Filmophile breaks down 49ers

Greg Cosell sits in a darkened room at NFL Films and watches game film. That’s his job. Players often say that the film doesn’t lie. If that’s the case, Cosell is the perfect man from whom to get some answers.

 

When I touched base with him last week, the executive producer who created ESPN’s NFL Match-Up was busy perusing the coaches film from the 49ers-Falcons game. Here is a portion of my interview with the always-insightful Cosell . . .  

 

Has the play of the 49ers’ defensive front seven impressed you?

Cosell: “For the most part. I think Justin Smith is playing really well – probably better than any point that I can remember. (Patrick) Willis is playing well. That’s not a profound statement. He’s just a really good player. Yeah, I think their front seven is pretty good. At the end of the day, for a 3-4, they don’t have a pure pass-rushing outside linebacker. I don’t (Parys) Haralson is necessarily that guy. But, no, I think their defense for the most part is very solid.”

 

What would concern you about their defense?

Cosell: “Lack of a consistent pass rush.”

 

The pass rush and, thusly, the secondary played very well the first four games, but against the Falcons neither showed up.

Cosell: “Well, it’s interesting you say that because the Falcons are probably the only team in the league that aligns with two backs and two tight ends and throws the ball vertically down the field from that personnel package. If you align with two backs and two tight ends, No. 1, you pretty much guarantee protection and you make it difficult to blitz and pressure the quarterback because you essentially can have eight-man protection. When the Falcons are playing well offensively, it’s very difficult to pressure Matt Ryan. The Roddy White 31-yard touchdown came out of two backs and two tight ends. White was the only wide receiver on the field. So much of this league comes down to matchups: who you’re playing against and what that team does.”

 

Do you think that’s a team the 49ers simply don’t match up against?

Cosell: “Yeah, because they don’t have individual pass rushers who can win. They’re trying to scheme. They were not able to do that against the Falcons.”

 

And from what you could tell from the 49ers’ earlier games, they were able to scheme their pass rush?

Cosell: “Yes, they had some success. And as I said, I think Smith has been very good individually. I remember the game against Minnesota, he blew up Steve Hutchinson a number of times. Steve Hutchinson isn’t quite as good as people think, but that’s not the point. Smith was really able to physically handle him on a number of plays.”

 

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have some problems, don’t they?

Cosell: “The one thing fans might not realize is that coaches know exactly what their players can and can’t do. If a team gets down, like the Niners, and they can’t throw to get back in the game and fans go, ‘Oh, my, they can’t throw!’ Well, the 49ers know that, too. They can’t play in those kinds of games. They can’t win those kinds of games. They have to play in games where their defense keeps the game close, so their offense can run the ball. I think (Shaun) Hill has had some nice moments this year. I thought his (fourth-quarter) drive against Arizona Week 1 was very, very good. I have some problems with the way Arizona chose to play defense on that drive, but you still have to make the throws. Same with Minnesota. I thought Hill made some very good throws. I thought Minnesota had some problems with playing their coverages and the responsibilities within those coverages, but you still have to make the throws. But at the end of the day, Hill is not going to be a guy who’s going to consistently drop back and make throw after throw after throw to either keep you in games or win games.”

 

Knowing what you know about Hill, is it simple to defend him and defend this offense?

Cosell: “It then comes down to running the ball. The myth is you can’t run against eight in the box. Yes, you can run against eight in the box and everybody runs against eight in the box. Good running teams run against eight in the box. It’s how you choose to run. It comes down to what kind of runs and blocking schemes. They will face eight in the box. Most good running teams do. You need to be able to run the ball against eight in the box. If you’re a good running team, by definition, it’s a volume offense. You have to run a lot of plays.”

 

And that’s a major disappointment for this team that they have not been able to sustain drives with their run game. They’re among the worst in the league in three-and-outs.

Cosell: “What you have to do is throw the ball in running situations to try to create some opportunities. At some point, you need to try to throw in normal down-and-distance situations out of run personnel and run formations. When the defense is in predictable fronts and predictable coverages, you can throw better. Everything is a game of tendency and matchups. All preparation is based on probability and tendency.”

 

If I were to tell you that the 49ers run 55.3 percent of the time on first and 10, would you think that’s about right?

