Back in August, 1-3 after four weeks was a fairly reasonable expectation for San Francisco 49ers fans. Personally, I thought it would be 2-2 — like many, I did not predict Pat Mahomes’ brilliance. Taking that brilliance into account, one realizes the 49ers have come up against four of the NFL’s top fifteen signal callers through the first four weeks of the season, with three of them on the road. 1-3 then? Really not too bad. The reality of this year would always be surviving the first six (arguably seven) weeks of the season, before hitting a run of distinctly winnable looking games.
However, if any fans needed a lesson in going beyond the box score, consider the tone around the franchise. The results are clear, the substance of those results is the thing that’s getting us down. When a franchise’s success is seemingly tied to a man who was recently pictured being driven from the field on a cart, things are not usually proceeding well. Arrowhead just doesn’t do innocuous.
Then there’s the defense; seemingly incapable of tackling. I thought about putting their overall NFL rank in, but that doesn’t matter. Performances aren't good enough, that much is obvious.
As one can rightfully expect from the greatest soap opera in the world, despite only being four weeks in, it continues to shit out storylines like there’s no tomorrow. Let me add my voice to the cacophony of discussion, as I provide my thoughts on the first quarter of the 49ers’ season.
Opportunity for CJ Beathard
With Jimmy Garoppolo’s season ending in Missouri, we are supposed to believe the 49ers’ season is over. If the defense continues to play like it has been, it is. That could change, but I’ll address that later.
On the offensive side of the ball however, CJ Beathard now has the opportunity to play and demonstrate his development since his first start almost a year ago. Against the Chargers, Beathard displayed his trademark toughness and combined it with both impressive elusiveness in the pocket and reassuring improvement as a passer. For the most part, Beathard combined excellent accuracy with timing, as he executed the fairly conservative game plan Kyle Shanahan called for him with the requisite efficiency.
He may not have quite as much talent as Garoppolo, but Beathard is comfortably good enough to execute the vast majority of plays in Shanahan’s playbook (as well as mobile enough to run the read option as a little wrinkle). We may not see much of a drop off from Garoppolo to Beathard, given Shanahan will put less on Beathard’s plate and Garoppolo struggled a little when he was on the field. Barely culpable for his interceptions, Beathard showed in his first start of 2018 that he can keep the 49ers competitive, provided their defense improves. Either way, as long as Beathard continues to play the way he did against his boyhood team, his stock around the league will grow in a manner which will undoubtedly benefit the 49ers in the long run.
Kittle, UDFAs make an impression
George Kittle has been superb. I think he may have dropped one or two balls but overall he’s been a nightmare for defenses. Faster than most safeties and an intelligent route runner (both shown off by his brilliant touchdown on Sunday), and now paired with his former college quarterback, Kittle is well set for a breakout season. In the short term, the 49ers may well need to utilize Kittle as the field stretcher, with both Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis dealing with injuries.
Two other second year players to have made impressive starts are former UDFAs Matt Breida and Kendrick Bourne. Breida’s success - as both a runner and receiver - has ensured the 49ers retain a serious threat at running back despite the Jerick McKinnon injury and the failure of Joe Williams. Bourne meanwhile, leads the team in touchdowns despite only having seven targets. With the aforementioned injuries to Pettis and Goodwin, Bourne looks set to see more action in the coming week at least. His smoothness as a route runner, safe hands and smarts against zone coverage make him effective against both man and zone and a capable weapon for Kyle Shanahan to use.
McGlinchey showing his worth
It’s certainly galling to see players the 49ers passed on performing at a high level. Most notable is Harold Landry, who the team passed on once and is providing the exact sort of edge threat the team still appears to require. Nevertheless, Mike McGlinchey has been impressive and is justifying his drafting in the top ten. His pass blocking has been acceptable, whilst his run blocking has been outstanding, especially when on the move. Undoubtedly not a finished product, his early performances give real reason to believe the 49ers have found their next franchise tackle.
Inexperience hurting the defense
I won’t go back into the 49ers’ tackling woes - I addressed it in detail last week. Things were slightly improved this week, especially in the first half, though I still think some of that first half success was technically problematic and thus unsustainable. This was borne out in the second half.
The major takeaway for me so far this season on defense has been the intersection between schematic simplicity (and in many ways predictability) and a lack of experience. One of the main things we hear when players with considerable experience in this scheme discuss it, is their understanding its weaknesses and how offenses looks to attack them. As such, they are able to predict what offenses are doing in many situations and mitigate those very same schematic weaknesses that offenses seek to attack.
The 49ers simply do not have that sort of experience, having fielded multiple rookies, second year players and players with limited reps in Saleh’s defense. Against the Chargers, they fielded a new safety tandem, two second year corners (one clearly not healthy), a corner who only moved to that position in this scheme in the offseason and a linebacking trio in their second game together. A lack of chemistry is hardly a shock. With teams able to predict what the 49ers are going to do on defense (they adopt limited disguise and haven't blitzed much at all) and this lack of chemistry between players, our defense has offered easy pickings to smart offensive coordinators and quarterbacks. As familiarity grows and players return from injuries, we should see improvement. But the defensive co-ordinator can make changes too.
Changes and wrinkles in the works
Last season, with a cornerback duo of Dontae Johnson and a rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, the 49ers mixed up their coverages more, especially on second and longs and anything more than third and short. We saw plenty of two high safety looks, as well as cover 6 as the 49ers sought to mitigate their corners’ lack of quality/inexperience and be less predictable as a whole.
