On to the Next, Except Not: Lessons from the Loss That Will Help in Cincy
Image Credit: 49ers
You do it to yourself, you do And that's what really hurts Is you do it to yourself, just you You and no one else You do it to yourself You do it to yourself
Radiohead, “Just” (1995)
I thought this was a very appropriate way to begin this week as this lyric popped into my head when thinking about the most recent 49ers-Seahawks debacle. If this season was an album, it would be entitled ‘Self Inflicted Wounds.’
Until the 49ers learn how to get out of their own way, consistency will continue to elude them, at the moment they are the epitome of a .500 team; good one week but seemingly hapless the next. So what did we learn this week?
I teach PE in a primary school and football is what our National Curriculum would class as an “Invasion Game.” Put simply, a game where the idea is to score by getting into the opponent’s territory. This is obviously much harder to do the further away you start; this was certainly true last week:
As the above tweet shows, the 49ers were constantly putting themselves behind the 8-ball; giving themselves far too much to do, thus putting incredible pressure on the defense when things (inevitably) went wrong. The loss of Trenton Cannon early on probably didn’t help in this regard but it has been a very long time since the 49ers had a reliable kickoff-return guy.
Statistics back this up too. Consider the table below:
As you can see above, the Niners are in the bottom quarter of the league for kickoff returns, averaging ten yards fewer than the Minnesota Vikings (an entire first down behind). Somehow, they need to find a way to address this to build a better platform for future drives.
I know we just touched on special teams but there is more than one aspect to this. Currently, the 49ers kick return unit ranks thirtieth in coverage per DVOA and thirty-first as a return unit. They rank twenty-fourth in the league for special teams by Pro Football Focus and are in the top five in the NFL for average kickoff return yards per opponent. They are also middle of the pack for average yards per punt despite having a former fourth-round pick handling duties.
The beleaguered unit hit a new nadir on Sunday with a 73-yard fake punt run for a touchdown; even coach Richard Hightower (above) admitted that the 49ers formation on that play made it impossible for them to stop it. There is the adage that good coaches have good special teams, so Kyle Shanahan needs to make this area a priority sooner rather than later if he wants to have a genuine shot at success with this team.
Add into this the fumble by Travis Benjamin(!) and the missed extra point from Robbie Gould (whose contract is looking more ridiculous by the day; this is why you shouldn’t be paying kickers like this!) and you can see just how bad things are. Finally, Mitch Wishnowsky (whose numbers may look decent on paper but include 37- and 39-yard punts when he could have pinned Seattle back) is also hit-or-miss for a fourth-round pick. Football is a game of fine margins; special teams are more than a marginal gain and cannot be treated as an afterthought. If Hightower cannot turn things around quickly, then maybe the team needs to look elsewhere in the not-too-distant future.
Emmanuel Moseley’s injury could not have come at a worse time and leaves the 49ers woefully short in a position that was paper-thin at the start of the season and has seen them lose both starters already. The Bengals are strong at wide receiver and will probably be in 11 personnel for most of the game which will put incredible strain on the Niners secondary.
Josh Norman is clearly not it (even allowing for his forced fumbles) and he brings neither elite play nor the veteran leadership you might expect from such an experienced player at the position. Indeed, he continues to play with a reckless abandon and is a penalty waiting to happen
Meanwhile, Shanahan clearly does not trust the two rookies, Deommodore Lenoir and Ambry Thomas. Lenoir has flashed at times but is on a short leash and is yanked at the first sign of a mistake (while Norman gets beat like a drum but stays in the game!) Meanwhile, Thomas is being talked up a bit more but still seems a long way off and is behind Lenoir in the pecking order. If it were up to me, I would prefer to see the team take an extended look at the future of the team (the rookies) rather than guys who are older and have proven to be short of the mark, but Kyle is always loyal to his experienced players and reluctant to trust rookies so I am not holding my breath!
Yes, I am going there because it needs saying; Trey Lance should be the quarterback of this football team by now. In fact, he should have been the starting quarterback sooner but the Kyle Shanahan Loyalty Program (as John Chapman refers to it) is still clearly in operation. Jimmy is not doing anything that a No. 3 overall pick shouldn’t be able to do, and the time has come to give Trey the reins and see what happens. This may open the passing game, open up new areas of the field and stop teams stacking the box and the middle of the field.
The Bengals have played the run tough so far, allowing just 1,110 yards at an average of 4.1 yards per carry, putting them in the top five in the league against the run. With the 49ers banged up at the position, it would be unwise to expect a wildly inconsistent Jimmy Garoppolo to pick up the slack and win the game with his arm. Indeed, in games where he has to throw over 30 times, he typically comes out on the wrong side of the result.
Why not turn to the rookie then? Give your offense a shot in the arm, give the opposing defense something different to think about. Worst case scenario is that Lance gets more reps and is in a much better position to contribute next season.
Dumb penalties are consistently derailing the 49ers this season and nowhere was this more prevalent than on Sunday in Seattle. Racking up 10 penalties for 86 yards in a tight game is absolutely unforgiveable and some of them were frankly ridiculous. Arden Key (who to be fair has flashed some good play at times) had a poor roughing the passer penalty after lowering his head directly into Russell Wilson; keeping the Seahawks final drive of the half alive, leading to a touchdown (Charles Omenihu was also guilty of roughing the passer on the same drive). Add this to the PI calls which Josh Norman produces on a regular basis and the offensive holding negating positive plays and you have a serious issue to address.
In summary, the 49ers need to play without losing their heads and try to keep things as close as possible. Send kick-offs through the end zone so that you are not putting pressure on your struggling kick-off coverage unit; try to control field position by running the ball and getting in third-and-short to avoid putting too much on Garoppolo. Cut out the penalties and pile the pressure on Joe Burrow to help out the secondary. Nick Bosa’s return to Ohio will be vital and he will need to be at his absolute best to keep San Francisco in this game.
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