Cosell: “Then it all comes down to calculated shots. Much of throwing on first and 10, as well, comes down to where you are on the field. Between the 40s is an excellent place to throw the ball on first and 10. I’m not sure if I’m the Niners I’d want to be throwing the ball on first and 10 a whole lot if I’m inside my own 25. I think if they’re struggling with three and outs, you have to find a way to sustain offense.”

 

I know you haven’t seen him play in two years, but is there where Alex Smith, because of his arm strength and the better physical tools, might be the better option at quarterback?

Cosell: “Well, I don’t think Alex Smith has particularly good physical tools. Certainly, we know Shaun Hill has an average to below-average NFL arm. You’re right, we haven’t seen Alex Smith throw in two years, but the last time we did see him throw and even when he came out (of college), I’d say Alex Smith’s arm strength was slightly better than average – nothing more. I’m always leery – I know he’s a smart kid – but I don’t know how much he’s learned. I’m not there. When you play in the Urban Meyer offense, and I can tell you for a fact, that when Alex Smith went through his board work for teams coming out of the draft that he had zero clue about NFL route combinations, which is not surprising. Because in Urban Meyer’s offense, nobody does. I’m not a big Alex Smith guy. I think he has limited skills and I think he’s got limited understanding.”

 

Is the offensive line the reason  . .

Cosell: “It’s been erratic. There have been a couple games where I thought they got handled and didn’t do much. And other games . . . for instance, the second half of the Minnesota game – and by the way, I thought the coaching staff did an unbelievable job of making adjustments in their run game. It gets back to the kind of runs. In the first half at Minnesota, they did a lot of runs where they pulled linemen and they allowed the Vikings to penetrate. In the second half, they went more zone stuff and tightened their splits. They didn’t allow penetration and got some meaningful yards. A 6- or 7-yard run is a nice run for them when it’s Glen Coffee against the Vikings’ front. That was a tough road game, and I thought they played it extremely well.”

 

Anyone on that line stand out – positive or negative?

Cosell: “My short answer is no. It’s a line that needs to play with cohesion. I don’t think they have any All Pros, nor do I think they have any stiffs.”

 

What do you see Michael Crabtree adding to the wide receiver mix?

Cosell: “I liked Crabtree coming out. I think he’s a big kid and has some physicality to him, and he’s got some quickness. He’s going to have learn NFL route trees. He doesn’t know any of that, and he’s been out of camp. That’s the problem you face with these guys who played in a spread offense in college. I watch a ton of college tape, too, when it comes to the offseason. The two games are totally, totally different. I think he’s got physical tools. I think it’ll take him a while. Having said that, they’ll probably give him three routes and put him out there. Is the idea that he’ll play after the bye week?

 

Yes, he’s spending the bye week with the coaching staff trying to learn as much as possible so he’ll be able to get on the field next Sunday against the Texans.

Cosell: “He’s a good receiver for Shaun Hill. He’s limited in the kind of throws he can make. He’s a short passer and the ball has to come out quick. And I think ultimately with Crabtree, at least initially, you hope he can catch the ball and with his strength and after-the-catch ability give you something. That’s what you’re hoping. Right now, you’re not going to ask him to run deep routes. He’s not a burner anyway. But I think in time he’ll develop into a guy who can get vertical – not with blinding speed. He’s never going to be Andre Johnson. I think you hope he develops – and I hate to throw this name out because people might think he’s this guy – but Larry Fitzgerald is not a burner, either. But I think in time they hope he can become that kind of receiver.”

 

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Speaking of Crabtree, ever since he signed in the wee hours back on Oct. 7, I’ve had a difficult time sleeping through the night. But that’s OK, it’s a good time to get some work accomplished – such as transcribing the above interview.

 

For the bye week, I’m with the family. We’re having a majestic time touring Apple Hill from our base camp in Pollock Pines. And I’m up early, trying to scheme ways to sneak in some TV time today.

 

Meanwhile, readers of The Press Democrat opened their morning paper to read this article about 49ers coach Mike Singletary strongly suggesting he’ll make a lineup change at right guard when the club returns to practice this week.

 

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On a more-serious note, 49ers defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga and San Jose State defensive line coach Joe Salave’a wish to bring attention and support those who have been impacted by the tsunami that hit in their native country of American Samoa. For more information, please read Lisa Goodwin’s article, “Sopoaga Gives to Tsunami Relief Efforts” on the 49ers.com.

 

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