Kaepernick seemed to hit almost effortlessly. Any team that plays Keapernick will learn from the Bears' mistakes and that could lead to choppy waters especially for a young QB.
None of this should detract from the fact that the 49ers have identified their QB of the future or that Kaep will take Smith's job some day (perhaps as early as next season). But for now, the 49ers should stick with the guy that's won 20 games for them over the last season and a half.
Diego: Alex Smith. If you're an avid reader of Upon Further Review (like Terry B.) then you know I put myself on the line last week and stated that the 49ers could win against the Bears if Kaepernick got the start (now did I think he would do THAT good? No way). That being said, there are several reasons why Smith should continue to be the starter so long as he's medically cleared to play.
Nevermind Harbaugh's "hot hand" theory, and I completely agree with Trent Dilfer that Harbaugh mishandled that post-game press conference, you cannot bench a quarterback with a record of 19-5-1 during your tenure as the head coach because he missed a game due to a concussion and his backup looked promising out there. Let's start with Smith, we've already established his record (and if you want to bring up his pre-Harbaugh stats, you're wasting your time), he's proving that last year's efficient performance was no fluke and he's following it up with a projected 3,000-plus yard season, 23 touchdowns, and single digit interceptions while ranking 3rd in QB rating as well as in yards per attempt, and 1st in completion percentage with a mind-boggling 70%. He has been playing out of this world in four of his last five games, starting with a career-performance against the Bills that was equally if not more impressive than Kaepernick's against the Bears (no I am NOT comparing the Bills' "defense" to the Bears'), followed by a near record-setting performance on the road against the Cardinals, and a very good performance against the Rams before leaving due to injury. Suddenly, he finds himself as the backup?
Then there's Kaepernick. I was in awe on Monday night as I watched him play a complete game. He may as well have walked the football 57 yards down the field and handed it over to Kyle Williams, that's how good that throw was. As I expected, the coaching staff did a great job of creating a game plan that put Kaepernick in a position to succeed. Chicago, rightfully so, thought they could get away with some things on defense against an inexperienced quarterback and paid the price for it from the get-go, and from there on out they were playing catch-up on the scoreboard and on the drawing board. Make no mistake about it: the performance by the offensive line in both pass and run blocking was the most outstanding aspect of that game, and I say that to highlight the elite level at which they played and not to downplay Kaerpernick's performance at all. My point here is: Alex Smith wins that game just as easily as Kaepernick did with the way the team performed in all three aspects of the game. Look at Kaepernick's stat line - how is it different than Smith's against, say, the Packers or the Lions? Maybe more importantly, just as I had faith Kaepernick would succeed against the Bears, I have a great sense of fear about running him out there on Sunday in a tremendously hostile environment in New Orleans. The setting is much different than on Monday night, it is the perfect set-up for a struggle: an offense that will put pressure on you by putting up points, a defense coming off perhaps their best game of the season, and crowd noise that rivals that of a marquee college football game. Which brings me to my final and biggest point on this discussion.
If Alex Smith is cleared to play this Sunday but Harbaugh decides to keep Colin Kaepernick as the starter, he will be making perhaps the riskiest call he's ever made as a head coach in his career. It is unreasonable to expect Kaepernick to maintain the level of play he showed against the Bears. As soon as this week's game against the Saints, he could be in line for a letdown game, and the 49ers cannot afford to lose this game which has severe playoff implications. Harbaugh needs to give the team the best chance to win this game, and Alex Smith is the quarterback who gives the team that chance. His ample experience in important games, especially road games, is something that Kaepernick cannot make up for with his laser arm or speedy legs. If Kaepernick struggles, and the team loses, Harbaugh cannot simply go back to Smith. As we all remember from Mike Singletary's last season with the 49ers, going back and forth between quarterbacks is a recipe for disaster. Harbaugh needs to play his cards right and keep the promising young arm ready to come out of the bullpen if needed (ie: if Smith fails), because otherwise he's asking Kaepernick to throw a complete game in just his second career start. That is an unnecessary risk.
Is Aldon Smith Ready to be Compared to the Best Pass Rushers of All Time?
AJ: On Monday Night, Aldon Smith set a MNF record, posting 5.5 sacks and made Gabe Carimi look like a revolving door in the process. Given that he was a half sack shy of the rookie sack record last season and that he currently leads the league, its time to ask: is this guy on his way to being one of the best pass rushers ever? You bet your ass he is.
I've been watching football for a LONG time and I've seen some great pass rushers. The two best I've seen in red and gold were Fred Dean and Charles Haley. Right now, I think Smith is on his way to being better than both. The guy has everything you could want in an edge rusher. He's fast. He's agile. He's got "violent" hands. He's great in pursuit. He's got freakish strength. In two seasons, all of the aforementioned have added up to 29 sacks and this guy still has 6 games left to play this season. His stats seem almost made up.
But most important of all he is absolutely fearless in pursuit of the QB. This is a guy that gets in the head of the men he lines up against. That fearlessness is what makes him special. And it is precisely what I think will make him one of the best in 49er history (if not NFL history) by the time he's done.
