SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Frank Gore #21 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates with Joe Staley #74 after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in the second quarter during an NFL football game at Candlestick Park on September 18, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The Cincinnati Bengals host the San Francisco 49ers in their regular season home opener this weekend. It's the third time the 49ers played against the Bengals in Cincinnati since 1991 with the Bengals winning both games, scoring at least 40 points in each; the last was in 2003 with the Bengals winning 41-38. So we spent a few minutes with Fooch at Niners Nation to get to know the team that's devastated so many Bengals fans for so long (think two Super Bowls).
Frank Gore signed a four-year deal worth $25.9 million in late August and the Bengals have said that their number one priority is stopping San Francisco’s running back. Through the first two games this year, Gore has only averaged 2.5 yards/rush on 42 carries. Is this a trend that 49ers fans are worried about?
It's troublesome that he's struggled this year but my belief is that it's hard to tell whether it's Gore losing a step or the offensive line struggling. The offensive line has definitely struggled but that does not preclude the possibility that Gore is slowing down. However, it's hard to tell given the mess the offensive line is in. Until I see an offensive line getting more push in the run game I can't say for sure whether or not Gore has lost anything.
What’s the key to stopping Gore?
Given that, for now the best bet is for the Bengals to stack the box against the Gore. If he has not lost a step, preventing holes from opening up is the easiest way to stop things. Alex Smith has shown an ability to complete passes this year, but the coaches still don't seem to have sufficient faith to open things up a bit more. A more consistent passing attack could open up some holes for Frank Gore.
Alex Smith is ranked second in the NFC with a 70.5 completion percentage, though he’s only averaging 151.5 yards passing per game. Is this a matter of a Jim Harbaugh coaching philosophy for a high-percentage, yet low-risk passes or is there an issue with San Francisco’s receivers getting open on intermediate to deep routes.
It's the former at this point. The 49ers have hit a lot of short to medium passes thus far and have not gone deep too frequently. The most consistent long pass was a 10 or so yard out pattern to Ted Ginn last week. It has definitely been a lot of high percentage passes for the most part, but Smith has also made some rather tough passes amidst defenders. 49ers fans are hoping the team opens things up a bit more with these types of passes.
Despite a toe injury, A.J. Green will play on Sunday. You wrote that if Green is matched up with cornerback Tarell Brown, he could have a big day. What’s your confidence factor with the 49ers secondary to defend against the pass?
Carlos Rogers has been very solid at one cornerback position but Tarell Brown has struggled at the other. Not every completed pass has been his fault given some of the offensive and defensive scheme, but he's definitely been more likely to give up a big play than Rogers. The 49ers secondary has given up a lot of big plays this year and was absolutely shredded by Miles Austin last week. This week the 49ers might actually have some talent back as free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Shawntae Spencer are both expected to play. It's hard to tell whether either will be back in the starting lineup in place of FS Madieu Williams or CB Tarell Brown, so to be perfectly honest I'm not sure what to expect from the secondary this week. I will say that I strongly hope the 49ers matchup Carlos Rogers against Green for most of the game.
Vernon Davis is one of the best tight ends in the league. What’s the key to stopping him and based on your observations, are teams more successful with linebackers or safeties covering him?
He's been getting double-teamed a lot. Additionally, the 49ers have kept him in blocking against particularly good pass rushers. He was held in a lot last week to defend against DeMarcus Ware. He expressed some surprise at the decision but was a good soldier about it. However, if the Bengals can't force the 49ers to keep Davis in blocking, your best bet really is to double team him. He's arguably the most athletic tight end in the NFL and is pretty hard to cover with just one man. He's generally faster than linebackers and bigger than safeties and corners. I think the best bet is to double him and try and knock him off his routes.
Michael Crabtree has been limited in practice this week. What’s the status on his injury, which is defined as "feet".
The foot problem was that he fractured one of his feet (can't remember which) during a players' only workout, had surgery on it in July and then aggravated the foot in the season opener. This is the same foot he fractured before the 2009 NFL Draft. He had extreme soreness in it two weeks ago but not a re-fracture and he ended up sitting out last week. He's been limited in practice but Harbaugh and the offensive coordinator have both said they expect him to be active.
Speaking of Crabtree, the receiver only has 104 career receptions in three seasons and 1,370 yards receiving. Has he been kind of a disappointment or are 49ers fans pointing the lack of offensive cohesiveness with so much change in the coaching staff?
There has been some disappointment over Crabtree and fans have lashed out quite a bit given his injury absences from training camp. But he's flashed some serious skills and I do think he can break out if he can keep his foot healthy. His rookie season he had the second best numbers in 49ers history among rookie receivers. He's got the talent, but now just needs to be properly utilized. In the Harbaugh short passing attack, YAC is huge and that is where Crabtree excels. At Texas Tech they used him a lot in little bubble screens because he can move after he gets the ball in his hands. I don't expect a lot from him early in the season given the amount of time he missed, but I'm hoping for a strong second half from Crabtree.
How nice is it to have a punter like Andy Lee that can completely change the field possession game with one kick?
Andy Lee is just a complete beast of a punter. He's always been great but he's off to a career-best start this season. And as Niners Nation readers will attest, he happens to be my favorite player on the team. You could argue he's one of the defense's biggest weapons because of his ability to pin teams a good ten to fifteen yards further back than many normal punters. Given the 49ers offensive struggles in recent years, that has made him one of the team's most important players. It's never good when your punter can make an argument as team MVP, but it's there. I could go on for days touting the awesomeness of Andy Lee.
Alright, game situation: 49ers are down by four points on the Bengals three-yard line with two seconds left in the game. Frank Gore is out of the game, which player would you expect to make a play to win the game and how?
With injuries the way they are (no Braylon Edwards), I'd say Alex Smith would look for Vernon Davis. The 49ers tight end is the biggest guy available and can battle over other bodies for the pass. I'd see a rollout with the option for Alex to run it in himself if possible. Against Seattle at the end of the first half the 49ers were down on Seattle's 2 or so yard line with under 20 seconds to go. They ran a rollout in which Alex looked for his options and then barreled his way into the end zone for the touchdown with a few seconds left on the clock.
Same situation, roles reversed: Bengals are by four points on the 49ers three-yard line with two seconds left in the game. Which defensive player would you expect to make the play to win the game?
Patrick Willis all day long. Justin Smith would be a close second, but down close Willis is the one guy with the pass coverage ability to stick in the end zone, but then the speed to pounce if there was a scramble or run by the Bengals. Like Davis is a crazy athletic tight end, Patrick Willis' athleticism is unbelievable. He has run down receivers and running backs from behind with relative ease. This makes him an even bigger weapon because he doesn't necessarily need to play up close to be a factor against the run game. He can play back a bit and use his speed to run down running backs. He's the guy to make the play.