Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field was probably the best long term result for the San Francisco 49ers’ franchise. During the game, I was losing my mind: Beating Rodgers at Lambeau, on MNF, with CJ Beathard at quarterback... with sacks!!! Now the dust has settled however, the reality is Monday nights game was exactly what was needed.
The Green Bay Packers aren’t particularly good at the moment, so it wouldn't really have been a statement win. Kyle Shanahan continues to show he’s an offensive wizard, though perhaps he still has a few things to hone as we get towards the end of games. But no one is perfect. His defensive coordinator called a good game (again). CJ Beathard added at least another handful of picks onto his trade value. The team competed, suggesting heads aren't going down. The good players showed they were good; the bad players showed they were bad. Overall a useful day at the office, though undoubtedly not one early Tuesday morning me could really appreciate.
Having rewatched the game a few times, and crystalized my thoughts, here are a few of my main takeaways from the game.
The offensive line is impressive
It’s a cliché, but good teams are built from the trenches. This rebuild has focussed on the trenches. Two first round picks, one offensive linemen, one defensive linemen. A significant amount of investment and effort has been poured into upgrading and shaping the 49ers’ identity up front and on one side of the ball at least, it is starting to pay dividends.
The offensive line, along with (legitimate at this point) stud tight end George Kittle and Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk, are opening up gaping holes for the 49ers’ backs. Per NFL matchup, before Sunday’s game the 49ers were fourth in the league for rushing yards before contact.
If your team is on this graphic, they are RUN BLOCKING at a high level.#DallasCowboys #BroncosCountry #Jets #GoNiners #KeepPounding #LARams #DUUUVAL #GoBucs #Skol #GiantsPride pic.twitter.com/KMmkIYo1if— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 10, 2018
Sunday appeared to offer a continuation of that trend. This is crucial given the 49ers’ two running backs on Sunday, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, are clearly at their most effective once they are up to full speed. Injured free agent pickup Jerick McKinnon is much the same. Having an offensive line that opens up holes as effectively as the 49ers’ offensive line reduces the requirements for size at the running back position, allowing speed to be the primary trait, clearly something Shanahan favors in his running back room. The first run of the game is a great illustration of the 49ers’ newfound run blocking prowess.
Robert Saleh’s defense
A lot of people are criticizing the 49ers’ second year defensive co-ordinator, and there are certainly reasons to do so. Nevertheless, in the past few weeks his play calling has been integral to some strong defensive efforts and he has been let down by his players failing to execute. That falls far more on the shoulders of the players and his position coaches, especially when it occurs on the first play in the 49ers’ playbook — the cover 3 sky.
Once again, the 49ers busted on the first play from scrimmage when calling the cover 3 sky. This time it was nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, who left the wheel route from the number 2 receiver in order to play the flats. He should have carried the wheel and the nearest buzz defender should have played the flats.
There was nevertheless plenty to like about the 49ers’ defensive performance on Monday night. Saleh did well to mix up his coverages on third down to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers guessing. Combined with good execution from the players, this resulted in a third down efficiency rate of just 31% (much worse for most of the game) and two sacks. Sheldon Day’s sack (gif 1) came with the 49ers’ running a well disguised cover 2 man look, whilst Ronald Blair’s (gif 2) came with the 49ers’ running an equally well disguised cover 3 mabel, with Adrian Colbert performing a crucial role preventing Aaron Rodgers throwing to Marquez Valdes-Scantling as the wall defender.
Saleh also dialed up some particularly effective safety blitzes. I was advocating for them after the Chargers’ game, as the strong safety should rarely feature in the offense’s pre-snap blocking assignments despite his proximity to the LOS. Having barely blitzed in weeks 1 & 2, safety Jaquiski Tartt has rushed six times in the past two games and had a lot of success vs the Packers, regularly coming unblocked and hurrying the quarterback into throwing prematurely and incomplete.
More risky, but equally effective, was blitzing free safety Adrian Colbert straight up the middle with the 49ers’ zero blitzing in the red zone. It was a smart call, utilizing Colbert’s speed to rush right down the throat of an overmatched offensive line and into Rodgers’ face, forcing another incompletion. Saleh has been comfortable using the speed of his safeties to disguise pre-snap looks for a while now - he’s becoming increasingly confident using it to stress quarterbacks after the snap as well.
Ronald Blair is something of a fan favorite. He’s undoubtedly helped by being a fifth round pick from a small school and playing the same spot as much maligned first round pick Solomon Thomas. All things considered however, there can be little debate that Blair invariably has far greater impact on games than his more highly drafted counterpart. On Monday night, Blair had a major impact, with a quarterback hit and two hurries alongside his sack, as well as some good plays in the run game. Blair’s continued improvement should help to take some of the sting out of Solomon Thomas’ struggles.
The 49ers do not get enough turnovers, we've known that for a while. The turnover battle is a double edged sword however - the offense and special teams are giving up too many themselves. Until the 49ers start to achieve equilibrium in the turnover battles on a week to week basis (or even win a few !!!!!), close games will invariably end up as defeats.
That being said, the defense did have a turnover on Sunday - Cassius Marsh forced Jimmy Graham to fumble. They also had a crucial sack on third and long that was negated by an illegal contact penalty on Richard Sherman. The former was the most galling and represents a frustrating trend within the NFL in allowing the offense not to finish. Had Jimmy Graham re-established forward progress after the initial hit by Colbert, perhaps with help from a teammate, the play would have gone on. As it was, because the defense forced a fumble (even though offensive players KNOW they have to protect the ball going to ground) the play was deemed dead the moment Graham’s forward progress stalled, retrospectively. Along with the new rules regarding tackling and entering a quarterback’s personal space, in addition to the continued rewarding of underthrown deep balls with PI calls, it’s not hard to see why offensive output is at an all time high.
The 49ers’ second cornerback position has been a mess for a while now. This year was supposed to be the year that all changed, with last year’s number one corner, Ahkello Witherspoon, moving to the number two spot with the arrival of Richard Sherman.
It hasn’t quite gone to plan. With Witherspoon being hurt and messed around by the coaching staff and Jimmie Ward being hurt and highly inconsistent, former UDFA Greg Mabin has had the opportunity to stake his claim to a starting berth opposite Richard Sherman. Until Monday night, he was doing a commendable job, but under the lights, in primetime, he fell apart. The image at the top of the piece sums up his night, with Mabin prone on the ground in front of celebrating Packers.
Technically and situationally Mabin was all over the shop, allowing Davante Adams behind him in the RZ when playing a deep quarter and repeatedly giving up the sideline on the Packers’ final drive. Defensive back coach Jeff Hafley needs to earn his money now - restoring Mabin’s surely dented confidence, along with Witherspoon’s. Both have shown they can be serviceable options at least on the outside, they ultimately need the organization to roll with their youthful lumps and help them become better footballers.