#Channel49 Twitter Q&A Mailbag, Week 11: 49ers vs Saints, Colin Kaepernick, The Passing Game & More

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Every Friday, Trevor Woods and I host our weekly Twitter Q&A session at 2pm PST. This week's chat was dominated by questions about the 49ers passing game. There was far less pessimism than I expected and people are confident we can beat the Saints, a win we need to get to keep pace. Surprisingly, there were no Kyle Williams questions or comments, proof that the fans were over him.

49ers vs Saints

Leave it to Syed to ask me the question I want to answer. This is going to be a difficult game for the 49ers. Playing in New Orleans is one of the more difficult venues in the league. All aspects of our team are working at high levels except for the passing attack. The defense has been dominant, special teams coverage exceptional and Frank Gore and the ground game are among the best in the league. We match up well agains the Saints and have beaten them the two times we've faced them in the Jim Harbaugh era. New Orleans is going to score. I have faith our defense will do their job and hold the Saints to 20-23 points (below their average), but can we put up enough to beat them?

The keys for the 49ers success are as follows. Joe Staley needs to neutralize Cameron Jordan and keep the pressure off Colin Kaepernick. Patrick Willis and the defense needs to slow down Jimmy Graham, who's been phenomenal. We've had success containing him in the past. Preventing the big play from Drew Brees and Co. will be huge. Gore should have success running on a Saints defense that got obliterated on the ground by Chris Ivory and the New York Jets. But the big matchup will be Kaepernick vs the Haters / Doubt. He's going to have to make a handful of plays for the team to win this game. The same was true last game and he failed to deliver. A repeat performance will lead to the same result.

I think it's obvious that our offense scoring points will be our biggest concern. Our defense has answered the bell every single game this season. The victory against the Packers was their worst performance of the year. Even in the losses to Seattle and Indianapolis, the defense held their opponent to 12 and 13 points going into the fourth quarter before giving way to fatigue in games our offense couldn't stay on the field. There's no reason to think we won't hold the Saints to a reasonable score. They'll put up their points. We simply need our offense to make 5 or so key plays, either to keep drives alive or get the ball in the end zone instead of settling for field goals.

There is no question in my mind that it's Vernon Davis. Davis doesn't necessarily have to outplay Graham, he needs to have the bigger impact. That's relative to each teams passing attack. 6 catches for 90 yards and a score for Graham means the Saints are functioning normally. The same numbers for Davis means the 49ers passing attack is absolutely on fire. Davis is still questionable for this Sunday as I write this, but it sounds like he'll play. Without him, as we've seen, the team has zero answers in the passing game. A bad game or an injured Graham does not necessarily doom the Saints.

I don't know that we need to open up the passing attack. The 49ers are generally very creative in their run game and rather bland in their passing game and it's worked until Week 2 this season. Execution has been a big problem and a lack of weapons has left little to "open up" with. Some different play calls could help, but I don't expect to see them. The Saints are weak against the run and have played well against the pass. They're also tenth in takeaways, so I don't think changing things up for Kap when he's not been at his best is wise. We'll need to ride Frank Gore to the victory here. Some key third down conversions will go a long way to keeping Drew Brees off of the field and that's where the passing game needs perform, not open up.

Offensive Concerns

The guys at the Better Rivals podcast did an excellent job of explaining it in their most recent podcast. As football is a complicated game, there are many complicated answers to that question. The offensive line is playing a bit worse than last year. Kaepernick appears to abandon his progressions when there's pressure and rarely finds anyone other than Davis or Anquan Boldin.. When Vernon is out, the team lacks any sort of vertical threat. Even with Vernon in, he and Boldin were the only targets with any history of success in this league. Mario Manningham's return adds another weapon, but he's better suited as a No. 3 WR and missed the first 8 games. The play calling is unimaginative and at times frustrating (for me, not the opposing defense). That's just the tip of the iceberg. When one of these issues goes wrong / gets exploited, the other ones become more likely to occur and when they begin to multiply, our passing attack's ineffectiveness can reach epic proportions.

The good news is that we're getting people healthy, Kap is still developing and if we can make the playoffs, anything can happen.

We assume that Colin Kaepernick audibles so frequently because the coaches think it's in the teams best interest. It's hard to tell what he's changing from and changing to from here in the peanut gallery. It could be as simple as him changing from a pass to a run and vice versa. It seems to me that, aside from some struggles with clock management, that Kap's issues are making reads and adjustments post-snap, not pre-snap. I'll trust Harbaugh on this one and leave the audibles alone…for now.

