Reached out to Eric Branch, 49ers beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, to answer five questions heading into this weekend’s game.
Has Colin Kaepernick regressed this season or is that too harsh a term for someone who has been missing key receivers?
I don’t think he’s gotten worse, but I think defenses have done a far better job of game-planning against him. The read-option has largely been a rumor for the 49ers’ offense this season and they’ve had mixed results when they’ve used it. He’s been forced to become more of a pocket passer and, as you noted, he hasn’t had many attractive targets beyond Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who have accounted for all of his 15 TD passes this season. The 49ers’ second-leading wide receiver, Mario Manningham, who made his season debut in November, has 83 yards. Michael Crabtree, who returned last week after sustaining torn Achilles in May, ranks third among yardage among the team’s wideouts (68). Obviously, that hasn’t helped Kaepernick. That said, Russell Wilson has done just fine without an all-star cast of pass-catchers.
What’s the No. 1 thing that has to be better for the 49ers this time after the 29-3 loss earlier this year?
Well, it would help if they didn’t have five turnovers. The 49ers have just 12 turnovers in their other 11 games and one of their best qualities during the Jim Harbaugh era has been their ability to win the turnover battle (they tied an NFL record with 10 turnovers in 2011). In Week 2, Kaepernick accounted for four turnovers (3 INTs, fumble) so, obviously, he has to play significantly better. The 49ers defense gave way in the second half, but that loss wasn’t on them: At halftime, the Seahawks led 5-0 and Wilson had a 7.5 passer rating.
How has Aldon Smith been playing since his return?
He’s played four games since his return, and has flashed his dominant form once, in a two-sack performance against Washington two weeks ago where he repeatedly abused poor LT Trent Williams. In his first game back, though, he played just 12 snaps and he played with an illness the following week at New Orleans. Last week, he didn’t have a sack, but his presence had something to do with the fact that DT Justin Smith often had one-on-one matchups with Rams T Jake Long and drove him into Berkeley.
Do the 49ers have capable backups on the offensive line if Staley and Iupati can’t play?
It appears Staley will play after he sustained a sprained MCL last week against the Rams. He was limited in practice Thursday and showed no obvious signs of his injury during the portion that was open to the media. This morning, he said he was “preparing to play.” Iupati has missed two games with a far more severe MCL sprain, hasn’t practiced this week and it appears Adam Snyder will make another start in his place. There is a significant dropoff from Iupati, a run mauler who was an All-Pro last year, and Snyder, who was released by Arizona last year one season into a five-year, $17 million contract. The Cardinals allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks in 2012 and Snyder ranked 79th of the 82 guards who played at least 300 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system.
Do you think the supposed dislike between the teams is real or manufactured from the outside?
I think there is genuine dislike, and genuine respect. The dislike, I guess, is obvious, but 49ers safety Donte Whitner, the unofficial team spokesman, spoke glowingly of Seattle’s defense this week. He said their physical style reminded him of the way the 49ers play, and I think Whitner’s view is shared by plenty of others in the locker room. Coaches and players always talk up the opponent, but it was clear this week the 49ers and the staff hold Wilson in very high regard. Of course, Seattle has won the last two games by a combined score of 71-16. The 49ers have downplayed revenge etc. this week, but they are the defending NFC champions and desperately want to win a street fight Sunday to send the Seahawks a pre-playoff message.