Honestly who saw that coming? I can put my hand on my heart and say that I did not. Whilst I did think that the 49ers’ defense would be able to force Blake Bortles into errors, courtesy of their ability to stop the run and force the Jaguars to throw the ball, I did not think that ultimately, the 49ers’ offense could carry the day, even less that they could score over 40 points.
But last Sunday, much like Telvin Smith and the rattled Jaguars, I learned not to underestimate the 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan. The rest of the league learned that too. It was a statement win against a side that have a season of statement wins under their belt - a side thought balanced enough (albeit with an in-form Bortles) to break the New England-Pittsburgh hegemony of the AFC since 2000. But with Kyle Shanahan shifting seamlessly from second to third gear with his new quarterback, the 49ers are offering a glimpse both tantalizing to their fans and intimidating to their foes at what the future holds.
One foe who appears to have been intimidated by the 49ers is the Rams, who will field a weakened team this week. There is clearly a pragmatism to the Rams’ decision making, not seeking to risk players getting injured in what promises to be a physical divisional matchup but there could be other motives at work. They want to face the Eagles and not the Vikings. They likely will play a vanilla defense, missing its best piece and seeking to avoid Shanahan providing opposition teams with the sort of incriminating film they have on the Jaguars’ defense. Their offense will be limited by the presence of Sean Mannion at the helm. Perhaps the Rams even have one eye on the draft order and realize that a 49ers’ victory will likely see them drop out of the top ten — almost certainly taking them comfortably out of the running for the truly elite prospects in this year’s draft. Additionally, it potentially reduces the chances of them drafting another All-Pro talent to add to a team with at least a handful of players capable of achieving that level in the near future.
The 49ers have a real chance to win on Sunday against the deliberately short-handed Rams, but before looking ahead, it’s worth looking back one more time to last Sunday’s victory over the Jaguars and some of this week’s storylines.
- I said a couple of weeks ago on a video for Nothing But Niners that I didn’t think Jimmy Garoppolo was a top ten quarterback yet - the sample size was too small. I’ve now changed my mind. He is a top ten quarterback. He’s probably not top five just yet, though if you throw him into the ESPN QBR rankings he is first in the NFL. but he easily could be this time next year. Why? His play is eerily similar to what you’d get if you found a guy halfway or so between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
His pre-snap recognition and understanding of route combinations and how to attack a defense is stellar, and he has a lightning fast release that perfectly compliments that trait. That’s the Brady part. Unlike his former teammate however, Garoppolo has better mobility and ability to make more off schedule plays outside of the pocket. He has the best rating outside the pocket of any quarterback in the last five weeks. His innate understanding of coverages and route combinations combined with his talents outside of the pocket allows him to make plays late in the down. That’s the Rodgers part. And that’s exciting.
- Carlos Hyde isn’t a top ten running back, but he’s probably in the top twenty. He is also probably a top fifteen runner, and the latter statement (coupled with his apparent desire to stay in San Francisco voiced after Sunday’s win) makes his situation slightly less clear cut than it may seem right now. Many fans (including myself) see him as likely to be on his way at the end of the season.
We’ve more or less seen what Hyde is about this year - he’s closer to being one dimensional than he is a versatile, three down running back in the NFL. Matt Breida continues to see a sizable share of the snaps due to his versatility - he is a better pass catcher and pass blocker than Hyde. But Hyde’s very capable one dimension - his physical, YAC creating style of running could make him worthy of two year contract paying him in the region of $4 million a year, as a lead runner in a committee of backs including Breida and Breida’s fellow 2016 rookie Joe Williams. Jeremy McNichols could also have a say in that of course, and Hyde may consider himself worth more than that kind of money and test free agency.
BUT, if Hyde really does want to stick around, that’s the sort of role I could envisage for him. He’s not the three down, instant impact, versatile workhorse threat that this team could add in the draft if they pick one of the better backs in the class. But he could do a job for the next year or two whilst the 49ers really find out what they’ve got in their three sophomore backs.
- When Reuben Foster left the game on Sunday (I hope this is the last time I type that for a while, preferably for ever) the intermediatey-middley sort of area of the 49ers’ defense got horribly exposed. I’ll continue to bang on about Brock Coyle’s lack of fluidity in space because seeing him reacting to something like his feet are stuck in concrete really upsets me after we’re blessed with not having to notice that when Foster is doing it all for him. In fairness to Coyle his run defense continues to improve but coverage is where he struggles.
