SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There is a certain symmetry to San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks ending up with the Kansas City Chiefs, from Steve DeBerg to Joe Montana to Steve Bono to Elvis Grbac to, now, Alex Smith.
But there is more to the 49ers and Chiefs renewing acquaintances this weekend at Levi’s Stadium. NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez, who covers the 49ers, and Adam Teicher, who covers the Chiefs, break down the Week 5 matchup:
Paul Gutierrez: The natural narrative revolves around Alex Smith and his facing his former teammates in a stadium he helped "build," so to speak. How do you expect him to approach this game, both publicly and privately?
Adam Teicher: I asked Smith about this after the Monday night game against New England. To his credit, he didn’t give that "it’s just another game" answer. He said he wasn’t going to be in denial about it but would try to embrace everything about returning to the Bay Area to play against the 49ers. I expect him to play well. He’s on a roll right now with three excellent games following a rotten season opener against Tennessee. One thing he has been able to do since joining the Chiefs is block out the clutter and distractions. He did that when his contract was becoming an issue last summer, and I think he will do it on Sunday.
What about Smith’s successor Colin Kaepernick? Has he become the player the 49ers envisioned when he replaced Smith? And, though they would never say publicly, do the 49ers at all regret their decision to move on from Smith and go with Kaepernick?
Gutierrez: Here’s the thing about Kaepernick: The 49ers believed he had a higher ceiling for success then, and they still believe that because he is a dual-threat quarterback. Hey, he has been to two straight NFC title games and a Super Bowl, and his popularity with fans remains high. But he just has not looked comfortable in the pocket through the first quarter of the season. He is still taking too long to get out of the huddle, is still having issues avoiding delay-of-game penalties and still needs more touch on many passes. But when he is locked in, he is a game-breaker cast from a different mold. In that respect, he is exactly what the 49ers envisioned. Of course, they also envisioned a Lombardi Trophy or two with Kaepernick at quarterback. I asked coach Jim Harbaugh what would validate choosing Kaepernick over Smith. He said: "Never been a big fan of comparisons. Colin’s play has spoken for itself." So there.
Running back Jamaal Charles' ankle looked healthy Monday night against the Patriots, and when he’s right, he’s one of the more explosive backs in the NFL. But is he still considered an every-down back, or will he be platooned more with Knile Davis to keep him healthy?
Teicher: I think the Chiefs will adjust to game conditions each week, maybe using one guy if he’s far more effective than the other. But the Chiefs like the potential they have in using both players a lot. They like the idea of keeping both players fresh well into the game. I’m not suggesting Charles won’t ever again play games in which he gets the ball more than 25 times. I’m sure he will. But the days of the Chiefs relying so heavily on Charles week in and week out are over. They have too many other good skill players like Davis and tight end Travis Kelce for that to happen.
Frank Gore is again the 49ers’ leading rusher, but rookie Carlos Hyde has received some work as the featured back. How are they different, and do the 49ers go to Hyde in certain situations or merely as a change of pace for Gore?
Gutierrez: Through the first three games, you got the sense that Gore was about to be phased out in favor of Hyde. Especially in Week 3 at Arizona, when it was Hyde, not Gore, who got the call to run it in from 6 yards out. That rankled many observers who thought Gore still had some tread on those tires. Sure enough, Gore gouged Philadelphia last week for 119 yards rushing and reclaimed his throne. How are they different? Gore, even if he is smaller, is more the bowling ball power back, and the taller Hyde is more of a slasher.
The 49ers rediscovered their identity by running the ball with aplomb against the Eagles, rushing as a team for more than 200 yards. The Chiefs' run defense has shown it can spring leaks. What do the Chiefs need to do to limit Gore?
Teicher: Run defense has been a weakness for the Chiefs. They are allowing five yards per carry and will have to lower that number to give them a good chance to win in San Francisco. To some extent, the problem has been that, because of injuries, the Chiefs are playing without four of their best run defenders and are still adjusting to their absence. But two of those players are out for the season, and the other two won’t return to play against the 49ers, so this is something the Chiefs will have to live with for the time being. One thing the Chiefs need to do is tackle better. That has been a problem on some of the longer runs they have allowed.
The 49ers don’t have several of their best defensive players but are still playing well on that side of the ball. Who are some of the players who have made up for the absence of guys like Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Glenn Dorsey?
Gutierrez: Justin Smith is playing like the terror he was a few years ago, disrupting passers and playing stout against the run. But as far as stepping up for the aforementioned trio, Dan Skuta starts in Smith’s place at an outside linebacker in the base 3-4 defense, and Corey Lemonier had been coming in on passing downs but has essentially been replaced by rookie Aaron Lynch in those situations. Inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite has been getting mentored by Bowman and getting good grades, especially in pass defense, and Ian Williams, who was the starter at nose tackle last season before being lost to injury early, has been more than serviceable in place of Dorsey.