Opponent proponents - Q&A with Niners Nation

Another day, another dollar. No, not for me - for the Rams. That's about all that's left, folks. Sorry, but it's true.

With just five game left to play, there are really just two keys for Rams fans: don't incur any long-term injuries that play into the 2012 calendar and get as good a draft pick as you can. And if you're actually involved in the franchise, keep depositing those checks in the bank.

Being in such a cheerful mood, I got in touch with David Fucillo aka Fooch from Niners Nation ahead of Sunday's game.

For years, I thought you guys were just on the precipice of taking over the NFC West. This was the first offseason where I didn't buy into you guys, and of course it proved that I'm always wrong about everything I'm certain I'm right about. Is it as simple as the coaching switch in your opinion? If not, what do you credit with the emergence of, apparently, one of the NFC's best teams?

The coaching definitely has been a huge key to the turnaround. The roster has had plenty of turnover, but much of the offense remains the same, and there have still been plenty of returning defensive players. The coaching staff from Harbaugh to each of his position coaches and coordinators have been huge. From hearing the players and coaches talk, it sounds like the coaches are more in a teaching mode than a telling mode. They want the players to ask questions and not just do what they're told. So now you have players better understanding the implications of what they are doing on other aspects of the offense, which I think helps them better understand their role.

The game-plan each week is really focused in on the 49ers strengths and that particular opponent's weaknesses. That seems obvious but under Mike Singletary the team tried to jam the square peg into the round hole with their offense rather than play to strengths.

However, it goes beyond the coaching. GM Trent Baalke did not have a perfect offseason, but he came pretty close. The 49ers took their time in free agency and even there misses haven't been expensive busts. Right now, the only real misses were sixth round pick Ronald Johnson (WR out of USC) and thus far, WR Braylon Edwards. However, Edwards is on a one year, $1 million contract and could still step up in time for the playoffs, so he's not exactly a miss at this point.

Other than that, Baalke has nailed everything from David Akers to Donte Whitner and Jonathan Goodwin, to sticking with Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga and letting Aubrayo Franklin walk. The list goes on and on, but they have brought in so many key personnel. Barring some kind of collapse, Trent Baalke should win any executive of the year award.

The rest of the Q&A after the jump.

Alex Smith should runaway with the comeback player of the year...which I had to check to make sure it exists in the NFL (Tom Brady won in 2009? That's cute). Until this year, his TD:INT ratio was 1:1.04. This year it's 2.6:1. What has turned him into a serviceable quarterback, and do you see the 49ers extending that one-year contract after this season?

Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have tailored the offense around Alex Smith's strengths. It is not a high-flying offense that will put up crazy point totals. They do not make many mistakes and they try and take advantage of solid field position set up by their defense and special teams. They are not asking him to throw the ball 35-40 times a game, or even 30-35 on a consistent basis. They may need that in the postseason, but it remains to be seen given the strength of the defense.

I would actually argue that he was a serviceable quarterback last year and is emerging beyond that this year. Barring anything crazy over the final few weeks, I think he returns in 2012, but it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets. What's all the more amazing is that they are installing this offense on the fly because of the lockout. Given an entire offseason, it's hard to tell what to expect out of this offense and Alex Smith.

The San Francisco rushing defense has been improving since 2008, but this season it's been near perfect. Even more odd, the only new member of the starting front seven is Aldon Smith if I'm not mistaken. What happened in between 2010 and this season that turned San Fran's run defense into the best unit in the NFL?

Aldon Smith actually just plays in the nickel defense. Against prolific passing teams that gets him on the field a lot, but the starting OLBs in the 49ers base 3-4 defense are Parys Haralson and Ahmad Brooks. The team has actually made some changes in the front seven. They let nose tackle Auburayo Franklin leave in free agency, moved Isaac Sopoaga from defensive end to nose tackle (a backup role he filled in the past) and handed the starting right defensive end position to Ray McDonald, who had previously been used primarily in a pass rush role. McDonald has stepped up his game in the rush defense while continuing to succeed in the pass defense.

However, the biggest change has seen second year linebacker NaVorro Bowman assume Takeo Spikes role as the inside linebacker next to Patrick Willis. Bowman is having a Pro Bowl caliber year making a crazy amount of plays. I would argue Bowman and Willis are the best inside linebacker duo in the NFL right now. That's saying a lot given the talent in the league, but they are playing ridiculous football.

The addition of Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator and Jim Leavitt as linebackers coach while retaining defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has been key as well. They have provided some great scheming to contain the run. But really it has come down to the athleticism of this front seven.

At the end of the 2011 NFL Draft, I was of the opinion that the 49ers had a mediocre draft, grabbing an elite talent in Aldon Smith, a useful scat in Kendall Hunter and not much else (I'm not that high on Colin Kaepernick as an NFL talent). Has Chris Culliver played well enough in year one? How would you evaluate the 2011 draft to this point?

The 49ers 2011 NFL Draft has been a really solid success through one year. It could take a turn for the worse long term, but for a one-year evaluation it's gone about as well as one could expect. Aldon Smith has turned heads as a pass rusher. Kendall Hunter has been a very solid backup to Frank Gore. He hasn't been spectacular but he's made some great plays. If his size can hold up to the wear and tear of the every-day game, he could potentially turn into a starter in this league. There's a long way to go for that, but he's on the right path.

Chris Culliver has looked really solid thus far. He converted from safety to cornerback late in his college career, but he's shown some impressive athleticism that has eased the transition. He is currently the 49ers third cornerback. While that is often referred to as the nickel back, the 49ers rotate their corners quite a bit and #1 corner Carlos Rogers often handles the nickel back role.

The back end of the draft has been fairly solid as well for the 49ers. Sixth round pick safety Colin Jones was selected exclusively for his abilities as a special teamer and he's filled that role as expected. He is on all the special teams units and is finding a lot of success.

The big revelation has been seventh round pick Bruce Miller. He played defensive end in college and expected to switch to linebacker, but the 49ers drafted him as a fullback. He had never played fullback and didn't know he would be playing it until the 49ers called him on draft day. He has already emerged as the starting fullback and has been pivotal in the 49ers improved rushing game and pass protection. He is a question mark for this week after suffering a concussion last Thursday, but 49ers fans are hoping he plays.

As for Colin Kaepernick? Well, given Alex Smith's success this season, Kaepernick gets to spend the season watching. He made a modest appearance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had some success. He still has plenty to learn, but even as a second round pick, with the new rookie cap structure I think it's a fairly modest risk. I happen to like his upside, but I can see why folks would have questions.

And while we as Rams fans are already looking to the draft, you're likely looking ahead to the playoffs. (What? Jealous? Me?! Never...) Is there any trepidation going into the post-season? Do Niners fans feel like they can hang with anyone not named Green Bay?

At this point, a lot of 49ers fans just want to lock up the playoff spot and get to January. Once January rolls around and it becomes one and done, anything is possible. If the 49ers played the Packers ten times, they'd probably lose seven or eight of them. However, all it takes is one win in the playoffs. The Saints are another scary team, but hopefully they would have to travel to San Francisco. Given the 49ers lack of success in recent years, most folks are just antsy to get to the playoffs and take it from there. I think the 49ers defense and special teams unit can keep them in any game.

Whether that will be enough has me somewhere between nervous and anxious.

Great answers from Fooch, and I'd expect nothing less. As much as I can't stand the Niners as a team, Niners Nation is one of the best SBN communities around.

Thanks again to him for the intel. Now all that's left is for the Rams to feed the beast.

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