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49ers aren’t good, but things are about to get better

The numbers show a 49ers team that has improved in several areas. There is still a lot of room for improvement after six games.

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San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Just over one-third of the way through the 2016 season, it’s tough to feel good about the way things have gone if you’re a 49ers fan. If you were being realistic about this team entering the season, expectations likely weren’t high. But still, Chip Kelly’s team is 1-5, one game worse than San Francisco was under Jim Tomsula at this point last year, and many are already looking ahead to the offseason and a potential overhaul of this entire tire fire of a situation.

On the surface, there appears to be very little difference in performance between the 2016 49ers and their mustache-led counterparts from a year ago. A closer look at their underlying performance, however, reveals a team that’s playing noticeably better—not good, just better—football.

After six games in 2015, San Francisco’s minus-36.3 percent overall DVOA was comfortably the worst in football; the 31st-ranked Texans were nearly as close to the level of play of the 24th-ranked Cowboys as they were to the 49ers one spot below them. Through the same number of games this year, the 49ers’ overall DVOA is at a markedly better minus-17.2 percent (27th), or roughly twice as good (half as bad?).

While the 49ers’ minus-58 point differential so far this season isn’t much different from 2015’s minus-60 through six weeks, that doesn’t quite tell the entire story. To illustrate, San Francisco’s 45-16 loss last week to the Bills matches very closely to the final score of last year’s 43-18 blowout versus the Steelers in Week 2. However, if you watched both games, you know there was a very different tone to each game. In Buffalo, it was a four-point game at halftime and still within one score into the fourth quarter before things got out of hand late. By comparison, the outcome in Pittsburgh was never in doubt. San Francisco staved off embarrassment for all of one quarter before three Steelers’ second-quarter touchdowns gave them a 26-point halftime lead and put the game out of reach for good.

That difference is captured by Chase Stuart’s Game Scripts, which measures the average point differential across every second of each game. San Francisco’s Game Script last week against the Bills was minus-6.1, meaning the 49ers were trailing by an average of 6.1 points during every second of the game. Compare that to a Game Script of minus-15.9 in last year’s Steelers game, and you get a more accurate representation of how those two games actually played out.

Not coincidentally, the 49ers’ average Game Script this season compared to 2015 mirrors the improvement in DVOA. Last year, the 49ers trailed by an average of 6.3 points across every second of their first six games; this year, that has dropped to 3.7 points.

To reiterate, no one is trying to convince you San Francisco is a good football team. But they are a more competitive (or less bad) football team.

So why hasn’t the improvement in play translated to a better record? The simplest explanation is strength of schedule. San Francisco’s schedule has been brutal so far. Football Outsiders estimates they’ve played the league’s third-toughest schedule, behind only the Jets and Giants. Four of their six opponents are currently top-10 teams by DVOA, with three of those in the top five.

Not only have San Francisco’s opponents been generally very good football teams, they’ve been good in some specific ways that make them bad matchups for this particular 49ers team. We know Chip Kelly’s offense revolves around the run game—no team has been more run heavy so far this season than the 49ers. So it doesn’t help matters that they’ve played one of the league’s most difficult slate of opposing run defenses.

Football Outsiders doesn’t publish strength-of-schedule numbers below the overall offensive and defensive levels, but you can compare the opponent-adjusted numbers (DVOA) to the unadjusted figures (VOA) to get a reasonable estimate of schedule strength for the pass and run components on each side of the ball. Using that measure, the 49ers have faced the fourth-toughest schedule of run defenses this season. No opponent is currently ranked lower than 13th in run defense DVOA, and three of those teams are in the top eight so far. San Francisco simply doesn’t have the talent to overcome that sort of opposition, and considering the state of their passing game, if they’re unable to run the ball consistently there’s little chance this offense is going to move the ball effectively.

The same can be said for the other side of the ball. Without their two best run defenders, NaVorro Bowman and Ian Williams, stopping the run is the clear weakness for San Francisco’s defense. That problem has been exacerbated by the league’s most-difficult slate of opposing run offenses through six games. Dallas and Buffalo currently boast the league’s top two rushing attacks by DVOA, with Carolina and Arizona also in the top six.

All of that is about to change. With the obvious exception of the Patriots, there’s not a single surefire good football team on the schedule over the next seven weeks. It’s hard to know what to make of the Cardinals at this point, who show up again in Week 10, but their offense appears to have some real problems and their season could really go either way at this point. Everyone else—Bucs, Saints, Dolphins, Bears, Jets—are pretty clearly bad football teams and there’s little reason to believe their fortunes are about to suddenly turn for the better.

San Francisco will have to figure out something against David Johnson & Co. for round two against the Cardinals, but the 49ers won’t see another run game remotely near the caliber of teams like the Cowboys and Bills the rest of the way, and will get the good fortune of facing some legitimately poor rushing attacks in teams like the Bucs and Bears. (Note: Miami is currently third in rushing DVOA, but that is skewed significantly by last week’s monster effort against the Steelers. Prior to last week, the Dolphins were a solidly mediocre 12th, and I have significant doubts they’ll be able to maintain their current high ranking.)

