Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The 49ers have had issues on both sides of the ball this season. Coming out of the bye week, what can we expect to see on both sides of the ball?
Kyle Shanahan is a master play caller, that’s indisputable. He’s taken a team that’s playing their third string quarterback along with their back up running back and currently has them ranked 17th in yards (356.5 yards per game) and 18th in scoring (23 points per game). But the most impressive statistic that speaks to Shanahan’s brilliance has to do with the 49ers rushing game, where they rank third in the NFL where they average 133.6 yards per game.
But through all this, can the offense in its current configuration improve? The 49ers traded up into the second round of the 2018 draft to select Dante Pettis from the University of Washington; Pettis is viewed by many as the eventual replacement to Pierre Garçon, possibly as soon as next season. After a breakout game against the Vikings in Week 1, Pettis has been hampered by injuries and has struggled to put his mark on game. In the Monday night game against the Giants, Shanahan was focused on getting Pettis involved in the passing game. He was targeted six times resulting in four catches, both career highs, but he turned those receptions into only 12 yards. Shanahan could be seen on the sideline speaking with Pettis, probably driving the point home that he’s going to do everything he can over the final weeks of the season to get Pettis involved, but that’s it’s on Pettis to make something happen with the opportunities.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has been the favorite target of the fanbase when expressing their ire. But is it all Saleh’s fault? Saleh’s scheme has been sound the first 10 weeks of the season, he’s had some poor play calls, but the majority of his defenses have been the proper call at the right time. Unfortunately for him there’s been a disconnect between his calls and the execution on the field.
Following the loss against the Rams, Shanahan said that the team was missing “closers” on both sides of the ball, a sentiment echoed by general manager John Lynch Tuesday morning on 95.7 The Game. The coaching and scheme these final six weeks are paramount to finding out if there are actually closers on the team and if so where and using that information to cultivate a plan for the 2019 offseason.
To put it simply these final few weeks needs to be about the youth of the team and what they can accomplish on the field. Earl Mitchell is a fine player, but he shouldn’t see the field for the rest of the season. The 49ers best interior lineup is DeForrest Buckner at the 1-technique with Solomon Thomas next to him playing the 3-technique. It’s time for the team to give up the failed experiment that is Thomas as an edge defender and play him where he’s most effective. Lynch said today that “We thought he would be a difference maker as an inside rusher. He hasn’t had as many opportunities inside, and that goes to earning his opportunities.” If the coaching staff can’t look at Thomas’ production versus Mitchell’s and see the value Thomas offers, then we’re in trouble.
The second biggest issue on the defense is whoever is playing cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. It’s time to live or die with Ahkello Witherspoon and see what the kid has. He’s been fighting an ankle injury most of the season and hasn’t looked right; he also doesn’t seem comfortable “playing the receiver’s hands” the way defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley teaches. Witherspoon has also been let down by possibly the worst free safety play we’ve seen from any team this season, but that’s for another article. The 49ers have now spent third-round picks in back to back drafts on a cornerback, after bringing in project Tarvarius Moore in 2018. In Shanahan’s press conference before releasing the team for their bye week, he said that the final weeks of the season are going to be about player evaluation for 2019. The coaching staff should get Moore on the field early and often to live competition against Witherspoon to see exactly what the team has opposite Sherman.
The 49ers have an opportunity over the last six weeks of the season to test out their young players against live action to see what this team really has. Hopefully the coaching staff takes advantage and uses this time to prepare for 2019.
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