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49ers-Steelers recap: Who are the real 49ers?

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The 49ers have put up polar opposite performances in the first two weeks of the season. Which team should we expect to show up over the next 14?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s one game. That was the message following the San Francisco 49ersimpressive season-opening victory over the Minnesota Vikings, and it’s a message that rings equally true one week later. Given everything we knew about this team coming into the season, the 2015 49ers weren’t going to coast through the remainder of the schedule looking as dominant as they were in Week 1. And by the same token, the 2015 49ers won’t be as bad as they looked in a 43-18 dismantling at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

The gamut of outcomes on the table for the 49ers entering the season was wider than just about any other team in football. Depending on your views of the new coaching staff and the numerous roster unknowns, you could have made a reasonable case for San Francisco winning anywhere between four and 12 games and probably found a subset of people who didn’t think you were insane. Through two weeks, we’ve seen extremes on each end of the spectrum for Jim Tomsula’s team.

So who are the real 49ers? The answer is obviously somewhere in between the radically different performances of the past two weeks. We won’t find out exactly where San Francisco will fall within that vast space for another month or so, but that won’t stop us from trying to figure it out now. Let’s examine the biggest differences from Week 1 to Week 2, and see if we can determine which performance is more likely to resemble the team we see over the final 14 games.

Pass Defense

Remember that whole thing about an unproven 49ers’ secondary getting tested this week? Um, about that…

Eric Mangini’s defense flabbergasted Teddy Bridgewater in Week 1, leading to indecision from the pocket, inaccurate throws, and plenty of negative plays. Perhaps most importantly, Minnesota never managed to make San Francisco pay when they brought the blitz. Bridgewater connected on just two passes that picked up over 20 yards, both of which were completely inconsequential. One came on the final play of the first half against a prevent defense, and the other was a short flip to Matt Asiata out of the backfield with the game well in hand late in the fourth quarter. It’s difficult to imagine things falling apart more dramatically than they did against the Steelers.

Opponent Yards Per Pass ANY/A Sacks INT Plays of 20+ Opposing QBR
Vikings 4.8 3.6 5 1 2 24.6
Steelers 13.7 15.9 0 0 6 99.4

We knew that Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t going to be as confused by Mangini’s amorphous pre-snap looks and blitz packages as the much younger Bridgewater, but Roethlisberger went well beyond simply not being forced into stupid mistakes. Seemingly every time the 49ers crowded the line of scrimmage and attempted to disguise what was happening on the backend, Roethlisberger identified the weak spot in coverage and attacked it for a big play. San Francisco gave up six passes of 20 yards or more on the day, four of which topped 40 yards, and all but one came on third down. Key to Roethlisberger’s success was his ability to exploit San Francisco’s out-of-position safeties.

Pittsburgh’s opening third down set the tone for the rest of the game. San Francisco has all 11 defenders within six yards of the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. They wind up bailing back into a Tampa–2 coverage, but Eric Reid’s pre-snap alignment meant he couldn’t get over the top of Antonio Brown’s fade route in time to prevent the completion. The exact same thing happened on Brown’s 59-yard reception midway through the second quarter.

In other instances, Roethlisberger manipulated the Niners’ safeties with the route combination and movement after the snap.

San Francisco appears to be playing Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-half) here, with Antoine Bethea and Dontae Johnson each playing quarters coverage to the offense’s right, and Reid and Kenneth Acker playing Cover 2 to other side. Roethlisberger’s short roll to the left gets Reid moving hard over the top of Brown’s fade route, and tight end Heath Miller runs a crossing route across the face of Bethea, occupying him underneath. This all leaves Johnson, who is playing with outside leverage and expecting inside help from Bethea, on an island with Darrius Heyward-Bey. Johnson has little chance of making a play on DHB’s post route and the result is 41 yards on third-and–5.

Safety play was at the crux of San Francisco’s problems on the defensive end. Roethlisberger picked on the 49ers’ young cornerbacks on underneath stuff as well, but the big plays were generated by attacking Reid and Bethea, who were frequently out of position or unable to recover from a pre-snap alignment that attempted to disguise their true intentions.

So which 49ers pass defense should we expect to see going forward? They won’t continue to allow a league-best QBR every week, as they did with Roethlisberger’s near-perfect 99.4 mark, but the concerns with giving up big plays on the backend are very real. Part of that is the natural risk of running a blitz-heavy scheme. When you put a ton of defenders near the line of scrimmage and send five or six guys after the quarterback, big plays are going to be there if the protection holds up. As I touched on in my Friday preview, those big-play opportunities were there against the Vikings as well, Bridgewater was just unable to take advantage.

That’s a terrifying thought when you consider the gauntlet of opposing quarterbacks the 49ers are about to face. Over the next 10 weeks, San Francisco will go up against Carson Palmer (twice), Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson (twice), Nick Foles, Matt Ryan, and Jay Cutler. Some of those guys aren’t without their flaws (looking at you Manning and Cutler), but Foles is the only below-average starting quarterback of the group. Assuming none of those guys get hurt, San Francisco won’t face a crappy opposing QB until they see whoever is lining up under center for the Browns in Week 14.

