Three Burning Questions for Next Season

May 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM


One good thing about the off-season is the virtually unlimited amount of time I have to contemplate the finer points of the game. As such, I've spent the last two weeks mulling over the three most burning questions that will affect the 49ers in the coming year. Of course, there are other questions, like "Will Julian Peterson return at full strength?" that are arguably more important, but I've tried to steer clear of questions that could be dryly answered with a yes or no. Here goes.

Can You Rush the Passer Without a Pass Rusher?

Conventional wisdom says no, but there's some disagreement among the experts. It may be a foregone conclusion that you need an elite end to consistently beat a left tackle, but that doesn't mean pressure can't be applied with the right mix of blue-collar players. The latter is what Nolan intends to throw at quarterbacks, hopefully pushing the pocket back to the point where it disrupts their ability to find receivers downfield or step up in the pocket and deliver the ball.

In the 4-3, the 49ers sent two defensive ends and two defensive tackles at five offensive linemen. Carter and Engelberger would loop around the tackles and converge at the point where the quarterback completed his drop. The tackles they faced were generally happy to guide them in that direction, knowing that their quarterback would simply step up in the pocket. The center and two guards were sufficiently powerful to keep Young and Adams at bay, creating a nice cushion where none of the 49ers defensive linemen were particularly close to sacking the quarterback.

In the 3-4, the 49ers will send one speed rusher off the edge, either Carter or Peterson, to be picked up by a tackle. That leaves three defensive linemen pushing back four offensive linemen, slightly better odds. Those odds improve even more when one of the offensive tackles hesitates, thinking that Julian Peterson is coming off the edge before he drops into coverage. Thus, for the briefest of moments, along the interior of the line, the 49ers would have three bull-rushers being blocked by three offensive linemen, a 1:1 ratio. Unlike in the 4-3 system when the team had two interior linemen being blocked by three offensive linemen, the defense has a better chance of breaking through or at least collapsing the pocket. Bryant Young and Marques Douglas aren't as likely to chase down a scrambling quarterback as your smaller ends, but they certainly won't be engulfed by the massive offensive linemen they face and should make the pocket more uncomfortable on plays when no sack is recorded.


Is P.J. Fleck Really Ahead of Rashaun Woods on the Depth Chart?

The notion of P.J. Fleck outperforming Rashaun Woods in the most recent mini-camp should not be entirely surprising. The 49ers cornerbacks have always had trouble keeping up with the quick, darting receivers. Fleck likely works the slot, which is easier to do in 7-7 drills with no pads when you're not getting hit and the quarterback doesn't have to throw over the linemen. Furthermore, the value of bigger receivers improves when quarterbacks face a pass rush. Lastly, there are always a couple of guys that light it up in practice, even the preseason, but can't cut it in the games (i.e., Arland Bruce III. P.J. Fleck may have found a niche on the practice squad, but there's no way he'll outperform Woods in game situations).

Perhaps Woods is a little slow to grasp the new playbook, but the guess here is that he's making some progress, and that Nolan merely does not want him to let up. Perhaps his bass-fishing demeanor doesn't mesh perfectly with Sullivan's fire and brimstone. Or perhaps our expectations are simply too high. We want him to take the torch that Rice and Owens carried, and we sometimes forget that he was two slots away from being a second round pick.

There's little doubt that Woods needs more work finding the windows in defenses and getting comfortable on the field, but there are some positive signs. He does not look particularly slow. He has shown the ability to use his body to shield the ball from defenders. He has even shown the ability to get a couple steps past the cornerbacks on his deep routes.

Furthermore, in spite of all that's been written, if Erickson had tripled the number of plays Woods was on the field last year and Woods had only improved marginally over the course of the year, he probably would have caught thirty passes for 500 yards. That's a decent rookie year.

How Quickly Can the 49ers Turn it Around?

Sometimes, turnarounds can be quick. Two years ago, the Carolina Panthers played in the Super Bowl, a mere two years after going 1-15. Sometimes they can take a while. The Detroit Lions have followed their 2-14 season with 3-13, 5-11, and last year 6-10. The question now becomes, are the 49ers more likely to follow the quick turnaround of the Panthers or the prolonged misery of the Lions?

The Panthers rebounded by bulking up their lines. They developed a power running game and stockpiled six defensive linemen that could start for any team. By contrast, the Lions have talent around Joey Harrington at the skill positions, but don't win as many battles in the trenches.

Combining the additions of Jennings, Baas, and Snyder with the still possible return of Newberry, the proper positioning of Harris and Smiley, and the improved strength of Heitmann, the 49ers should have an offensive line that is powerful and deep. Thus, the offense will be well equipped to grind it out, convert the third and inches, and wear defenses down. This bodes well for a quick rebound.

On the other hand, the team does not have a wealth of proven defensive linemen that can come in and contribute. Young and Douglas are established commodities, but Sopoaga, Fields, and even Adams to a certain extent, are anything but. Thus, it would appear that the 49ers have three nose tackles and two defensive ends of note, followed by a drop-off consisting of either journeymen or players who do not have the ideal size for the position they will be asked to play.

Thus, in regards to the defense, the 49ers are much more like the Lions than the Panthers. That's not to say the unit will struggle, but it would be wishful thinking to assume that it would control the line of scrimmage and force offenses into frequent three-and-outs.

But the turnaround of the franchise has to do with more than the players on our roster. It has to do with the confidence the organization projects to its fans and around the league. And it is in that sense that the 49ers have distanced themselves from last year.

Four months ago, the 49ers were the laughing stock of the league. John York was an evil shadow of his predecessor Eddie Debartalo. Paraag Marathe, an MBA/salary cap guru with no football experience, was interviewing head coaches. There was no coach, no general manager, and no team president. Under the previous regime, the chances of bringing aboard talented coaches and players like Mike McCarthy, Mike Singletary, Jerry Sullivan, Jonas Jennings, and Marques Douglas was about as likely as Mike Martz drafting for defense in the first round.

Mike Nolan has single-handedly changed the culture of the entire organization. He has sown structure, credibility, discipline, and respect into an organization in which there was none. He's breathed life into the prospect of a new stadium. Players like to play for Mike Nolan. San Francisco will once again be the premier destination of free agents who grew up on the West Coast and want to play closer to home. It will take time for our record to catch up, but in terms of turning around the organization as a whole, Mike Nolan already has.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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