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NN Mailbag: Coaching changes, defensive struggles, George Kittle’s milestone and more

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Addressing your 49ers questions and concerns after Monday’s disappointing loss to the Giants.

NFL: New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-8 San Francisco 49ers enter their Week 11 bye after a disappointing loss to the now 2-7 New York Giants on Monday at Levi’s Stadium. With ample time before their trip east to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kyle Shanahan’s squad is expected to be fully healthy for the first time in 2018.

I’m back with my first of two mailbags before the 49ers’ Week 12 matchup. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for next week’s mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.

“Shanahan sounded pissed yesterday, do you think coaching changes come in the off season?” Mark Sanz

The 49ers’ head coach was understandably and outwardly disappointed during Tuesday’s media session following the team’s 27-23 loss to the Giants the night before. One response stood out, when Shanahan was asked early on why first-round defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead didn't play on the team’s final defensive series when the Giants marched down the field to win the game.

“I would have liked to see them in there more on the last drive. They didn’t get in there enough,” Shanahan said. “That has to do with situations and personnel groupings and what down and distance they’re in. And when it was all said and done, they didn’t have enough opportunities, I thought, in nickel, and I’d like to see them have more.”

Shanahan’s comments could be taken as a small indictment of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, whose unit crumbled in the second-half — allowing 27 points and a game-winning drive. The 49ers’ defense has struggled throughout the season, with Monday’s collapse only the most recent episode for the team’s defensive coordinator. While it may be too early to project any possible coaching changes, it’s fair to wonder if Saleh is to blame for the team’s lack of defense, bringing us to our next question.

“How much should we actually blame Saleh? The team on defense seems to be really young and dropping coverage but how much is actually Saleh’s fault?” Niner Nate

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of the blame for the 49ers’ defensive woes falls on Saleh. He’s a first-time coordinator in his second year with a young, inexperienced roster. Those two aspects combine for major growing pains, which we’ve seen on the field. The missed tackles, blown assignments, excessive penalties and poor execution do cast Saleh in a negative light, and the buck on defense stops with him. On the other hand, Saleh should be given the same leeway afforded to Shanahan as the team rebuilds a roster inherited less than two seasons ago.

“Does Witherspoon lose his starting job or do we keep him and pray he develops faster and learns to turn his head around and look for the ball?” Samsom Neustrom

Ahkello Witherspoon may be receiving more flak than he deserves. The second-year cornerback had a rough outing Monday against Giants’ receiver Odell Beckham Jr., which isn’t saying much. Beckham is one of the game’s best. Witherspoon surrendered a third-quarter touchdown and a critical pass interference call late in the game to Beckham. The penalty was questionable, especially at that point in the game, but Witherspoon took blame for failing to turn his head toward a ball he could have intercepted. With that said, Witherspoon is the 49ers’ best option at cornerback opposite Richard Sherman. Barring a meltdown, he should be allowed to remain a starter and prove he’s worth consideration in 2019.

“When will George Kittle hit the 1,000 yards milestone?” Tiny

Through ten games, George Kittle has amassed 50 receptions for 775 yards and three touchdowns. At an average of 77.5 yards per game, the 49ers’ star tight end should eclipse the century mark in Week 14 against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium. Kittle’s season so far has been nothing short of elite.

“With Nick Mullens playing as he has, it’s doubtful he gets through to the practice squad again next year. Say C.J. Beathard and Mullens perform equally in the minds of the coaches through next year’s camp, who stays and who goes next year?” Stuart Wexler

It’s likely the 49ers keep both Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard through the 2019 offseason as Jimmy Garoppolo moves through what will then be the final stages of recovery from his Week 3 ACL tear. A trade offer too good to pass up would seem like the only way the 49ers would part with either. If it’s between the two, and all things are equal, it’s fair to expect Shanahan to deal Mullens over Beathard, who the team selected in the third-round of the 2017 draft. Mullens’ trade value may also prove more valuable by season’s end.

“What’s a bigger concern? Pass rush or pass defense?” APlusCertifiedMusic

The 49ers’ lack of pass rush should be seen as the bigger concern. The defense only managed a single sack, shared by DeForest Buckner and Dekoda Watson, against a vulnerable Giants’ defensive line. Opposing quarterbacks simply have too much time to survey the field and find an open receiver, which makes the secondary look worse than it should.

“Shanahan took a lot of heat for the Falcons losing the Super Bowl before becoming the 49ers’ coach. After another close loss, is it something to start being concerned about?” Hurricane Heck

The Falcons’ blowing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51 has very little relation to the 49ers’ struggles under Shanahan’s first two seasons. He, along with general manager John Lynch, inherited a depleted roster that is now riddled with injuries. The fact that the 49ers have kept games close, in some cases, should be seen as a positive. Their most recent loss to the Giants is not one of those times.

“Who are you looking at to possibly “shine like a diamond” with increased playing time down the stretch?” Jon Justus

There aren’t many “sleepers” to choose from on the 49ers’ roster, on either side of the ball. Impact players have established themselves at this point. The two “diamonds” that stand out down the stretch are second-year running back Matt Breida and rookie linebacker Fred Warner. Both seemed to have their best games of the season on Monday and should be looking to close out 2018 on a high note, as key players moving forward into 2019.

“With so many holes on the team and a limited number of draft picks (5?). How would you like to see them attack free agency and what positions or players should go after?” Barrel

Pass rush. Pass rush. Pass rush. The 49ers’ biggest investment in free agency and the draft should be bolstering the team’s ability to attack opposing quarterbacks. Possible available free agents include Dee Ford (Chiefs), Ezekiel Ansah (Lions), Jadeveon Clowney (Texans), DeMarcus Lawrence (Cowboys) and Shane Ray (Denver), to name a few.

“What is up with Trent Taylor’s decreased role. I understand he has had some injuries but what exactly is going on? Is he locked in for next year? Or is he potentially on the block?” SamTedWat

Trent Taylor looked like a budding star in San Francisco as a rookie. The fifth-round pick reeled in 43 receptions for 430 yards and two touchdowns in 2017. Taylor’s been nearly a non-factor in 2018, with only 18 catches for 138 yards and a score to his name. It’s unclear if Taylor’s offseason back surgery is the reason for his decline. He was inactive against the Raiders in Week 9 but back in the lineup against the Giants. Taylor’s spot on the roster, while seemingly safe, could easily be jeopardized during the offseason is the 49ers add to their receiving corps.