Most general NFL fans already know the "burning questions" the 49ers face as they prepare for their 2013 schedule: How will the 49ers replenish their receiving core? How will the team replace the defensive-back losses? Will the pass rush revive? Special teams? These burning questions do matter, and how the 49ers handle them will go far in determining the outcome of this season. However, for those connoisseurs of longer-term 49er sustenance, certain other issues can sometimes get backburnered, but nonetheless bear watching throughout training camp/preseason. This commentary addresses, amid other possibilities, one question from each of three categories: current starters, future starters, and burgeoning stars.
Will the 49er's d-line starters be able to stuff the run?
In today's stop-the-pass-or-fail NFL, the importance of stopping the run sometimes gets overlooked. Overlooked, that is, until opposing backs start gouging out big chunks of yardage against your base defense. Then the backburner simmering can flash into a full-fledged fire, and the entire defensive scheme can sometimes demand radical modification just to put it out. Imagine, if you will, the 49ers' defense without its run-stopping prowess. The staunch blocker-buffers up front not only must make plays in their own right, but also allow the fleet 49er linebackers to swoop and dart and clobber.
For good reason, the 49ers addressed primarily pass-rushers, more than run-stuffers, in the draft. They did draft Quinton Dial in the fifth round, but he seems, so far, medically compromised. Therefore the interior d-line reinforcements, in the wake of offseason departures, must come from last year's holdovers or new signees. The 49ers signed Glenn Dorsey as an interior bulwark, but he has not consistently played a traditional nose tackle before. However, you don't necessarily have to play traditionally to play effectively, and Dorsey's specific run-stopping talents may prompt the Niners to innovate a bit, and tweak traditional nose-tackle notions modestly, perhaps to the entire defense's benefit.
Among last year's roster holdovers, the 49er staff seems to like Ian Williams best as a more traditional interior lineman, at least according to his contract. In fact, currently Williams practices with the first-unit base defense. Expect both Williams and Dorsey to see preseason time against opponents' starters. So we shall see. Perhaps the big Brit, Okoye, will wreak havoc all along the line, but the athletic marvel has a lot to learn. Or maybe another candidate will emerge from the far reaches of the roster.
Another cause for concern among the run-stoppers involves the aging/attrition of two heretofore stalwart starters, the underrated Ray McDonald, and the very valuable Justin Smith. Should "Cowboy" Smith, particularly, fail to recover sufficiently from his injury, his decline would leave a gaping vacancy along the defensive front, and not just in the pass rush. When healthy, the erstwhile buckaroo repeatedly crashed down from his hybrid defensive end/tackle position, ranging from offensive tackle to offensive tackle, to lasso running backs before they could break into the second level. No wonder he played so many downs, whether injured or not. Let's hope a possible dual-purpose replacement, say Tank Carradine, gets healthy and up to speed soon. Or, if Ian Williams earns the nose-tackle starter's slot, we can hope that Dorsey becomes a super-sub all along the line. Preferably, in whatever blend, the 2013 d-line rotation expands, and not just during preseason.
Are the offensive linemen backups ready to step up as starters?
The 49ers, with the signing of Adam Snyder, may have bought themselves some time here, but not much. In addition to injuries, the age of center Jonathan Goodwin and the contract status of guard Mike Iupati (who, as I write this in midsummer, may have a new contract by the time you read it) behoove in-waiting backups to play like starters imminently. Watch, in particular, Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney this preseason, as they should get some playing time against opposing starters.
In the future, though not, barring excessive injuries, as pressing as the center/guard situation, the 49ers will need a swing tackle. Currently, that's right, Adam Snyder and/or Alex Boone can fill this role, and the team may this year "redshirt," either through practice-squad assignments or injured reserve, a few of the prospects from among Wiggins, Bykowski, Marquardt, and others. But we still need Kilgore and Looney to flash starter ability sooner rather than later.
Can Kaepernick improve his accuracy on short/swing/touch passes?
The 49ers will continue to add new wrinkles to their offense to compete in the robust NFC West, and, among possible adjustments, improving the short passing game ranks as a no-brainer. Dinks and dunks may never replace the bulldozer running and downfield passing that the 49ers currently favor, but they sure beat incompletions, sacks, or forced passes leading to interceptions. Besides, the Niners' roster now includes several backs that feature that old Roger-Craig staple: the ability, on short passes, to make the first tackler miss. Such plays often accrue first downs that can keep drives alive while simultaneously causing those minute shifts among defenders that open up other areas of the field.
Kaepernick, between photo-shoots, no doubt practiced this aspect of his game during the off-season, and, so far, according to beat reporters, the improvement looks good in practice. But practices seldom successfully mimic the fury and helter-skelter speed of actual games, and young quarterbacks can fall back into old habits under game-day duress. For instance, last year, while harried in the pocket, Kaep had a habit of spinning to his right, turning his back to the play, and rolling to his left. While he escaped the first few times, opposing defenses soon caught on, and adjusted accordingly. Likewise, feathery touch-passes in practice can, under fire in games, turn into ragged lobs, or, instead of balloon-soft tosses, can become cannonball blasts from a few feet away, virtually uncatchable.
Frankly, the diligent Kaepernick, working with the coaching staff, stands a good chance of mastering this aspect of pro quarterback play, too. But we must see the results in games first. Again, these short passes, when used to supplement the core offense, can not only pick up important yards, but might well drive defensive coordinators batty.
To buffet or not to buffet?
So, we have three backburner issues with which the 49ers must deal before the pots boil over and spoil the whole meal; in other words, before they become front-burner problems. One might pick and choose other possible deferred potboilers: the deployment of the running backs, the eventual backup-linebacker assignments, the remixed offensive toys. And, of course, front-burner flare-ups still threaten. But those fuels-for-thought must wait for other ruminations. Meanwhile, the table-setters of the 49ers' brain trust utilize a broad range. They can stand the heat, and, indeed, given their proclivity for innovation, may well turn it to their own advantage. Either that, or they can always try to hire Alice Waters. Bon appetit, Niner gourmands. The season beckons.