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Rams-49ers: Q&A with Niners Nation

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Getting the inside info from David Fucillo of Niners Nation, the SB Nation community for fans of the San Francisco 49ers.

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I can't stand the 49ers. It's a deep hate that developed in the 1990s and slowly simmered every year thereafter like a stew, deepening and thickening.

And yet, the SBN managers of the Rams' rivals sites? All good gents. So I linked up with David Fucillo from Niners Nation, SB Nation's community for fans of the 49ers, to get some inside info.

What's up with the passing offense? Is Colin Kaepernick struggling or is it something more systemic? Is part of it just the emphasis on the running game and the limited pass attempts?

There are a couple issues in play. The first is the offensive line. The 49ers OL can be downright dominant against the run, but they have shown a lot of inconsistency this year in pass protection. Kap can escape from the pocket as well as anybody in the league, but throwing on the run is not the ideal option. His completion percentage is actually his highest thus far.

That being said, he seems to have issues with his accuracy in terms of getting the ball on target. Having guys like Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd helps account for that as they can catch tough passes. Unfortunately that can sometimes can cost them yards after the catch. It's not an every play issue, but there is some inconsistency that needs to be cleaned up.

Has there been any discernible difference between the two losses and the three wins? Or put another way, what have you guys done in the last two weeks that you didn't do in weeks 2 & 3 that led to the result?

One big improvement the last two weeks has been fewer penalties. Through the first three weeks, the 49ers were leading the league in penalties. The last two weeks, the 49ers have cleaned that up, and have benefited accordingly. The 49ers struggled in their losses particularly with defensive penalties. They would appear to get off the field after a 3rd down stop, only to have a penalty extend out the drive. Even when the opposing offense did not then turn that into points, it kept the 49ers defense on the field just a little bit longer.

What we've really seen the last two weeks has been a strong run game. Frank Gore has back-to-back 100-yard games and averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in both games. The 49ers can win without Gore dominating on the ground, but when he is moving the chains, the 49ers are generally going to win games.

What should Rams fans know about the 2014 49ers that's markedly different than you guys last year? Any developing trends that are defining the team?

The secondary saw a lot of turnover this past offseason, completing an overhaul of a group that is entirely different from the Super Bowl 47 secondary. The Super Bowl secondary included CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown, CB Chris Culliver, FS Dashon Goldson and SS Donte Whitner. This year, the secondary includes CB Perrish Cox (replacing currently injured Tramaine Brock), CB Chris Culliver, DB Jimmie Ward, FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea.

There were significant concerns about what this new group. And yet, five weeks into the season, this group has been a significant reason for the 49ers defensive success. The pass rush continues to struggle without Aldon Smith in the lineup, but the secondary has done solid work on the back end. Cox in particular has been a revelation. He was released last season to make room for Eric Wright before returning at the end of the season due to an injury to Carlos Rogers. This year, he has replaced an injured Tramaine Brock, and is tied for the league lead in interceptions and pass breakups. Antoine Bethea has replaced Donte Whitner, and has actually been an improvement over Whitner both in stopping the run, and pass coverage. Keep an eye out for him on Sunday.

This team will change as the season wears on because they will be getting guys like Aldon Smith and potentially NaVorro Bowman back. That will change the dynamic to some extent, but given the schedule of the two Rams game, the secondary is the group to keep an eye on at this point.

Long-term question: How long can this defense last? At some point, the cracks start showing up. Has Bowman's injury-forced absence had a noticeable impact? Is Patrick Willis showing any signs of decline? Should I just accept that you guys are going to have a great defense for the next decade?

I think you should just accept it! But seriously, the defense is likely moving toward a transition. For now, Patrick Willis remains a beast. He will turn 30 next January, but at this point he does not appear to have lost a step. And the absence of Bowman has allowed him to be spotlighted a bit more. The loss of Bowman sucks, but the 49ers have done enough to at least find an adequate replacement. Michael Wilhoite has been starting in his place, and has done a very solid job both against the run, and in coverage. I look forward to Bowman's return, but Wilhoite's play likely allows the 49ers to be a little more conservative in getting Bowman back on the field. My guess is Bowman returns in late November or early December at the earliest.

The biggest question for the 49ers is the future of the defensive line. Defensive tackle Justin Smith probably only has one or two more years left before retirement, and the 49ers need to figure out his replacement. They drafted Tank Carradine last year, and he has yet to see the field. He was a 4-3 defensive end at Florida State, and is making the switch to 3-4 defensive end with the 49ers. He has not seen the field because as he and the defensive coordinator both said, he is still learning a lot of things about the playbook. That is not exactly a great answer, but even in college he did not have a ton of experience. My guess is they hope he can be a big contributor in 2015, and anything in 2014 would be a bonus.

Where it gets interesting is with the coaching staff. I would contend the 49ers have the best defensive coaching staff in the league. The insanity surrounding Jim Harbaugh's future will likely impact that coaching staff, and I don't really know what the future holds with them. That could be where the biggest question marks arise.

What...in the world...is this Jim Harbaugh stuff? Break it down for me.

It's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The simple answer is Jim Harbaugh is hyper competitive, and his personality can rub people the wrong way. There are two things in play here: 1) His relationship with GM Trent Baalke and owner Jed York; and 2) his relationship with the players.

The latter has been reported on as Harbaugh losing the locker room. While some players likely don't like him, or enjoy his personality, if the team is winning, none of that matters. There is talk that distrust of Harbaugh dates back to his early 2012 decision to workout Peyton Manning. It then followed up with the decision to bench Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick. In the time since those two events, the 49ers went to Super Bowl 47, and were a Richard Sherman tip away from Super Bowl 48. The locker room talk is not an issue at this point. If they start losing extensively, maybe then it would be, but clearly the team can get around it.

The former is what could result in Jim Harbaugh's departure after this season. If the 49ers win the Super Bowl, I think there is a chance he's back, but even that is not guaranteed. If the 49ers do not win the Super Bowl, all bets are off. If he leaves, I think it's in a trade with another NFL team, as opposed to going to the Michigan job.

Bonus: Game prediction. Pull no punches, sir.

The 49ers win by all the points! But seriously, I think this game could be relatively close given the divisional dynamic, but I am going with a 27-17 victory for the 49ers. I think it's a game where the 49ers pull away at some point and use their ground game to grind out the win. It seems like the Rams defensive line is struggling to generate a pass rush, but is doing fairly well against the run. Given that, I do wonder how the 49ers approach this unit with Colin Kaepernick and the passing game, versus Frank Gore and the ground game.

Thanks to Fooch for the time.