Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Going into this season, the 49ers hype train was very real. They were the sexy dark horse pick among experts to make the leap to the playoffs and push the Los Angeles Rams for supremacy in the NFC West. Obviously, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was behind much of this, however, many pointed to the 49ers defense as the group set to take the next step. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh began to use the phrase “missed opportunities” to describe pass breakups, batted balls and other “almost” plays for the defense. Head coach Kyle Shanahan echoed that sentiment for the entire team in training camp. The phrase seemed to mark the change in culture among a team that had been much maligned for years. Their play through five weeks begs one question: When do missed opportunities become missed fundamentals?
Lackluster tackling is something that has been covered ad nauseum on a weekly basis but until the problem fixes itself, it bears repeating on a weekly basis. Multiple plays against the Cardinals highlighted the lack of fundamentals in tackling, none more so than the dump-off pass to Arizona running back David Johnson in the first quarter. Linebacker Malcolm Smith and defensive lineman Arik Armstead had him dead to rights for a significant loss and what would have been one of the few positive plays for the defense. Both of them whiffed on the play and allowed Johnson to gain yardage. . Plays like this are becoming an infuriating regularity.
On their very first offensive play from scrimmage following the 49ers’ opening touchdown, Arizona quarterback Josh Rosen and wide receiver Christian Kirk torched the San Francisco secondary for a 75-yard touchdown. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was beaten off the line and was playing catch up before safety Adrian Colbert inexplicably cut him off, leaving Kirk to run free. Colbert has the responsibility as the single high safety and is supposed to be the player to ensure plays like that do not happen. Such a fundamental miscue completely ruined all the momentum the 49ers offense had cultivated after a superb opening drive.
The defense isn’t the only group that has failed to execute the basics week in and week out. The offense has struggled to help backup quarterback C.J. Beathard the last two weeks. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, running back Alfred Morris failed to chip block safety Derwin James, allowing him to force an interception that essentially sealed the 49ers’ fate. On Sunday, Pierre Garcon allowed a pass to deflect off his hands into the air for another interception. Beathard also had the ball knocked out of his hands by pass rushers twice due to tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley being beaten off the edge.
All these mistakes point to a lack of discipline from the top down. Penalties have also been a major issue, granting opposing offenses free first downs while putting their own offense behind the sticks. Mental blunders have cost this team two consecutive victories and if the 49ers want to keep this season from spiraling out of control, they will need to find a way to correct them quickly.
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