Even if the 49ers’ performance against the Steelers turns out to be their worst of the season, with that many quality passing games on the schedule, it’s going to be difficult for them to approach the highs of Week 1 any time soon.

Run Offense

The other strength from Week 1 that suddenly turned on its head was the effectiveness of San Francisco’s rushing attack. Carlos Hyde & Co. shredded the Vikings’ front seven, adding seven or eight yards to their total seemingly every time they ran the ball. Their new zone-blocking scheme enabled the 49ers to somewhat mask their talent deficit on the right side of the offensive line, allowing them to find success rushing the ball even when individual lineman were unable to generate movement up front. Pittsburgh’s front seven, however, poured some cold water on the notion San Francisco could continue to post gaudy rushing numbers in spite of an offensive line that features one of the worst right sides in football.

Opponent Carries Yards YPC Success Rate Plays of 10+ Stuffed Rate
Vikings 32 189 5.91 65.6% 6 12.5%
Steelers 22 60 2.73 50.0% 1 18.2%

(Note: Table includes only carries by 49ers’ running backs, excluding scrambles and designed runs by Colin Kaepernick.)

As you can tell from the final two columns in the table above, the most notable difference from Week 1 to Week 2 was the lack of big runs and an increase in plays stopped behind the line of scrimmage. San Francisco’s offensive lineman were continuously out-muscled, often getting pushed several yards into the backfield. And particularly after a scary-looking hit to the knee late in the first quarter seemed to strip away some of his elusiveness, Hyde didn’t have as much luck weaving his way through traffic in the box and into the second level of the defense.

Much of the 49ers rushing success in Week 1 came with multiple tight ends on the field, typically out of 13 (one RB, three TE, one WR) or 12 (one RB, two TE, two WR) personnel groupings. The Steelers responded to these looks by consistently loading the box with eight or nine defenders, and aggressively pursuing the outside zone runs the 49ers have relied on so heavily thus far two weeks into the season.

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was a force in the run game on Sunday, and you get an example of his impact on the play above. The call is a zone run to the left. Hyde’s initial path is forced wide with Marcus Martin getting pushed into the backfield, but he’s still looking good as long as the 49ers don’t miss their blocks on the second level. However, Joe Staley stumbles out of the gate, keeping him from getting up to Lawrence Timmons. And Garrett Celek, who drew the unfortunate assignment of having to block Shazier, gets tossed aside like a rag doll. Hyde turns the corner with two linebackers in his face and nowhere to go.

San Francisco refused to give up on the run despite facing a 26-point halftime deficit, but their persistence was not rewarded. Geep Chyrst became strangely infatuated with toss plays to the right side, and they rarely worked out.

This was far from the worst play for the right side of the offensive line, but their struggles were evident here. Martin is unable to pick-up Timmons on the second level, Jordan Devey gets controlled by defensive end Stephon Tuitt, and Erik Pears allows Shazier to blow through his inside gap and make the tackle for a loss.

Outside of some success from Colin Kaepernick in the read-option game, it was an ugly performance on the ground for the 49ers on Sunday. Do they have any hope of recapturing the magic they found in the season opener moving forward? I think so. Hyde’s talent and the scheme (as long as Chryst doesn’t become too predictable with his playcalling out of those tight end-heavy sets) can do enough to help overcome struggles up front against most defenses. Seattle has continued to produce on the ground without a quality offensive line for years thanks to the physical rushing style of Marshawn Lynch and the threat of Russell Wilson on the edge. Hyde’s not Lynch (yet), and Kaepernick needs to find more consistency on the ground, but San Francisco could potentially have a similar formula.

The biggest question mark is clearly the health of Carlos Hyde. Though he continued to run physically and fight for extra yardage after contact, Hyde didn’t look like the same guy after that early shot to the knee. He looked hobbled at times, and appeared to lose some of his burst and elusiveness.

Luckily, it appears the 49ers escaped short-term disaster in regards to the health of their top ballcarrier. Neither the knee scare, nor the hit to the head in the third quarter that ended Hyde’s day appears to be serious. However, his usage will be something to monitor going forward. Hyde carried the ball 26 times in the season opener and added 11 more in the first half against Pittsburgh. Those numbers would put him on pace for 384 carries over a full 16 games, an absurd number in today’s NFL.

Only 10 running backs have topped the dreaded Curse of 370 since 2000. That speaks not only to the continued emphasis on the passing game in modern offenses, but just how difficult it is for a running back to remain healthy under that kind of workload. It’s unlikely Hyde will hold up if he continues to see as many carries going forward. If he’s out for any significant stretch of time, the 49ers’ run game will nosedive. But if they can manage Hyde’s workload and keep him healthy, he’s talented enough to lead a successful 49ers ground game.