Diego: Get to know me a little better: unlike AJ, I've only been watching football just over the last 10 years since moving to the states. Since Aldon Smith is EASILY the best 49ers pass rusher during that time, I'm going to compare Aldon to one of the best pass rushers I have seen over that time. It is not often that I praise a player for the Dallas Cowboys, but watching Aldon Smith play nowadays constantly reminds me of DeMarcus Ware. The similarities between them have been pointed out since Aldon Smith was wrecking havoc back in his college days at Mizzouri, and although I was previously hesitant to compare Smith to Ware I believe he is now deserving of such a strong comparison.
Physically, they look nearly identical with Smith checking in a 6'4", 258 pounds, and Ware being listed at 6'4", 254 pounds. Then there is the fact that they are both equally effective as outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme or as defensive ends in a front four. Their potent bull-rush move is aided by their violent hands which allow them to gain an edge against even the best pass blockers in the game. Their quickness and raw athleticism pave the way for their elite speed rush. Finally, they both have an incredible non-stop motor which gives them more of an edge as games go on, making them extremely effective in the defining moments of a game. They can line up on either side of the defense without suffering any type of significant drop-off in their performance, and they can even rush inside on stunt moves.
At the moment I would still rank Ware slightly ahead of Smith due to his experience and savvy, and I also feel Ware is a more complete run stopper as of today. Nevertheless, the greatest pass rushers of all time are remembered by the number of sacks they accumulate, and Smith is not only on pace to finish with more sacks than Ware has ever had in a season, but he's also on pace to break multiple all-time records.
What is this Weekend's Biggest Matchup?
AJ: Prior to this evening's announcement that Colin Kaepernick will be starting this Sunday in New Orleans, I was tempted to go with the 49ers tandem of talented safeties against Jimmy Graham that's not the biggest matchup anymore. Now, the premier matchup of this weekend's game is Greg Roman/Jim Harbaugh versus Steve Spagnulo/Joe Vitt.
In Monday Night's game, Roman and Harbaugh did a masterful job at forcing their opponent into defenses that could be easily exploited by the 49er passing game, thus taking pressure off of second year QB Colin Kaepernick. The results were jaw dropping. Against man coverage, the 49ers present a great many mismatches especially for a team that chooses to cover Vernon Davis with a linebacker.
Will they be able to do it again? Only time will tell. The Saints defense has been sieve-like this season, but the Superdome has been a house of horrors for visiting teams of late. If Roman and Harbaugh can out-scheme Spagnulo and Vitt, Kaepernick's chances of a successful encore to Monday Night's performance will increase dramatically.
Diego: Coincidentally, it's Aldon Smith versus whoever he lines up in front of (Jermon Bushrod at left tackle or whoever ends up playing at right tackle for them.) The 49ers don't want to risk having to beat the Saints again while giving up more than 30 points, and putting pressure on Drew Brees to disrupt the rhythm of the Saints' offense is key in this game. Smith needs to follow up on his career-best performance against the Bears by once again being a full-time disruptive force against the Saints' pass blockers. When Smith performs at such elite level, he makes his teammates better by drawing the pass blockers' attention towards him.
If the 49ers fail to disrupt Brees' timing, they could be in for a very long day. They do not want to get into a shootout against those guys. Remember this: the 49ers have yet to win a game this season when giving up 24 points or more.
Two Minute Drill:
- Aldon Smith has 29 sacks in his first 26 games which is ahead of the pace of legendary players like Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Andre Tippet and Charles Haley.
- The last time the 49ers managed to win a game in the Superdome was 1998
- Coming into Sunday's game, the 49ers have the leagues #1 rushing attack, and 13th overall offense. By way of comparison, the Saints currently have the worst defense in the NFL.
- Coming into Sunday's game, the 49ers have the league's top ranked scoring defense, and are ranked #2 overall. By way of comparison, the Saints have the leagues 5th ranked offense.
- Since prior to their game against the Houston Texans, I mentioned the Chicago Bears are not one of the top teams in the league; they were simply one of the hottest teams at the time. I commend their defense for getting all those turnovers and turning them into points, but the bottom line is that you cannot be elite by expecting your defense to continue to score a quarter of your points. The Texans and the 49ers exposed the Bears for what they really are these last two weeks: a borderline playoff team that will have a hard time making any kind of noise unless Jay Cutler gets healthy and gets going.
- Frank Gore is well on his way to a 6th 1000-plus yard rushing season in his 8th year in the NFL. His projections: 1330 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns, good for the best season of his career after his epic 2006 performance.
- Randy Moss has at least one catch in each of the last six games, and at least one in every game this season except for Jets' game.
Week 11 Picks
In Week 11, AJ and Diego got really boring by agreeing on every single pick ... and they were only wrong once. Man that is good. Let's see if they can disagree a little bit this week and see who has the better performance:
Texans at Lions:
AJ: The Texans put up EPIC offensive numbers last week. Look for that trend to continue in Detroit's annual turkey day massacre. Texans.
Diego: Detroit continues to be largely unimpressive while the Texans proved last week that even if their defense has a letdown game their offense can have their back by putting up insane numbers on offense. Texans.