This year, with Richard Sherman arriving, the 49ers have played more cover 3, with the main wrinkle being whether the team has a safety playing the seam flats or a hook zone. The latter can look like a two high shell pre-snap, and even for large amounts of time post-snap (it actually looks like a cover 4 a lot of the time), as the safety (normally Jaquiski Tartt) stays deeper to ensure both safeties can help the near side corner against in breaking routes. However, the hook zone safety still reserves the right to drive aggressively downhill on shallower routes crossing the field or curls. This represents some smart defensive play calling, utilizing both Tartt and Colbert’s mobility, route recognition and physicality. Tartt in particular showed his quality in this role against the Lions.
However, with those players getting hurt, the 49ers could not afford to use this as their primary wrinkle - Exum and Reed are not as mobile, as physical, or as experienced (and the latter is not saying much). Furthermore, with Sherman injured, the team were once again weakened at cornerback, and were already, as previously mentioned, overly predictable. Against the Chargers, the team played a greater variety of coverages and blitzed more often (including man blitzing). For the first few series, this was worked well and clearly affected the Chargers’ quarterback and play-caller.
The variety of play calling on show is what the 49ers need to continue to do, especially when its well tailored to the talent they have. This removes some of the predictability of their defense, levelling the playing field somewhat before the 49ers’ defensive players start finding offenses and their methods more predictable themselves. Even when the likes of Tartt, Sherman and Colbert return, the 49ers need to continue to vary their defensive repertoire, though their experience, and that of their teammates as the season progresses, should cause some natural improvement.
A further wrinkle, this time in the running game, has also started to appear. Employed sporadically before being used heavily in Los Angeles, the 49ers started trying to spill running backs to the outside with their defensive linemen, notably their 3-technqiue and big end, and normally in nickel (though it did appear in base). Previously, the 49ers sought to keep runners inside, forcing running backs to cutback towards their linebackers in the middle of the field. Now, utilizing the mobility and upfield explosiveness of the likes of Sheldon Day, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead, the 49ers, on occasion, look to force running backs to move laterally and away from their best blockers and towards their mobile linebackers who are flowing outside. Again, this is a smart wrinkle to employ given the types of athlete the 49ers have on defense, and perhaps explains the move away from a defensive linemen-type at SAM linebacker, towards more of an off-ball linebacker-type, as the 49ers are favouring quickness at the linebacker spot and not actually trying to set the edge with that SAM linebacker as much.
Taking tips from Saleh’s former boss
A big issue this season has remained getting to the quarterback. The 49ers seemed to improve slightly in this area on Sunday by blitzing, notably with Reuben Foster and Fred Warner. K’waun Williams has blitzed a significant amount in previous weeks as well. Clearly, blitzing makes a lot of sense when trying to get to the quarterback, but Saleh certainly deserves criticism for how he goes about it on occasion. On Melvin Gordon’s two-point conversion, he blitzed up the middle and dropped Solomon Thomas into coverage (though this may have been unintentional on Saleh’s part - the back’s motion may have taken him away from the initially intended cover man, Cassius Marsh, who had done so earlier in the game). It was still a highly questionable call given the location on the field. Following the motion, communication to audible needed to come - that it didn't is further indication of the inexperience on this defense.
I personally don’t have many issues with dropping linemen into coverage on occasion either - zone blitzing is a key part of NFL defense and can require defensive linemen to drop in order to allow a greater number of players to rush. The 49ers do need to try to make sure it’s not Solomon Thomas too much, and when he does, that he’s covering some sort of hook zone rather than being responsible for a seam flat and a tight end/running back on a wheel route.
However, Saleh’s former boss, Gus Bradley, now the Chargers’ DC, showed Saleh a great way to get to the quarterback without having to drop d linemen. Blitz a safety. Bradley did it because the Chargers play a lot of six DB and even seven DB packages. Whilst the 49ers do not do the latter, and have rarely done the former this season (they should do it more), they do have a pair of linebackers who are capable coverage players, even in man coverage under sensible parameters.
When you think about it, blitzing the strong safety makes a huge amount of sense, especially in this scheme. He’s invariably down close to the LOS, aligned outside the nearest offensive tackle either in a seam-flat zone or in man coverage on a tight end/running back. So his presence close to the LOS is normal and shouldn’t trigger alarm bells as the offense sets its protection.
Furthermore, normal blocking assignments dictate you block from in to out, so if there are enough threats around the LOS, the strong safety (due to his alignment outside the tackle) has a high chance of going unblocked. He’s also faster than a linebacker (and invariably better positioned to blitz); whilst bigger and closer to the quarterback than a nickel corner.
The Chargers have clearly understood this, and in Derwin James have an absolutely outstanding pass rushing safety. So far this season, he’s rushed 22 times - equal to the most snaps rushing the passer that Jaquiski Tartt has had as a pass rusher in an entire season. Tartt has only blitzed once this campaign. Now, he may not be Derwin James as a pass rusher; it may well be that no safety ever has been. But the reality is that you don’t need to be, part of James’ success is purely how logical his usage is. His normal pre-snap position is so conducive to eluding being considered in pass protection that he invariably gets an unblocked path to the quarterback. Nothing about the Chargers’ pre-snap look changes and they are comfortable that the other players on the field can cover whatever player or area of the field James would have covered had he not been blitzing. The 49ers ought to feel that way about their linebackers, and utilize Tartt and even Colbert as blitzers more often.