You'd have a hard time getting Frank Gore and LaMichael James in the same backfield. Getting James into the slot on passing plays is a possibility. The boys from Better Rivals, yes, once again, have explained this rather well. James has not had success running the ball. We'd love to have him in the game on passing downs, but his pass blocking is still suspect and putting him in the game only in passing situations tips off the defense. He's got to be able to have success while working within the 49ers standard offense or else defenses will be able to key on him and the O will become more predictable than most of us already feel it is. You can't simply run a new package of plays when James steps on the field.

There is one main difference from last year that truly stands out and that is the lack of weapons. The plays are the same, the O-line is the same and Kaepernick is a year more experienced. We lack weapons. Delanie Walker and Randy Moss could stretch the field. Michael Crabtree converted every third down ball thrown his way. Yes, Boldin has been great for us, but he is a slow possession receiver (that's relative…I'm sure he's faster than I am). Add in Vernon missing parts of all three of our losses and you can see how it takes away a lot of what we want to do through the air.

One thing I'd still like to see happen is some more deep passes. It could open up the intermediate routes. Moss and Walker are gone and Kyle Williams failed to step up as the deep threat in their place. One option could be Jon Baldwin. He hasn't shown much to date, but an occasional jump ball to him down the sideline on 2nd and short could help keep the defenses honest.

Trent Dilfer basically said that Kaepernick struggles when his first read is taken away. I'm simplifying, and you've all heard/read the comments by now and have your opinions. I honestly don't understand why any fans are upset by them. Local media and many people around the site have stated similar opinions. I think Kaepernick has taken it to heart because, lets face it, Trent Dilfer is more well known to Kap than NNCommentMonkey69 or whichever one of us has been critical of Kap this year. He was at the ESPYs and on the cover of every magazine and his play hasn't been great. Of course people who are paid to analyze the game are going to come up with well-reasoned critiques. I think it was a fair statement. He didn't say Kap will never be overcome it. While it is true, we don't know Kap's progressions and reads, evidence, both visual and in the stat sheet, points to him not being able to find other guys in the passing game.

Injury Concerns

Ray McDonald, one of the more undervalued players on our defense (by others…not by us), has been ruled out for the Saints game. Tank Carradine was drafted for this exact scenario. He's going to be one our DEs of the future but he's yet to hit the field. He was removed from the Non Football Injury list a while ago…what's his deal? The answer is…we don't know.

His rehab from his ACL injury was accelerated in college to get him ready for the combine and the 49ers had to nearly start him over from scratch. He's not ready to contribute in the coaching staff's minds, and with their notoriously tight lips, they're not giving us any clues as to why. It could be that he's still suffering lingering effects (why take him off of the NFI then?) or he may not be up to speed with the NFL game. Remember, his first practice with the team was a few weeks ago. We'll welcome him when he's ready, but signs indicate he's not quite there.

This is the million dollar question. Many of us are looking toward a Michael Crabtree return as a cure-all to our passing game's woes. Even if Crabtree plays at a level below that of last year, he'll be an upgrade over Baldwin. If he happens to regain the chemistry and magic that he and Kap had down the stretch, we'll be very dangerous. If he can come in and score touchdowns from the receiver position, it'll make us more dynamic. The 49ers have 2 TDs at this point (both Boldin) from the WRs. Remember his success on third downs? He was a machine at converting last season. Anything will be welcome and is sorely needed.

Other Items

I'll leave the "Sure, he can help us at wide receiver" joke out of it (See what I did?). This is one of the best stories around. They're following it here in Australia and the fact that so many people have come together to turn San Francisco into Gotham is amazing. It's making people cry tears of joy (my wife), making Bay Area people scattered around the globe miss their home (me) and shows the better side of humanity. Here's a link with videos and galleries galore.

Ah, a glass half-empty and a glass half-full tweet. What's the state of the team?

I really can't imagine a world in which the 49ers don't make the playoffs and I don't think we're catching the Seahawks for the NFC West title at this point. As with the Ravens, Packers, Steelers and Giants (twice) in recent years, it's been shown that the "best" team from the regular season frequently doesn't win. All you have to do is get hot going into the playoffs and go on a winning streak against the league's best. Easier said than done. A four-game road winning streak is what we're likely looking at if we want to hoist the Lombardi.

If we can wrangle the 5th seed away from the Panthers, something I expect us to do, we'll get a Wild Card Round matchup against the AFC East winner. That's nearly a gimme. I would love for us to beat the Cowboys in Dallas.

Prediction / Parting Shot

Saints 24, 49ers 16

That's the second time this year, and the last, that I'll predict against the 49ers. I can see any number of scenarios where we win it, but the Saints are too good at home.

Don't forget to comment your butts off down below and join us on Friday at 2pm on Twitter. Set a reminder on your newfangled smart phone if you must. It's good to talk 49ers.

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