Patriots at Jets:
AJ: The Jets finally managed a win last week. Unfortunately for them, the Pats are next up and Brady owns them. Patriots.
Diego:Tom Brady and company will make it a five-game winning streak against the sorry Jets, I may not even watch this game during dinner (just kidding, I will). Patriots.
Broncos at Chiefs:
AJ: The Chiefs are officially the worst team in football. The question isn't whether the Broncos will win it's if the NFL will institute a mercy rule. Broncos.
Diego:Last time I checked the the quarterbacks in the Chiefs' roster would have a hard time winning a game in the CFL. I wouldn't pick them to beat ANY team in the NFL. Broncos.
Raiders at Bengals:
AJ: The Raiders are quite possibly the only team I've ever seen that can put up 400 yards of offense and STILL lose by 20. Bengals.
Diego: I can see Carlson Palmer having a standout game against his former team, I just can't see that Raiders' defense doing anything to help him win this game. Bengals.
Steelers at Browns:
AJ: The Browns showed up in Dallas last week. Look for them to play their hearts out and win one for the home crowd against a Steeler team that's starting Charlie Batch at QB. Browns.
Diego: Yes, I'm tempted to pick Cleveland too, but look for Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer to carry Pittsburgh to a much needed win. Steelers.
Vikings at Bears:
AJ: The Bears stacked the box against the run and got HOUSED by Frank Gore & Co. last week. Look for Adrian Peterson to run wild and carry his team to a win. Vikings.
Diego: I didn't just say that the Chicago has been exposed and may not even make the playoffs this season, did I? This is one of the reasons why: I can't even be sure that they can beat Minnesota at home. Vikings.
Packers at Giants:
AJ: The Giants are flailing and the Packers are peaking. Look for the Packers to take control of their division with a decisive victory. Packers.
Diego: This is the time of the season when the Giants bounce back from their struggles with a convincing win against an elite team. That's just what they do. Giants.
Redskins at Cowboys:
AJ: The Redskins are good. They are on their way. But they aren't quite there yet. In a short week, home field will carry the day, no matter how badly Tony Romo tries to screw it up. Cowboys.
Diego: I am an RG3 homer and I'm not even afraid to admit it. I see him shining on the big stage and putting the Cowboys closer to another wasted season. Seriously Dallas: all that talent and nothing to show for? SMH. Redskins.
Bills at Colts:
AJ: In January, the Colts will be in the playoffs. The Bills will be on the couch, watching the Colts in the playoffs. Colts.
Diego: Indianapolis understands that losing this game would put them one game closer to being overtaken in the playoffs standings by Buffalo, who would then own a tiebreaker. They will take care of business at home aided by a bounce-back game by Andrew Luck. Colts.
Falcons at Buccaneers:
AJ: The Falcons tried with all of their might to give last week's game away but they still came out on top. This game might get ugly, but the Falcons will get the win. Falcons.
Diego: Glad to see us disagree more and more. Atlanta is declining while Tampa Bay continues to rise. I'll take the hot, home team on this one to expose the "top" team in the conference. Bucs.
Seahawks at Dolphins:
AJ: The Seahawks aren't a very good team lucky for them that they're playing the Dolphins this weekend. Seahawks.
Diego: Yes AJ, the Seahawks aren't a very good team, especially on the road. I like Miami at home to bounce back from a couple rough defeats. Dolphins.
Titans at Jaguars:
AJ: The Titans have put in some surprising performances of late but nothing like what they Jags almost pulled off in Houston. With Henne at the helm, the Jags get the win. Jags.
Diego: Nah, Jacksonville had their shot last week and they blew it. They'll be competitive, but I like Jake Locker much better in this game. Titans.
Ravens at Chargers:
AJ: It is becoming painfully evident that the Chargers couldn't buy a win right now. The Ravens will come west, and this one will get ugly. Ravens.
Diego: After winning the first two games of the season, the only other wins San Diego has been able to get have been agains the Kansas City Chiefs. You did read my take on the Chiefs, right? Ravens.
Rams at Cardinals:
AJ: The Rams get absolutely pounded by the Jets last week but the Cardinals are not a good football team. Truth be told, they might be one of the 5 worst teams in football. Rams.
Diego: Even though I think the Rams are a better team than the Cardinals, I like Arizona at home. It just seems like one of those meaningless wins a team like Arizona would get to put themselves in a worst position in the upcoming draft. Remember when the 49ers used to do that? Ugh. Cardinals.
Panthers at Eagles:
AJ: Finally, a game that Cam won't find a way to lose. He'll try, but the Eagles are so bad, the Panthers could with by accident. Panthers.
Diego: I can't seem to bring myself to stop picking Philadelphia to win games, and it's going to cost me in the Webzone's NFL Pick'em Contest, but ... Eagles.
49ers at Saints:
AJ: The Saints gave up 400 yards last week. To the Raiders. The freakin' Raiders. If their defense is as porous this week, they'll find it much more difficult to score on the 49er defense. 49ers.
Diego: I haven't made this pick in the Pick'em Contest yet for a reason. I will wait to see who the starting QB will be on Sunday for San Francisco. If it's Alex Smith I like the 49ers, but if it's Colin Kaepernick ... Saints.
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