Measuring Against the Best: What the 49ers Do Right and Wrong Against the NFL’s Top Talent
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Despite my old age, I cannot remember the Week 11 loss the 1988 San Francisco 49ers suffered to the Los Angeles Raiders. History notes the score was 9-3 in favor of the silver and black, with quarterback Joe Montana throwing for 136 yards, while the 49er defense allowed 159 yards on the ground.
According to San Francisco Chronicle writer Lowell Cohn, Montana spent his post-game interview, “… trying to explain away the loss” while “… he (Montana) ran through the 49ers’ all-time greatest excuses.”
He (Montana) said the emergence of the running game has hurt the passing attack. He never explained why that is so, especially when you consider that, according to NFL lore, the running game sets up the pass.
“The Mighty Have Fallen.” Cohn, Lowell. San Francisco Chronicle. November 14, 1988. Accessed December 2, 2019.
Those 49ers had dropped three of its last four games, and the playoff window was creaking shut. From the tone of Cohn’s article, it certainly felt as if that team was doing nothing right, especially against a mediocre Raider team.
Today, the 2019 49ers have ten wins, with the second-ranked offense and defense in pro football. Gameday statistics show the 49ers do many things right during the week to prepare and execute on Sunday afternoon. The vibration at the moment though has an ominous tone, despite a knock-down fight against the best team in football.
If you’re questioning Shanahan’s offense, play calling, or clock management, please take a breath or three right now. Despite the loss, the 49ers are playing well against the NFL’s top talent.
Right: The Change Has Come
Call it a Thanos complex, but I want the 49ers to be perfectly balanced. An equally potent offense, defense, and special teams will dominate the NFL, with the era of the one-dimensional football team long gone.
Previous 49er teams, notably in 2012 and 2013, achieved the right balance. However, those squads fell a bit short of perfection with the defense picking up the slack for a sometimes-sluggish offense.
The 2019 49ers are close to achieving equality on all sides of the ball. We’ve watched the 49er offense turn the ball over five times, but have its defense keep the score within reach for the team to scrap out a victory. On the flip side, the 49er offense put up 28 points and 317 yards passing against Arizona when the defense had no response to quarterback Kyler Murray.
Last season, the 49ers’ secondary was the cause of many fan frustrations. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has the defensive backs born-again hardcore. Before Week 13, Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson was averaging 220 yards per game in the air. The 49ers held Jackson to 105 yards on 23 pass attempts.
Jackson was averaging 8.12 yards per throw coming into the game, and the 49ers held him to 7.5.
Nobody has mentioned how well the 49ers’ punt team is playing this season, having allowed only allowed 58 return yards on 14 punts. Opposing returners are averaging a paltry 4.1 yards per return. Don’t forget Raheem Mostert dropping Green Bay punt returner Tremon Smith twice for loss on two punts during the Week 12 blowout victory.
Wrong: My Nerves Start to Fray
For a time, NFL offensive coordinators could not find a weakness in the 2019 49er defense.
That changed when Arizona Cardinals used a no-huddle offense and Murray’s legs. Those elements combined to form a green, glowing chunk of kryptonite that hung heavy around the 49ers’ neck.
It was no surprise to see the Seattle Seahawks photocopy that game plan and use a higher tempo offense combined with quarterback Russell Wilson’s infuriating lunch-recess style of play.
For reasons known only to the cosmos, the 49ers still have not found a way to map the tendencies of Wilson and Seattle’s offense. The team puckers up and dies each time it faces Seattle.
We can go around Twitter and Facebook until the sun expands into a red giant star discussing how poorly or how well the 49ers’ defense responded to Lamar Jackson’s running ability.
As a fan, I am more disappointed in the defense’s inability to shut down the zone read in the first half than I am with Shanahan’s fourth-and-1 play call. The 49ers’ defense was lost on the zone-read calls, converging on the running back and leaving the edges exposed.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh adjusted slightly, but Jackson still averaged 5.5 rush yards on eight attempts in the second half.
It seems the Faithful expect absolute perfection from the 49ers after ten wins - which they may deserve - but is an unattainable outcome to demand from a game they cannot control.
The 49ers are doing the big and small things right this season, but those wrongs do feel like wet cuts covered in lye after a loss.
Shanahan and Saleh will learn from Sunday’s loss, another small thing the 49ers are doing right this season.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
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