• Travis Hawkins

Postmortem: What Lessons the 49ers Can Learn From Their First Loss

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

To paraphrase Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club, how much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight? The 2019 49ers ran out to an 8-0 start, outscoring their opponents 235 to 102 in the process and leading some to question the level of competition but a team can only play who is on its schedule; that’s why Monday night’s game was litmus test for the Niners.

Seattle came into Monday night with a 7-2 record; at 15-2, it was the best combined record between teams on Monday Night Football since 1990 when the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers squared off with identical 10-1 records. Just like that epic game from 29 years ago, this one was a ferocious battle that centered on the two defenses.

After nearly seventy minutes of football, four lead changes and coming back from an 11-point deficit, the 49ers dropped (literally) their first game of the season. Now that they have been in a close, back-and-forth fight, what have the 49ers learned about themselves?

The Defense is Championship Caliber:

The 49er’s defense has been an elite unit this season. Going into the game, they allowed the fewest passing yards per game in the NFL (143.8), and the fewest first downs per game (13.9). They also ranked second in points allowed (14.3/game), total yards (251.6/game) and sacks (35), while also ranking fourth in interceptions (11) and first in forced fumbles (14). The naysayers look at the defense’s performances, point to the schedule and claim that the 49ers haven’t “played anyone.”

Coming into Monday night’s game, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was playing at an MVP level, throwing twenty-two touchdown passes against only one interception. The 49ers’ defense held Seattle to just 189 yards passing and forced a fumble and interception from Wilson, in addition to sacking him five times.

The Seahawks’ 27 points came from a defensive touchdown and two touchdown drives following San Francisco turnovers, one starting at the San Francisco 16-yard line, the other at the 49ers’ 24-yard line. The Seahawk possessions that did not start due to a turnover went as follows: punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble, fumble, punt, fumble, punt, field goal, interception, punt, field goal.

The 49ers’ defensive performance was not only dominating, it was clutch. Down eleven points in the fourth quarter and Seattle backed up in their own territory, the defense needed to make a play to help out an offense that had been struggling.

On second down, Arik Armstead and K’waun Williams sacked Wilson and in the process knocked the ball loose. Seattle offensive lineman Germain Ifedi grabbed the ball out of the air, but instead of going to the ground and preserving the possession, he tried to run with it. 49ers’ linebacker Fred Warner punched at the ball causing a fumble that was scooped up and returned by DeForest Buckner for a touchdown. The score (and the 2-point conversion) cut the lead to 21-18.

The defense would make another game-changing play in overtime. On their opening possession, when a touchdown ends the game, Seattle drove the ball deep into San Francisco territory. On a second-down play fourteen yards from the endzone, Russell Wilson lofted a pass intended for tight end Jacob Hollister that was undercut and intercepted by rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who returned the ball out to midfield. Greenlaw, who was filling in for Kwon Alexander, made the play that (at least temporarily) saved the game for the 49ers.

A Wide Receiver Needs to Step Up:

As clutch as the 49ers’ defense was on Monday night, the wide receiver group was the exact opposite. Without its best player, tight end George Kittle, the offense was able to move the ball well enough to take a 10-0 lead after the first quarter, but once wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders left the game with a rib injury it was tough sledding for the 49ers.

The 49ers have invested considerable draft capital in the wide receiver position under Kyle Shanahan. Including the trade for Sanders, the 49ers have spent two second-round picks, two third- round picks, a fourth-round, a fifth-round and a seventh-round pick on receivers. As a group, the 49ers’ receivers dropped nine passes against the Seahawks, some stalled drives and others were intercepted, but all of them were crucial in one fashion or another.

Kendrick Bourne made some plays on third down as well as catching a touchdown and a 2-point conversion, but he had some critical drops including one that clanged off his hands was intercepted.

Without Sanders, this was a perfect opportunity for Dante Pettis or Marquise Goodwin to step up and out of the doghouse, but neither one could make an impact. Goodwin and Pettis were each targeted three times without a catch.

Richie James is a curious case all his own. James seemed to be in line to get some of the snaps that would go to Trent Taylor, who has missed the entire season with a broken foot, but James’ roll as a receiver has been diminishing in recent weeks. James saw only 19 percent of the plays from scrimmage the two games prior to Monday night despite the fact that Goodwin was inactive for each of those games. On Monday night Richie James saw zero snaps from scrimmage.

One of the receivers not named Emmanuel Sanders needs to step up because from here on out teams are going to dare the 49ers to throw the football.

Kyle Shanahan Needs to Develop a Second Pitch:

In major league baseball every pitcher can throw his fastball for a strike and every hitter can hit a fastball; if he couldn’t he wouldn’t be there. In order to be effective, a pitcher needs to develop a second or even third pitch he can use to throw for strikes and get guys out.

For Kyle Shanahan his fastball is the outside zone run, it sets up everything he wants to do offensively. The last two opponents for the 49ers have sold out to stop the run. Against Arizona, the 49ers were able to make enough plays in the passing game to come away with the win against Seattle they were not.

Part of the problem (as discussed previously) is getting inconsistent play from the wide receiver position, but another aspect to this is breaking ones’ own tendencies. Late in the game against Seattle the 49ers were able to have some decent success with some gap scheme runs using Raheem Mostert. Even though the 49ers run the outside zone better than any team in football, it might be beneficial to mix in some different runs more often, especially when the opponent is just sitting on the outside zone. The 49ers have also become predictable on first down, running the ball 68% of the time (16% higher than the NFL average); mixing in some first down throws could help the run game be more effective.

The Stage is Not Too Big for The 49ers:

The game against the Seahawks was expected to have a playoff atmosphere, something that has not happened since the team moved into Levi’s Stadium. The Faithful did not disappoint. The Stadium was packed (paid attendance 71,404) and loud, but not only did fans show up they tuned in. The matchup between NFC West rivals was the highest rated game on Monday Night Football this season.

Oftentimes, teams can shrink in the spotlight -- recent versions of the Cincinnati Bengals and the 2019 Cleveland Browns for example -- especially when the teams are starting to have some success after extended periods of losing. Even in the loss the 49ers showed that the moment was not too big for them by getting out to an early lead, and when they got down by 11 points late, instead of folding they battled back and forced overtime.

Rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel was the lone wideout to step his game up against Seattle (8 receptions; 112 yards), but even he had his issues with drops. Samuel has shown flashes of the ability that made him a second-round pick, but he has also shown the inconsistency that comes from being a rookie. If Samuel can be more consistent down-to-down and week-to-week, he could be just what the Niners need opposite Emmanuel Sanders.

Each game is a chance for this young team to learn and grow and as the axiom goes there is more to be learned from a loss than from a win.

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