On the other side of the ball, the same trend appears. The Patriots and Jets are both formidable against the run, but the other six of their next eight games will see them play mediocre or worse run defenses. Carlos Hyde’s injury status is the clear asterisk here, but provided his injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, as currently believed, the 49ers should have more success on the ground, which should help keep them more on schedule offensively.

Strength of schedule is one of those things everyone knows is important, but few really give the weight it deserves when considering how teams are performing. San Francisco is bad, but they’re probably not quite No. 1-overall-pick bad. By that same token, they aren’t about to start ripping through teams and go 6-1 during this lighter stretch on the schedule, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable for them to go 3-4 or 4-3 over the next seven games without their overall level of play really changing all that much.

Depending on your feelings about Trent Baalke’s job status, that could be a good or bad thing. Signs of life over the next couple months could be enough to keep his head above water, whereas continued struggles against a weaker slate of opponents would put the nail in his coffin for his tenure in San Francisco at this point.

But Baalke and the long-term future of this team is a topic for another article. In the short-term, things are almost certainly about to improve in Ninerland.

5 things I like and don’t like

1. Red zone offense has been surprisingly effective.

Few positive things are happening for the 49ers offense right now, but their performance in the red zone has been one of them. San Francisco is averaging 5.41 points per red zone trip, good for the 10th-best figure in football through six weeks. More importantly—particularly considering how frustrating it’s been to watch this team settle for field goal after field goal in the red zone for years—the 49ers are converting 64.7 percent of their red zone drives into touchdowns, which also ranks 10th. Now sure, it would be nice if they actually made it to the red zone more frequently, but hey, gotta take what we can get right now.

2. Michael Wilhoite continuing to get playing time over Gerald Hodges.

After three games in the starting lineup following NaVorro Bowman’s injury, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify Wilhoite’s presence on the field. Wilhoite’s play has seemingly gotten worse with each passing week, bottoming out last week with a truly atrocious outing in Buffalo. As Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus put it in his recap of the week’s worst performances, “There may not have been a defender more constantly out of position on Sunday than Wilhoite was in San Francisco’s loss to the Bills.”

On rare instances when Wilhoite didn’t take himself out of position, Buffalo’s interior offensive linemen were able to get up to the second level and pick him off with ease, leading to a number of long runs in which LeSean McCoy wasn’t even touched until he was 20-plus yards downfield. Luckily, it appears the 49ers will be moving to more of a rotation at inside linebacker going forward, and with any luck Gerald Hodges can offer some level of improvement at a position that’s been the weakest link in a struggling run defense so far this season.

3. Secondary appears to be one of the few bright spots.

Move back one level defensively, and you’ll find perhaps the only true bright spot on the entire team. San Francisco’s secondary has legitimately been one of the better units in football this season, with Pro Football Focus recently ranking them 10th among NFL secondaries entering Week 7.

Prior to injury, Jimmie Ward was proving worthy of his draft status, and it looks like he’ll be ready to get back on the field this week. Considering his injury didn’t prove to be overly serious, it actually ended up being somewhat positive for the 49ers, as Ward’s absence allowed rookie Rashard Robinson to emerge and stake claim to a starting cornerback role. Robinson is only cornerback in the league with at least 100 snaps in coverage to surrender fewer than 0.5 yards per coverage snap, according to PFF, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that I’m pretty sure Eddie Lacy’s daily food intake outweighs the 49ers’ svelte young defensive back.

I’ve never been overly impressed with Tramaine Brock when considering him as a No. 1 option at cornerback, but when he’s suddenly your third-best player at the position, the calculus changes considerably. Eric Reid has cooled a bit from his impressive start to the season, but overall the secondary has been the clear bright spot on an otherwise lousy roster. Their play has propelled the 49ers to an average pass defense (currently ranked 16th in DVOA) despite the complete absence of a pass rush.

4. Aaron Lynch’s performance in two games since returning from suspension.

Speaking of the pass rush, it’s been disappointing to see Aaron Lynch’s impact in the two games following his suspension be effectively nil. We knew the 49ers would likely struggle generating much of a consistent pass rush during Lynch’s four-game absence, but there was hope that with Lynch off the edge, and Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner doing work on the interior, that could change once he returned to the lineup. But that simply hasn’t been the case.

Lynch hasn’t registered a single quarterback hit in those two games, and has strangely found himself off the field entirely in some sub-packages in more obvious passing situations. The left tackles he’s faced in those two games, Jared Veldheer and Cordy Glenn, are both very good players, but the hope was Lynch take another step forward and become a player that could affect the game even against top competition. It’s still early in his season, but so far that hasn’t been the case.

5. Chip Kelly confusing old sportswriter with basic football terminology.

This paragraph made my week.