Playoff football returns this Sunday as the Packers renew their rivalry with San Francisco. David Fucillo of Niners Nation was kind enough to answer some questions about the 49ers and provide some insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: The last time Green Bay saw the 49ers they were without top receiver Michael Crabtree. How healthy is he at this stage and how has his return affected the passing game?
Crabtree is back but not quite 100 percent. He is able to make his cuts and run his routes, but his speed is lacking that extra gear. He's never been an especially fast receiver though, so not blowing past defenders is really not a huge concern. For now, he is showing he has the moves that allow him to get open, particularly on short to intermediate routes.
His return has impacted the passing game in a big way. Prior to Week 17, Colin Kaepernick's passer rating in 11 games without Crabtree was 86.58. In the 4 games with Crabtree, it was 98.26. Passer rating is far from a perfect rating, but I do think it shows the improvement Crabtree has facilitated. He gives the 49ers a much-needed second wide receiver with some level of competence. Heading into the playoffs the last two years, the 49ers have had Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis as their two primary threats in the passing game. This year, they have those two plus Anquan Boldin. The combination of all three opens things up as teams can't double all of them. It opens things up for Kap in that regard, but it also opens up more running lanes as it spreads the defense a bit more.
APC: Statistically, Colin Kaepernick regressed this year after a stellar 2012 campaign. Do the numbers accurately reflect his play, and how is his play different than a year ago?
His numbers are not quite what a lot of people expected, and I think they reflect his play to some extent. But it's worth noting, he's put up quarterback numbers the 49ers haven't seen since Jeff Garcia was running things back in 2002. Kap surpassed 3,000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing, making him only the 12th quarterback to do that in NFL history. The "disappointment" of his performance comes from the absurd expectations we all had.
Kap had a monster run during the second half of last season and the playoffs, and we all expected nothing but improvement. It has been easy to forget that he's a third year player who surpassed 16 career starts midway through this season. He has to show improvement, but he's also a quarterback with a lot of learning still to be done. And I think getting Crabtree back is allowing him to take some steps forward. The 49ers passing game is as healthy as it has been all season, which hopefully bodes well for Kap during the playoffs.
APC: It's been a season of trials and tribulations for Aldon Smith. What kind of player has Smith been since his return from rehab, and does he still present the same threat as a pass rusher?
Aldon Smith has been a bit up and down since his return from rehab. He has four sacks in the eight games since returning (two each in 2 games). At times he has looked like the Aldon Smith of old. He has shown the rare combination of speed and power in absolutely bull-dozing offensive linemen. At other times, he has looked a tad slow, almost like he's running in jello. Given that he missed a month of playing time and practice, I'm not entirely surprised by the inconsistency. The talent is still there though, and it's just a matter of executing.
APC: The 49ers entered the season as the presumptive NFC West division champs and a Super Bowl favorite. However, the Seahawks usurped their position early in the season and haven't looked back. Is a return to the Super Bowl realistic for San Francisco, and if so why?
A return to the Super Bowl is realistic, but it won't be an easy trip. The Packers are tough enough, but if the 49ers can win this game, they would likely at some point have to go up to Seattle. The 49ers have lost their last two games up there, in relatively ugly fashion. And yet, the reason the 49ers are a realistic Super Bowl contender is that they are as healthy as they have been in some time.
No team is in perfect shape when January rolls around on the NFL calendar, but the 49ers are in fairly solid shape. Their defensive line has been able to get some rest throughout the season, thanks to solid play by the reserves. This is big because Justin Smith and Ray McDonald both have played a ton of snaps the last three seasons. Last season, Smith suffered a torn triceps muscle in December. He missed the final two games, but returned for the playoffs at far less than 100 percent. This year, while he is not 100 percent, he is in much better shape than he was a year ago.
On offense, the 49ers have more weapons in the passing game than they have ever had under Jim Harbaugh come postseason time. Last year, the team lost Mario Manningham in December, and their No. 2 WR behind Michael Crabtree was Randy Moss. The year before, the No. 2 WR was Kyle Williams or Joe Hastings. This year, the 49ers have Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree to go along with Vernon Davis. All are now healthy, which puts the 49ers offense in a position to show off improved performance.
APC: If you were game planning against the 49ers, how would you attack them on offense? How about on defense?
If you are attacking the 49ers defense, the key could prove to be whoever lines up in the slot. Whether that be Randall Cobb or anybody else, the 49ers have some question marks there. Carlos Rogers is dealing with a hamstring strain, and if he can't go, Eric Wright gets the start in spite of relatively limited snaps this season. If Rogers can go, he has been inconsistent, and a speedy receiver like Cobb could give him fits.
In defending the 49ers offense, it really is about attacking. Left guard Mike Iupati is dealing with a sprained MCL, and has been inconsistent all season. Joe Staley has been one of the best left tackles in the league, so coming at the 49ers between guard and center could prove helpful. Of course, if the Packers do bring the heat, they will still need to maintain some semblance of discipline. Colin Kaepernick shredded the Packers on the ground in part because they did not maintain their discipline. If they keep Kap in front of them, and play with he could prove wobbly enough to be beatable.
We'd like to thank David and Niners Nation for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things 49ers. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game day coverage of Packers vs. Bears.