Feelin' Hot: Was the 49ers Offense Getting Hot at the Right Time?
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Timing is everything, or so they say, and the 49ers look to be peaking at just the right time. On October 24, just after the Niners had that abysmal performance against the Colts that dropped them to 2-4, the situation looked desperate, and some fans were already writing the season off.
Back then, it was difficult to see a turnaround happening, but two months later, the Niners were sitting at 8-6 and people are even talking about winning the division! While such talk still seems somewhat fanciful, the playoffs look almost a certainty now and a win on Thursday Night Football in Tennessee would have pretty much cement then 49ers place in the post-season.
So how did this happen?
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde
The first thing we need to address is the quarterback situation. As much as I have been campaigning for the Niners to make the switch to Trey Lance, you can’t really argue with how much Jimmy Garoppolo had elevated his play over the past eight weeks until last night.
Garoppolo had been playing much tidier football and we have seen much more of the Dr. Jekyll and less of the Mr. Hyde recently. Although he isn’t a top-five quarterback who can carry a team, he is perfectly capable of winning games with a competitive team, as he showed in 2019, and he had gotten back to basics and cut out the mistakes. Between the Colts game and last night, he had thrown only four interceptions.
Those numbers look pretty good and as you can see, if we extrapolate them out over a season, they are very reminiscent of 2019. If Garoppolo can perform at that level, then it could be a very interesting January and no-one will be looking forward to facing the 49ers in the playoffs.
A big part of the rejuvenation of the Niners’ offense has been the return of George Kittle as a genuine receiving threat.
Earlier in the season, Kittle had become more of a blocker and a forgotten man as a receiver in the offense. Again though, the 49ers remembered what worked in 2019 and have gone back to their star tight end and made him a real feature in the past few weeks.
This incredible hot streak helped Kittle get back to the Pro Bowl and it will be a key feature in them continuing to push for a Super Bowl berth.
Another important piece in the puzzle is the return to form of another of the YAC Bros, Brandon Aiyuk. After spending the first few weeks of the season in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, something has definitely clicked for No. 11 and he has been a major part of the offensive turnaround, whether as a result of his blocking or his receiving.
As you can see above, this resurgence in the fortunes and form of Brandon Aiyuk has coincided with the team going on a 5-3 run. The Niners now have all of the YAC Bros fit and firing on all cylinders and that will be a good thing for the team going forward.
This was a much-maligned unit earlier in the season. I referred to them in one piece as the Oh No Line as my frustrations had gotten the better of me. While Trent Williams is the highest rated player in the league and Laken Tomlinson has been named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, the right side of the line resembled a turnstile more than a wall in pass protection earlier in the season.
Then there was the injury to Mike McGlinchey and things looked like they would go from bad to worse when it became clear that his replacement would be journeyman Tom Compton.
Surely, this would be the final nail in the coffin of that side of the line, right? Surprisingly not.
Compton has performed very well in recent weeks and far beyond expectation (which, to be fair, isn’t saying much!)
No one would ever have imagined that we would be seeing him achieve a Pro Football Focus grade of 95.9 by Week 15 but that is exactly what happened: he was the highest graded player in the entire NFL for that week.
Indeed, a large part of Jimmy Garoppolo’s recent success up until last night has been the team’s ability to buy him time and keep the pressure off over this good run.
This all points towards some good times ahead. Even the injury woes at running back haven’t been too damaging as they have just adopted a “next man up” mentality and guys like Jeff Wilson Jr. have come into the side and still produced the goods, which again is a testament to the job done by the offensive line.
Hopefully, the 49ers can stay healthy at key positions. If (and it’s always a big if) they can keep executing like this and play mistake-free football on offense, then their tenacious defense should be able to complement them nicely and make the 49ers a dark horse team that no-one fancies facing in the playoffs.
They should certainly be too much for a poor Houston Texans team, and Kyle Shanahan has shown in the past that he has Sean McVay’s number in their past clashes with the Rams. If the special teams can be a bit more, errr, special, then it could very well be all systems go to the end of the season.
Their red zone TD percentage is the best in the league currently (in stark contrast to 2019) but they still need to improve on third downs, where they are slightly below league average. The return of Elijah Mitchell could well be crucial in improving the latter and his injury layoff will hopefully mean he is well rested for the postseason.
It is also worth noting the improvement in Jauan Jennings this season as he has announced himself as a genuine, viable third receiver who is able to go up and fight for the ball in tight situations.
In summary, the offense had, last night excepted, gotten hot at just the right time and is currently purring like a finely tuned engine. If Shanahan can keep it ticking over into January, then who knows what they can achieve?
That performance exemplified why the front office decided to make the big trade for Trey Lance in the first place. Garoppolo always does just enough to suck people back in, but the issues he has are not going away, and sooner or later he reverts back to type.
The above pretty much says it all and sums up exactly what Garoppolo is. He’s the guy before the guy, he’s the one who can get your team so far but eventually you realise that it isn’t going to be enough. He puts so much pressure on the rest of the team and his coverage blindness is a debilitating, chronic condition which will not get better after all these years; it’s just him, that’s who he is, it’s what he does.
The season will ultimately come down to whether the rest of the team can make up for these weaknesses; whether they can take the ball out of his hands (à la Minnesota and Green Bay in the 2019 playoffs) and still win (Elijah Mitchell is vital for this).
If not, this will be his swan song and we will go again next season with a quarterback who has played just two games in three years. Patience (something which is usually in short supply) will be a prerequisite and we will have to hope that Lance has made enough improvements on the practice room and in film study to make accelerated progress.
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