From the beginning of the ShanaLynch Year 2 Rebuild, the San Francisco 49ers needed its core playmakers to remain healthy for the team to gain much needed balance and improve overall from last season’s record of 6-10.
But, through the first three games of the season so far, this standard has proved to be a challenging one.
Star running back Jerick McKinnon and franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo are both sidelined for the year with season-ending ACL injuries and several other key players (especially along the offensive line and secondary) are suffering with nagging injuries.
Add to that continuing struggles to advance fundamentals in most areas, it seems as if any progress this team is trying to make may be in serious jeopardy.
Yet, all hope is not lost.
The 2018 version of the 49ers is better than last year. Bright spots have also kept this team competitive week after week. And, relatively basic adjustments in certain phases of the game could still help San Francisco keep the needle pointing up.
OFFENSIVE POSITIVE: THE RUNNING GAME
The best thing the 49ers are doing right now is running the football. They currently rank second amongst all other teams in this area, averaging 152.7 yards per game. Second-year back Matt Breida is also tied with Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott as the league’s second-best rusher (274 yards).
This is a great sign for the offensive line which, according to ESPN, is second-best in rushing yards allowed before contact (230) and best in rushing yards before first contact per rush (4.9). Only Carolina was close to this kind of excellence in run blocking through the first three games.
It’s fair to say that Shanahan will continue to lean on this area of the game to move the chains particularly since the pass game has been struggling.
OFFENSIVE NEGATIVES: THE PASSING GAME & PENALTIES
Despite the advances made on the ground, the 49ers offensive line has consistently failed to provide adequate pass protection for the quarterback this season.
Garoppolo takes some of the blame for holding onto the football too long in some instances through the first three games. But, there have been too many sacks allowed (13, which is fourth-most in the league) leaving the quarterback without enough time to make good decisions.
San Francisco’s wide receiver corps has also been non-effective this season. Beyond tight end George Kittle’s good pass-catching performances, top receiver Marquise Goodwin has been fighting a quad injury and the rest of the group has struggled. They’ve not been able to get open fast enough, resulting in too many quarterback hits and only 22 catches for 298 yards.
This all results in: very low red zone scoring (41.67% - good for 26th in the league), only 5 passing touchdowns and not enough passing yards completed (49ers rank 24th in this area).
The good news is that Goodwin is reportedly on the mend and may play Week 4 against the Chargers, which would be a much-needed boost for backup quarterback C.J. Beathard who will be taking Garoppolo’s place.
But, Beathard certainly has his hands full going forward. Not only does he have the pressures of staying upright and finding receivers open in time, but he also must improve his own stats from last season as a rookie when he completed only 55% of his passes, was intercepted eight times and had a passer rating of 69.2.
Finally, the 49ers are committing too many offensive penalties. They rank sixth in the league with 57 for 414 costly yards; 28 of those have been pre-snap penalties, good for second-most in the NFL. This is just plain sloppiness and needs to be cut down.
At least the areas of concern in the pass offense are coming to light and they can definitely be worked on (better pass protection; the QB needs to unload the football earlier, the WRs need to get open down field faster, and the penalties need to be curbed). These are all doable.
DEFENSIVE POSITIVE: STOPPING THE RUN
Ironically, as good as San Francisco is at running the football, they’ve also been good in stopping opposing offenses’ run games. The 49ers are ranked tenth in this area and have only allowed 2 rush touchdowns through the first three games and are allowing an average of only 97.0 yards per game.
Tackling is still a bit of an issue in this area, but the 49ers are doing a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage in the run game. Rookie middle linebacker Fred Warner should take the credit for much of the success through the first three games as the 2018 third-round pick has excelled in Reuben Foster’s absence.
With 33 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 2 passes defended, Warner has been special and currently ranks second amongst all rookies in the NFL, per ESPN.
Now, with the return of Foster from suspension, this duo should continue to improve and impress which is much needed as the pass defense is hobbling.
DEFENSIVE NEGATIVES: PASS DEFENSE & PASS RUSH
San Francisco ranks 22nd in total defense with 384.7 total yards given up. The team is also ranked 27th in pass defense and now the injuries are piling up.
Particularly concerning is the secondary, where safeties Adrian Colbert and Jaquiski Tartt and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon all have nagging injuries that have limited their practices and time on the field. And, veteran cornerback Richard Sherman is out for at least two weeks with a left calf injury sustained in the Week 3 loss to the Chiefs.
Having Sherman off the roster for the next couple of weeks is a big blow for the 49ers. He has played well and did what he could to help keep this corps competitive through injuries and inconsistencies. Without him, it leaves the unit vulnerable. Luckily, his recent injury isn’t serious and he should be back out on the field soon. The 49ers backfield can’t afford to lose him for the year.
The pass rush also continues to be an area that plagues this defense. The 49ers have only 7 sacks combined on the season with DeForest Buckner providing 3.5 of those. San Francisco is also one of only two teams to not have a passing interception so far this season (Cowboys).
The team had been hopeful to bolster this area in the offseason, but they haven’t gained much traction.
MAJOR NEGATIVE: TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
The old adage in the NFL is the healthier the turnover differential (takeaways minus giveaways), the closer to the Super Bowl a team gets. Unfortunately for the 49ers, this is a very unhealthy area, ranking near the bottom with minus-2. (2 takeaways, 4 giveaways).
This is a far cry from the best team in the NFL in this area, the Cleveland Browns, whose differential is plus-9. Their defense has garnered 11 takeaways and their offense has only 2 giveaways.
But, for the 49ers, this area could improve. Again, doable.
What is not realistic right now for this team is putting elite, completely healthy playmakers in the defensive backfield. That is for general manager John Lynch to address in the offseason.
But, what the Niners can do right now is accept that adversity happens, limit mistakes, and zero in on the fixable areas that can be addressed. If this happens, a winning season is achievable, even with a backup quarterback.
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