San Francisco 49ers team reporter Joe Fann provides a closer look at the Seattle Seahawks' Week 3 opponent.
1. What do you think are reasonable expectations for the 49ers in 2016?
Fann:It's difficult to look into the crystal ball and predict a win total with a new coaching staff. It is fair to say that things are on the rise in San Francisco. Chip Kelly's offense has established a faster rhythm and produced explosive plays that were lacking a season ago. Defensively, Jim O'Neil has brought creativity to a young group with versatile personnel groupings. I'd expect this team to be competitive every time they take the field. Even in the Week 2 loss against Carolina, the 49ers were within one score midway through the fourth quarter. They'll be tested by the NFL's toughest schedule, but the results thus far have been encouraging.
2. How has head coach Chip Kelly re-shaped this offense thus far in San Francisco with Blaine Gabbert as his starting quarterback?
Fann:You can see a clear mindset of wanting to set the tempo, and that doesn't mean just going as fast as possible. Yes, the no-huddle, hurry-up pace is still a facet of Kelly's offense, but we've also seen the 49ers offense slow things down as well. In Week 2 against the Panthers, Gabbert got everyone to the line of scrimmage quickly, but then took the time to survey what the defense was showing and get additional signals from the sideline.
There's also a focus of spreading the ball around among the team's skill players. Torrey Smith caught a touchdown in Week 2, Carlos Hyde has 37 carries and two rushing scores through two games, Vance McDonald has a touchdown in each of San Francisco's first two games and slot receiver Jeremy Kerley leads the team in targets with 17. The results have been mostly positive thus far as the offense is averaging 27.5 points per game.
That's a big step forward for an offense that ranked 32nd in scoring and 31st in total yards a season ago.
3. The 49ers started the season well with a shutout victory over the Rams, but couldn't build off that against the NFC champs in Week 2. What was the biggest difference between the two performances?
Fann:Kelly focused on the running game following the loss against the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers tallied 150 rushing yards in Week 1 and just 65 yards in Week 2. That made it difficult to establish drives and set up manageable third-down situations. At one point, San Francisco went seven straight drives with a punt, and the team is still looking for its first points in the third quarter this season.
Defensively, much of the credit goes to Cam Newton, who showed why he's the reigning MVP. The Panthers racked up 529 total yards with Newton threading perfect passes in tight windows. Kelvin Benjamin also gave the 49ers problems throughout the game. The third-year pass-catcher posted seven receptions for 108 yards and two touchdowns. The back-breaker, however, came midway through the fourth quarter when the Panthers were facing 3rd-and-10 in a one-possession game. Benjamin made a contested, 25-yard reception down the middle of the field to help ice the game.
The positive is that the 49ers forced four turnovers in Carolina and have six takeaways through two games. It will be important to continue that trend in another tough road matchup in Seattle this Sunday.
4. How are 49ers better equipped this year to handle a Seahawks pass rush that had eight sacks against them in two games last year, and is off to a fast start in 2016?
Fann:The 49ers will deploy Joe Staley, Zane Beadles, Daniel Kilgore, Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown against the Seahawks talented front seven. Sunday will mark the third consecutive week San Francisco has faced a top-tier front seven having already played the Rams and Panthers. Despite the tough matchups, the group has been solid overall in pass protection and has allowed just two sacks through two games.
Staley especially has maintained his Pro Bowl-caliber play having surrendered only a single pressure so far. Beadles was a free-agent acquisition who adds a veteran presence at left guard. Kilgore is back to full strength after missing most of 2015. Brown is the most significant addition to the 49ers o-line. The 2015 seventh-round pick has developed into a standout right tackle. Von Miller went on record saying that Brown is one of the better tackles in the NFL.
All this is to say that the group has improved from a season ago, and Sunday will be a good barometer for just how much progress they've made.
5. Lastly, if Richard Sherman spends most of the game covering Torrey Smith like he did last year, who on the 49ers could see the most production if Gabbert avoids throwing his way?
Fann:I wouldn't anticipate the 49ers to completely avoid throwing towards Sherman. Everyone understands how talented Sherman is, but the offense isn't going into the game with the mindset that Smith will be a complete non-factor.
Still, others will have to step up. Kerley was acquired the last week of the preseason and has already gained the trust of Gabbert out of the slot. McDonald has touchdowns in three of his last four games dating back to last season. The tight end also recorded his first career score last year in Seattle. Quinton Patton, the team's No. 2 wideout has eight receptions on 11 targets in 2016. Finally, San Francisco will also lean heavily on Hyde and try to get him going.
Get to know the faces of the San Francisco 49ers offensive and defensive units heading into the team's Week 3 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.