Lessons the 49ers’ Coaching Staff Needs to Take from the 2018 Season
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Leaders cannot be afraid of change. Too often, even in today’s rocket-fueled pace of commerce and technology, there are those in charge who remain steadfast on a course, while the nimble competition handsprings right by them.
Professional football is a mix of change, innovation, and ingenuity. Great coaches can find an old play – like a veer – and draw it up to fit a zone block or some tricky counter run. He’s then hailed as the next-best-thing and becomes the idol that others want to emulate.
Some changes are so subtle, we don’t see much of a difference. It’s entirely possible a coach sat down in January to review game film and noticed a route combination failed against a Double Sting Cover 2 or a derivative of that zone blitz.
After review and breakdown, the coach noticed the problem: he had the wrong primary receiver in the read progression. To fix it, he’ll use a different formation, adjust the splits and change the protection from 50-series to 2/200 Jet.
The “next man up” talking point sounds motivating and positive from a coach standing behind a microphone. But the proof of the statement is backed up only if the next man is an equal talent as the injured player.
I’ve repeatedly pointed out head coach Kyle Shanahan’s aversion to adding quality starting and back-up guards to the roster. The team and the executive office can continue to try and skate by without improving the position group, but the problem continues to lurk around the corner like a stalking butler.
We know what happened in Week 1 last season: Guard Mike Person injured his foot, and back-up guard Joshua Garnett steps in for 14 snaps before injuring his toe.
Now, this was a rare circumstance for any team, but the 49ers built a roster that wasn’t prepared for the worst situation.
Rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey moved from right tackle to right guard and veteran tackle Garry Gilliam played the remainder of the game at right tackle.
Gilliam was one of many anchors chained to the 49ers’ leg since he joined the squad in 2017, but fortunately, the executive office got wise and released him in February.
I’m not picking on Gilliam, but rather why the 49ers’ coaching staff won’t stock the second team offensive line with quality players, as it has done with the running back position.
Running back Jerick McKinnon’s fluke knee injury just before the start of the season caused 49er fans across the globe to groan a collective, “Now what?!”
No fear, Fellow Fan! The 49ers had the men to cover for McKinnon. In fact, 49er running backs racked up 1,769 yards on the ground last season on 364 attempts. That’s an average of 4.6 yards per rush.
These four men, Matt Breida, Alfred Morris, Jeff Wilson, and Raheem Mostert, tallied more rush yards than 15 NFL teams including the Dolphins, Packers, Lions, and Giants.
That’s proof the “next man up” theory works, but the coaching staff needs to use it at each position group. My fear is the offensive line will be the weak and most questionable position group at the start of the 2019 season.
In an article in the Sacramento Bee last week, cornerback Richard Sherman stated that “The secondary wasn’t the issue last year,” and that “It was just guys’ immaturity, mistakes, just not executing.”
The 49ers’ defense was littered with issues, injuries, and talent from the edge position to the safety. Sherman commented that a lack of a pass rush contributed to the defensive struggles, and that’s an accurate observation. With no pressure, a quarterback has free reign to scan a defense and wait for receivers to break open.
But, here’s an example of where the secondary was at fault.
To me, the Rams example shows a total lack of communication and understanding of the coverage. Three 49er defenders were covering one Rams player, a safety 10 yards off a post route, and the right cornerback leaving an entire zone open.
To Sherman’s point, there was no pass rush on the play, but that shouldn’t be an excuse for how many holes were in deep zones on the play.
The Giants example was another reflection of how strange the secondary played. The play above wasn’t anything complicated; it was a dig and a go route, with the back running a swing play.
The result was five 49er players making an open circle around Odell Beckham, Jr. and a significant gain for the Giants.
Sherman correctly pointed out that some of the secondary’s issues were its immaturity, but the continuous errors were signs of a lack of overall development.
Further, those continued errors made me question how defensive coordinator Robert Saleh addressed them in the film room.
Saleh now has an improved defensive line and linebacker corps. He is out of excuses if the secondary continues down the same road.
Do You Believe in Magic? And a Special Teams Improvement
Successful punt and kick returns are built from pure luck, with a lovin’ spoonful of great blocks and a fast return man.
In 2018, the 49er punt returners gained 180 yards on 31 return attempts. There’s no need to double check the math; the 49ers averaged a bare-bones 5.8 yards per return. Oddly, nine teams had fewer punt return yards than the 49ers, but they finished near the bottom in yards per return.
However, 49er kick returners fared much better, averaging 26.2 yards per return, fourth best in football.
It’s hard to pin these stats on the coaching staff; anyone who has returned punts or kicks knows how difficult it is to catch a sky-high football with 21 men all running at you at full speed – and you’re a stationary target.
However, the team must find ways to double or triple the punt return yardage to help the offense improve its field position or even run a punt back for a score now and then.
There is a purpose for each part of the football season, and we are sitting patiently in a time to plant, to break down and build up. It’s now up to the coaching staff to determine if the coaches and general manager will embrace the necessary changes to become a champion.
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