Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Sunday was a good day. It was a good day for the fans, it was a good day for the franchise, and it was an especially good day for the players and coaches. Once Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL 2018 became essentially a lost season. Everyone knew it, but they had to put forward the message that winning was valued above all else and that the team could survive without their starting quarterback.
Through these 11 weeks without Garoppolo the 49ers have at times looked like team that would be ready to make the next step upon the return of their quarterback, and at other times a team with too many holes to be competitive even after Garoppolo’s return. The most difficult part of a rebuild is to keep expectations realistic. General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have been at their respective positions for less than two years, they inherited a roster devoid of talent, and had lacked a competent player at the most important position in all of sports. After two offseasons, there are only nine players left from the Baalke era, a turnover of 84 percent. That kind of roster movement is unheard of, even for rebuilding teams. Lynch and Shanahan deserve credit for pulling the Band Aid off with a quick tug instead of trying to piece meal a team together with a win-now philosophy. But with a young team, and a first time head coach and general manager, there are bound to be some missteps, but can the team overcome them? We’ll take a look.
If you stayed off Twitter yesterday you missed Arik Armstead absolutely take a 49ers blogger to task for his takes, and rightly so. Armstead is quietly having the best year of his career. The season started slowly for the fourth-year defensive end, but over the last 10 weeks he’s shown the talent that pushed in him into the first round of the 2015 draft. Over the last two and half months of the season Armstead ranks 7th among edge defenders with a Pro Football Focus grade of 87.1, and if the season where to end today his 79.9 ranking would be the highest of his career and rank him first on San Francisco’s defense, ahead of even his Oregon Duck teammate DeForest Buckner (78.8).
Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas finally saw consistent reps last week versus the Denver Broncos. Of Thomas’ 49 defensive snaps, 22 were at an interior position. While he is seeing opportunities on the interior, he still needs more. Thomas was a dominant interior player at Stanford, where he played 85% of his snaps inside. With more, Thomas should flourish.
Ahkello Witherspoon has hit his stride over the last four weeks. From Weeks 1 through 9, opposing quarterbacks feasted on Witherspoon with an average passer rating of 123.2. But since Week 10, quarterbacks have only mustered a measly 48.6 rating while throwing his way. In that four-week span Witherspoon is allowing only 24.25 yards per game, an incredible statistic considering how well Richard Sherman has been playing on the opposite side of the field.
For the young players on defense, consistency will be key, the only way the team will improve will be with work. Armstead staying healthy, Thomas seeing his interior snaps increase, and Witherspoon staying on the field to work though his problems.
Early in the season the mental errors made by the team were too much to keep track of: missed tackles, penalties, and blown assignments. But as the season has progressed many of those problems are being fixed.
The 49ers started the season giving away yards any way they could. If they miss a tackle they would, if by some way they got their arms around a ball carrier and got them to the ground, they were all to happy to jump offsides or interfere with a defender downfield. But over the last five to six weeks we’ve seen the team reel these problems in.
While the 49ers started out the season as one of the most penalized teams in football, they’ve improved their discipline, while they still rank 11th in the NFL in penalties, they’re averaging only 7.15 penalties a game. Taking into account how heavily penalized they were earlier in the season this is an accomplishment.
Missed tackles are like offensive linemen; the less you talk about them the better. At their worst the 49ers had 14 missed tackles against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. Some of that can be chalked up to young players trying to make the highlight play, some can also be credited to the NFL’s enforcement of the new tackling rules. Either way, it was something that was brought up multiple times to the coaching staff and something they vowed to correct, and they have. Rookies like Marcell Harris and D.J. Reed have shown a nose for the ball and proven themselves to be sound tacklers. Harris had a tough game against Tampa Bay, but bounced back to show the force and tackling ability that the team praised during last year’s draft.
No position group has been hit harder by the injury bug than the secondary. The hope going into the season was that second-year free safety Adrian Colbert would flourish in his new role and build on a successful end to his 2017 season. But poor angles and suspect play plagued Colbert early in the season, and that poor play also affected Witherspoon. Following Colbert’s season-ending injury, Jimmie Ward replaced him at the single high position, only to continue the poor play and eventually fracture a forearm for the second straight season and wind up on injured reserve, probably ending his career with the 49ers. Through these injuries and more, rookies and undrafted players have been thrust into roles they weren’t expected to play, and the outcome of that has been too many blown coverages in the secondary. Wide receivers have run free in the back third of the San Francisco defense during the season, but like many of the issues that have been discussed, over the last four to six weeks these problems are also being fixed. On Sunday, Reed played an excellent nickel corner, Harris filled in admirably at strong safety, and Witherspoon has improved.
Young teams are expected to make mistakes, and that’s exactly what this 49ers team is. It was easy for us to fall in love with 5-0 finish to 2017 and expect to see this team take an early jump and contend for a playoff spot this year. But everything changed in Week 3, but that doesn’t mean that this season is truly lost. The consistency that the team with working through now will pay dividends in 2019. At times they’ll take two steps forward only to take one step back, but champions aren’t built in one or even two off seasons. Jed York quoted Bill Walsh in the locker room following the game Sunday: “Champions behave like champions before they’re champions.” The struggles of this rebuild will be worth it. We’re not called “Faithfuls” for nothing.
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