That was unpredictable. The 49ers winning wasn’t surprising. How they won was. Another Sunday that was full of domination for a defense that, if this doesn’t earn them respect, I’m not sure what will. It’s been five games, and the 49ers are borderline bulletproof on defense. With how the rules are for offenses, it’s tough to put into words how impressive the Niners are as a defense.
Here are six thoughts from the 49ers win over the Rams.
Not enough credit to the second level of the defense
Going from the rookie version of Fred Warner, Elijah Lee, and Marcell Harris towards the end of the season to Warner playing faster, Kwon Alexander, and Jaquiski Tartt has made a world of difference. Not only are these three athletic enough to run around blocks or hang with opposing pass-catchers, but they’re fierce and physical. This unit sets the tone, and they don’t get the credit they deserve.
Tartt only had two tackles on Sunday. One of those went for a loss, but there are about 10-15 plays a game where he has an impact that won’t show up in the box score. Both linebackers had tackles for losses, but they can get take away crossing routes, and close on short passes in a hurry that is the difference. Throw in Jimmie Ward, who has been quite good in two games, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of four players that are playing at a higher level right now.
Missing Juice in short yardage
On short-yardage plays, and especially down near the goal line, the 49ers missed Kyle Juszczyk. How often have we seen Kyle Shanahan run 11 personnel on goal to go situations, or when it’s 3rd & 1? The answer is rarely, if ever. His bread and butter are 21 and 22 personnel, where Juszczyk and literally “sift” out the defensive end or linebacker. The 49ers averaged 2.4 yards per carry, and a lot of that had to do with missing Juice.
It doesn’t help that it was a short week, but we didn’t see the same type of running plays we’re used to. I’ll be interested to see how Shanahan adjusts with another week or preparation where he can’t play Juszczyk.
Kittle better than ever
George Kittle caught all eight of his targets for 103 yards. He didn’t score, but he has been Jimmy Garoppolo’s security blanket. When it matters the most, Jimmy G’s eyes take him to Kittle. Why wouldn’t they? Kittle continues to make it look easy. He doesn’t go down on first contact:
Kittle hasn’t had the signature one-handed catch where he sprints for another 50 yards and scores. His damage has come over the middle of the field, where Kittle finds openings in the defense. He’s making catches in traffic, getting first downs, and fighting for extra yards. There aren’t the mental lapses like drops or missed blocks this season. Kittle is playing at an even higher level than last season, which is saying something.
Third down dominance
The 49ers didn’t allow a third or fourth down conversion for the first time since 1988. Only the 2010 Bears went more third and fourth down plays in a game without a conversion. When the 49ers get you in third and long, something bad is going to happen. If the defense makes a play on first down, like DeForest Buckner’s tackle for loss, that feels like a drive-ending play. Offenses can’t recover.
Speed. Sound. Aggressiveness, and having outstanding players have made a difference. When you can put a player 20 yards deep, and the next two plays have him erase the offenses No. 1 wide receiver; you know you have a versatile defense.
Figuring out Jimmy
I have no clue what to do with the 49ers quarterback. There’s the throw in the end zone to Deebo Samuel, then the throw to Tevin Coleman that will leave you scratching your head asking, what the site decorum was that? Then he’ll thread the needle a few plays, fit a ball into tight coverage, or hang in there as he’s about to get blown up by a defensive lineman and deliver a strike for a first down. I like to think I can get a grasp on players fairly quick. Five games into the season and I’m still trying to figure out how good Garoppolo is. Really good? Kind of good? Streaky good? Or just good enough to win? I have no idea.
Take a bow, Saleh
Things got off to a rough start for the 49ers defense after they allowed a touchdown on the opening drive. The Rams averaged eight yards-per-play on that drive. After that, Los Angeles averaged 2.3 yards per play. The team that went to the Super Bowl and has lit up defenses for the past two or three seasons had no answer for Saleh’s bunch.
It’s amazing what a month and a half of football can do for the perception of a person. Two dominant pass-rushers, injecting speed at every level, and timely takeaways have Saleh and the defense destroying offenses weekly. I’m not sure how the season will end up for San Francisco, but their defensive coordinator deserves a ton of credit for turning his unit around.