Elijah Lee was little better there - which isn't a surprise for a rookie drafted in the seventh round. Eric Reid had a mixed day at strong safety/dime linebacker in coverage - he, Lee and Adrian Colbert combined to not read the eyes of Blake Bortles or jam James O'Shaughnessy and allow an easy touchdown to the Jaguars tight end as Sunday night got a bit close for comfort for a brief time. It was also a questionable play call from Saleh, whose players have shown on numerous times they are not yet good enough to play cover 3 consistently in the red zone. Additionally, Reid and Coyle combined to allow the Jaguars to drive downfield throwing check downs to TJ Yeldon. That’s not great.
Reid however did make a great play on Dontae Johnson’s pick-six. You have to make a great play for Johnson to get a pick-six, the way he’s been playing for the past few weeks. He showed excellent recognition and awareness of Keelan Cole coming across the field and the threat of Reid waiting to ruin Cole’s Christmas Eve was enough to make Cole stop his route. Bortles missed his man and the rest is history.
Reid is another guy coming to the end of his rookie deal who looks to be replaceable. Much like Hyde, he could be a useful player to keep around - his ability to back up Jaquiski Tartt at strong safety as will as playing nickel and dime linebacker (where he’d get at least 60% of the snaps) would allow the team to not sign or draft a linebacker. With Malcolm Smith, Coyle, Reid, Lee and Mark Nzeocha competing as off-ball linebackers to play with Reuben Foster, the Niners could focus elsewhere. But, also much like Hyde, Reid could see himself as worth far more than this (he could certainly start elsewhere) and chase the cash. The safety position is becoming more highly valued and guys of Reid’s talents should find a starting spot somewhere.
- K’Waun Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon have shown that two of the 49ers’ corner spots look in safe hands going into next year. Williams got the first interception of his career on Sunday and has improved his coverage considerably over the past few weeks to compliment a season’s worth of excellent work against the run. Witherspoon too has impressed against the run, whilst his interception came courtesy of him getting his head turned round and making a play on the ball. Such a play is a display of increasing confidence and calmness from the 49ers’ rookie corner, who is coming into his own and quickly helping us to forget our early season woes when Rashard Robinson was attracting flags faster than Vontaze Burfict (and late season Dontae Johnson) and Witherspoon was regularly a healthy scratch. The 49ers’ coaching staff has done well with Witherspoon and his development.
- In fact, it would be fair to say that the 49ers’ coaches have done well with almost all their rookie pickups. Solomon Thomas continues to perform as a run stopper as well as flashing more regularly as a pass rusher, from both outside and crucially, inside, where his future lies. Reuben Foster is elite. Trent Taylor and George Kittle are fifth round steals, with Taylor a dangerous weapon from the slot and Kittle having apparently got over his early season drops. Adrian Colbert, despite one aforementioned bad play against the Jaguars, has played better than Jimmie Ward did at the crucial free safety position. C.J. Beathard is a capable backup quarterback who will know get the chance to learn from a top ten player at the position. In a few years, he could land the 49ers far better than a third round pick in a trade deal or perhaps (though this would be a shock) supplant Jimmy G(sus) himself. If this year’s draft class is anything like as productive, the 49ers could and arguably should get into the playoffs.
Looking ahead to the Rams
And now looking forward to the Rams... It should be a last hurrah for a resurgent 49ers. The weakened Rams have much more to play for this season than the pride they’d get by potentially beating a division rival. Better to play a weakened team and probably lose than go at full strength, risk losing and let your playoff opponents get the manual.
I’d like to see a few things on Sunday however, namely continued improvement from everyone, particularly the younger players. Adrian Colbert needs to get a pick, after letting one somehow elude him against the Jaguars. Trent Taylor faces a seriously tough task, going up against one of the best and the most aptly named nickel corner in the league, Nickell Robey-Coleman. How will George Kittle and the resurgent Kyle Juszczyk (I know he’s not that young but he's also not cheap) do against the Rams’ mobile linebackers? And can Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster finish their seasons on a high? Thomas won’t have to deal with Andrew Whitworth nor John Sullivan, but Rodger Saffold is still a handful to say the least. Both Thomas and DeForest Buckner could both feast on a weakened Rams offensive line, pad their stats and prepare for a year preferably flush with sacks in 2018.
Finally, let’s hope Marquise Goodwin gets to 1,000 yards on the campaign, I’ll be rooting for him that’s for sure.