The San Francisco 49ers are days away from their final game of the 2018 season. After a disappointing loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 16, Kyle Shanahan’s team now prepares for their Week 17 matchup against a Los Angeles Rams team still fighting for playoff positioning.
Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and cornerback Richard Sherman spoke with the media this week before the 49ers’ season finale against the Rams. Here’s some of their notable talking points:
Dante Pettis’ versatility
Many scratched their heads when general manager John Lynch and Shanahan traded a third-round pick to move up for Pettis in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. The skepticism has given way to optimism as the former Washington wideout has put together an impressive run to close out the season, showcasing his versatility in the absence of receivers Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin:
“That’s the thing that I think I like the most about Pettis is you don’t have to pencil him in at one position. He’s got the ability to do all three. Whatever the rest of our roster looked like, where he got to and how, just the way you can put the best three guys out there together. Whether it’s three guys together, usually on third down, whether there’s two guys on first and second down.”
Pettis has played snaps at every receiver position in Shanahan’s offense this season. In eight games, the rookie has totaled 27 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns. He’s showcased the savvy route-running and separation ability that Lynch and Shanahan coveted during the draft. He’s a safe bet for a starting role in 2019.
On the opposite end of the outlook spectrum for the receiving corps is Goodwin. The 49ers’ speedster had a breakout year in 2017, hauling a career-high 56 receptions for 962 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers rewarded Goodwin with a three-year, $18 million contract extension in the offseason. With expectations sky-high, Goodwin’s 2018 season has mostly been a disappointment. Shanahan was asked to assess the receiver’s season:
“I think it’s just been very inconsistent, especially with his health. He hasn’t missed a ton of games. But, he’s definitely missed some. When he has been able to go, he hasn’t been 100-percent throughout those games. It’s tough to be consistent when you’re not healthy and we’re dealing with that this week, too. A lot of that you can’t control. So, hopefully, he’ll be more fortunate with that stuff next year.”
Goodwin has missed five games in 2018. He’s dealt with myriad of lower-body injuries while a personal issue kept him out of two games in Week 12 and 13. Goodwin’s only managed 23 catches of 43 targets for 395 yards and four touchdowns so far this season. His struggles have given way to Pettis’ success and their roles heading into next season will be an interesting development over the offseason.
Get better tapes
Saleh’s defense has been the 49ers’ most criticized unit in 2018. Late-game collapses, blown assignments, poor penalties and missed tackles have been commonplace throughout the season. But despite being decimated by injury, the 49ers defense has shown a bit of a resurgence over the past three games, holding the Bears to just 14 points in Week 16. The 49ers’ defensive coordinator talked about what the staff will do to ensure improvement in 2019:
“As a defensive staff, I know we do these things called get better tapes. We go back and we evaluate every single player and everything that they’ve put on tape. Obviously, we already have an idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are. But, when they get back, phase one where we really can’t coach them, when we’re finally able to get our hands on them in the middle of April, whichever phase it is, that’s when we show them what we’ve been looking at, what we feel like they need to get better at and put them in that focus through OTAs.”
In the wake of the constant personnel changes (the 49ers have field eight different safety combinations in 2018), Saleh has seen the emergence of young and promising talent yielding optimism for next season. Linebacker Elijah Lee, defensive D.J. Reed, defensive end Ronald Blair, safety Marcell Harris and cornerback Tarvarius Moore are some of the players to step in and perform well.
Lee stepped in under tough circumstances, replacing promising linebacker Reuben Foster after his release in Week 12. Drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round of the 2017 draft, the 49ers signed Lee off Minnesota’s practice squad at the start of last season. He made the 49ers’ 53-man roster at the conclusion of training camp and is now the team’s starter next to rookie Fred Warner. Lee caught the attention of Rams’ coach Sean McVay, who said the 49ers’ linebacker was routinely in the right place at the right time, labeling him a “Steady Eddy.” Saleh took that as a compliment:
“When you’ve got a guy in there who is reliable, there’s a saying that there’s three characteristics you ask out of your football team, of a player. Are they smart? Are they tough? Are they reliable? Elijah Lee is smart, he is tough and he is reliable. If you’ve got those three characteristics, then you can play good functional football. Your athleticism, your instincts, your speed, that’s what pushes you into the next level of tier of athletes where they’re just the best of the best. Elijah is a really good football player.”
It’s high praise from the 49ers’ defensive coordinator that points toward a bright future for Lee. Last week against the Bears, Lee led the team with 11 total tackles — 10 solo. He’s racked up 56 on the season. Lee’s play to close out the season doesn’t significant solidarity for the 49ers’ linebacker position, but it should give the staff some comfort knowing Lee has stepped up to the plate for the defense.
Sherman lobbies for Thomas
Sherman, the former teammate of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, was asked about the prospects of reuniting with Thomas in San Francisco:
“Earl Thomas can fit anywhere he wants to fit. Would I love to play with Earl V. Thomas III? Sure. I would love to have him back in the locker room but I’m sure he’ll have a plethora of opportunities, but I’m sure we’re gonna throw our hat in the ring.
Thomas is expected to hit free agency this spring. He orchestrated an unsuccessful holdout during the offseason after he and the Seahawks failed to reach a long-term deal. Thomas’ contract year ended with a broken leg suffered against the Arizona Cardinals in September. Despite the injury, Thomas would fill a glaring hole in the 49ers’ roster within a familiar defensive school while adding to Sherman’s already stellar locker room presence. The 49ers will likely be considered among the frontrunners to land Thomas if he hits the open market.