On the Beat: 5 questions about the 49ers

We check in this week with Eric Branch, beat writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, to get the inside slant on the 49ers:

1. OK, after looking over the 49ers, I have a two-part question: where the heck is Vernon Davis in this offense, and what’s your confidence level that Colin Kaepernick can win this game from the pocket — which the Patriots will make him do?

EB: “Vernon Davis…that’s a very good question. They’re drawing up plenty of plays for him, but he’s been getting a lot of attention, though sometimes I do see him open. The last three games he’s had two drops so I don’t know if there’s a confidence level (thing) with Kaepernick not trusting him but Michael Crabtree has 20 targets the past few weeks and Davis has five. Even with Alex Smith, Davis has disappeared from the offense for long stretches, not just with Kaepernick.


“I think Kaepernick can do it. Last week he completed 18 of 23 passes, it should have been 21 of 23 with a couple drops and a throwaway in there. Generally speaking, he’s not working on the move a whole lot. In training camp, he was wildly inaccurate. Certainly myself, I thought that would prevent him from playing this year; I just didn’t think he was ready yet.

2. Who is the one 49ers player most Patriots fans don’t know right now, but will by the end of the game on Monday?

EB: “I’d say Chris Culliver, their No. 2 cornerback. He’s arguably playing just as good if not better than their starter, Tarell Brown, and Carlos Rogers. Brown has gotten better and better this year, and he had maybe his best game against the Dolphins. He was a third-round pick in last year’s draft. He has good skills and is starting to put everything together. He’s going to be on the field a lot, so they’ll notice him.”

3. What’s the biggest weakness on the 49ers’ offense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?

EB: “I don’t know if it’s measurable, and you can argue it’s not true, but I think it’s Kaepernick’s inexperience in not having seen all sorts of different looks. It’s just his fifth career game and it’s the kind of matchup against (Bill) Belichick where he’s going to get a lot thrown at him. It could be an issue. I think it’s why Jim Harbaugh inserted him, for a game like this, kind of a playoff-type game, to get him ready in a game on the road.”


4. What’s the biggest weakness on the 49ers’ defense you expect the Patriots to try to exploit?

EB: “Obviously it’s pretty solid. They’ve tightened up the secondary. It was really durable last year. Dashon Goldson has played better back there. Last year they were so dominating against the run. They’re still very good this year, but there are some times where teams have been able to run it down their throat, it’s been very surprising. The Giants, and it could have been just a lack of motivation, in the fourth quarter of their win, they shoved it down the 49ers’ throat. Marshawn Lynch went over 100, Stephen Jackson went over 100. So they have been a little vulnerable against the run.

5. Finally, 49ers win on Sunday if …

EB: “…it’s not a novel strategy and probably hard to execute, but keep the ball away from the Patriots’ offense by running the ball with Frank Gore and LaMichael James. If they can get that going with the short passing game, Kaepernick can be accurate with the underneath stuff, and get a couple long touchdown drives, I think that’s the best formula. I don’t think they want to try a shootout with the Patriots.”

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