TST: I guess we can commiserate on the high hopes that turned into grim reality for both of our teams. The last time the Rams played the 49ers in week two, the Niners got the win in a one point game that was largely decided on turnovers and a missed field goal. Neither team exactly looked like the potential division champs many thought they could be in August. What happened to the 49ers since then?
NN: Even though the 49ers were 2-0 after that win, I (and most of my readers) were a little skeptical about the team's performance up to that point. I figured it was good to be 2-0 and still not put together a solid game of football and that boded well going forward. Little did I know that the 49ers were not going to put together a solid game of football entering Week 11. The 49ers problems' this season center on their offense. I'll address the defense in your next question, but simply put, the offense is epically horrible. The 49ers currently have the fifth worst offensive DVOA after Week 10 EVER. After being a strength last season, the offensive line has gone to hell as Larry Allen is more or less finished, Jonas Jennings has been hurt and they've just struggled as a unit. Additionally, the play-calling has been less than inspired (How about we run a gadget on 3rd and long inside our own 5?) Finally, Alex Smith injured his shoulder and in returning early he compensated for the injury, leading to a forearm injury that will have him on the sideline this Sunday.
TST: When we last exchanged questions, the Nate Clements signing looked like it had given San Francisco a real boost in their pass defense. Now, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, it's among the league's worst. Can you explain that? Is this something that should worry 49ers fans after seeing the Rams pick apart a weak New Orleans secondary?
NN: The 49ers defense can't be expected to be all that great when they're spending ¾ of the game on the field. This past Monday night, the 49ers defense spent 40 minutes on the field, compared to 20 minutes by the offense. Furthermore, factor in many of the turnovers and the opposing team's offense faces a short field upon which to score. And of course, when you can't generate a pass rush, quarterbacks can take all day looking for an open man.
This lack of pass rush leads me to the run defense. Following the Week 2 matchup with you guys, Manny Lawson was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL. The run defense has struggled lately and losing Lawson is a big reason for that. He is an athletic freak and losing him meant the 49ers need to bring their safeties down for run defense and the pass rush, leaving their corners in straight man-to-man coverage. Even the better corners in the league will eventually break down without help on coverage occasionally.
TST: What's happened to Frank Gore this season?
NN: The offensive line and lack of a passing attack is what happened to Frank the Tank this year, an I think analysts are recognizing this, instead of just calling him a one-year wonder. When the 49ers have moved the ball through the air (which has happened about one drive per game this season), defenses had to play Gore a little more honestly. The rest of the time, they can stack the box and overwhelm our struggling offensive line, thus containing Gore. And of course, falling behind early and often hurts the running game. Keep an eye out on Sunday and if the 49ers are able to have any success running to the left I'd be surprised.
TST: Like the Rams, injuries have played a role in derailing the 49ers offense. Have there been other factors at play, such as Alex Smith not adjusting well to a new offensive coordinator?
NN: Having to adjust to his third offensive coordinator in three years simply cannot be beneficial to a young quarterback. Smith seemed to make progress last season and now appears to be regressing. If 100 people were to comment on an Alex Smith thread at Niners Nation, you'd probably get 100 different opinions of what Smith's problems are. Issues with the offense have been blamed on the offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, Mike Nolan's own game management, a communication disconnect between Nolan and Smith, poor offensive line play, crappy receivers, a tight end who apparently thinks false start calls are warnings and not actually penalties and the list goes on and on. The problem for the 49ers this year is trying to figure out what exactly is the issue, because there don't seem to be any answers.
As I said before, Alex Smith is sitting this Sunday and mighty Trent Dilfer is getting the start. On Tuesday, Nolan said there was nothing wrong with Smith and then yesterday Smith told a reporter his forearm was hurting due to compensating for his shoulder injury. It sounds like Smith and Nolan cleared the air, so Smith will sit. As much as I want to see Smith on the field, I'm hoping the injury issues have caused his accuracy issues and that getting healthy will be the difference going forward.
TST: What does the team need to do to improve their 2008 outlook?
NN: I've said it at NN and I'll stick to it: If the 49ers first (the Colts pick) and second round picks weigh less than 300 pounds, I'll be highly disappointed. This team needs more offensive line help to go with Joe Staley and they need some big ole defensive lineman if they're going to make the 3-4 defense work. Additionally, now that the team is sitting Smith to get healthy, I think the time has come to move more young guys onto the field to see what they can do. This includes 2007 draft picks WR Jason Hill, CB Tarell Brown, and DE Ray McDonald. While it seems like a distinct possibility this team finishes 4-12 and the Patriots get a great draft pick, I really don't care anymore about that pick the Patriots are getting. The 49ers need to be concerned with developing their young guys and more importantly, improving the communication between coach and team. This is a team that could conceivably be on the precipice of turning on Coach Nolan if the problems continue. If any team desperately needed a win, or at least some positive momentum, the 49ers are that team.
Again, big thanks to Fooch and the folks over at Niners Nation.