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NN Mailbag: 49ers’ playoff push, improved defense, trade options, Washington matchup and more

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Addressing your 49ers comments, questions and concerns before the 49ers’ Week 7 matchup against Washington.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe we’re already in Week 7. The San Francisco 49ers have rattled off five wins to remain one of two undefeated teams in the NFL, along with the New England Patriots. The team now travels east to face Washington, who recently fired head coach Jay Gruden and appointed interim coach Bill Callahan. Of course, there’s much more to this week’s matchup than a good team versus a bad one.

We’ll get into that and more in our weekly mailbag column. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for next week’s mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.

How far can the 49ers actually go? Moe

The defense is the key to the 49ers’ playoff run. Shanahan’s offense will always be a threat, but if Robert Saleh continues to stifle opposing teams, there’s no limit to how far the 49ers can charge into the postseason. The offense currently ranks third in both yards per game (408) and points per game (29.4). The defense ranks second in yards allowed (237) and points allowed per game (12.8). That’s a recipe for a championship team, but we’ll see how those statistics hold up as the 49ers inch towards the more challenging portion of their schedule that includes the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, and Baltimore Ravens.

Who gets the credit for the 49ers’ improved defense? John

The 49ers defense ranked 20th in yards allowed (346) and 28th in points allowed per game (27.2) last season. It’s been an impressive rise to power for what was one of the league’s worst units in 2018, and everyone deserves a little credit. General manager John Lynch’s prized pass rushers, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, pushed the defensive front over the top. Linebacker Kwon Alexander has been an excellent addition, creating a strong pairing with Fred Warner. Richard Sherman and the rest of the secondary have looked like an entirely different unit. The addition of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and secondary coordinator Joe Woods also has contributed to the success of Saleh’s defense.

Is Washington a trap game for the 49ers? Kim

At a glance, you’d think a team like Washington with coach Callahan would present an opportunity for disappointment for the 49ers. Normally, I’d agree, but there’s plenty of history between Shanahan and his former team that makes this more than your typical trap game. The 49ers’ head coach was Washington’s offensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013 under head coach and father, Mike Shanahan. It didn’t end well. While Shanahan came to Washington as head coach of the 49ers in 2017, it wasn’t with a 5-0 squad and it wasn’t while Washington was in the shape it’s in right now. I won’t be surprised if the 49ers drop 40 on Washington with a defensive performance similar to what we saw against the Rams.

Why are the Patriots ranked higher than the 49ers in most power rankings? Nate

The 49ers and New England Patriots are typically Nos. 1 and 2 on most power rankings throughout the league, with the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks, sprinkled in. The 49ers have been just as good as the Patriots through five games, but there’s plenty throughout the NFL that still attributes San Francisco’s success to a relatively easy schedule - a benefit that the Patriots have shared. The Patriots are also expected to succeed, while the idea of a dominant 49ers team is still a surprise. Statistically, both teams are eerily similar right now, which is a nod to how good San Francisco has been over five games.

Having faced underwhelming competition, do you feel the defensive line is over-performing? Caleb

Not at all, Caleb. Good teams beat bad teams, and that applies to defensive versus offensive lines, as well. The Pittsburgh Steelers own one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, but the 49ers’ defensive front still managed to generate two sacks, five quarterback hits and four tackles for loss. Despite his lack of stats, Bosa dominated left tackle Alejandro Villanueva throughout that game, forcing quarterback Mason Rudolph into both a key incompletion and an interception. The Rams’ offensive line isn’t good, but it’s been good enough to lift one of the league’s best offenses before playing the 49ers. That wasn’t the case at Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers’ defensive line is as advertised.

Can the 49ers re-sign both Buckner and Armstead? Moe

DeForest Buckner’s reputation and ability are strongly established. He’s a player the 49ers must re-sign. 2020 is Buckner’s fifth-year option and the final season on his contract. Lynch will likely attempt to sign Buckner long-term this offseason. Arik Armstead is the defensive line’s biggest surprise. He’s been one of the team’s best defenders through five games, totaling 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks over five games. Armstead’s playing out his fifth-year option and will earn a significant contract in free agency. He’s a long-shot to remain in San Francisco, especially with tight end George Kittle’s extension window opening after the season. The 49ers are only projected $25 million in salary-cap space in 2020. Lynch and salary cap guru Paraag Marathe would need to work wonders to make room for Buckner, Kittle, and Armstead.

Which receiver will make the breakthrough this year? Hello

This is tough. If we were mid-training camp, I would’ve said Trent Taylor with confidence. He was the 49ers’ best offseason receiver, and it wasn’t close. Now, your guess is as good as mine. Dante Pettis seems to be building momentum after a tough start to the season and a rough camp. He’s been the 49ers’ most targeted wideout over the last three games, despite some drops and missed opportunities. With Deebo Samuel out for Sunday with a groin strain, the 49ers’ matchup against Washington will give Pettis another strong opportunity to develop more trust with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Do you think the 49ers will make a trade before the deadline? Jummitt

I don’t see the 49ers trading for a player before deadline. The two positions that draw the most scrutiny are wide receiver and offensive line. At wideout, the 49ers are expecting to get back both Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd this season, should they be designated to return from injured reserve. On the offensive line, left tackle Joe Staley is expected to return within the next few weeks while right tackle Mike McGlinchey is out another three to five weeks. Neither absence is significant enough to warrant a trade, especially with backups Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill performing well. Lastly, Lynch and Shanahan seem to be very pleased with the culture and locker room they’ve built in their third year. They likely aren’t in a hurry to make any major adjustments.

Do you think the 49ers will trade for a receiver? Mathias

There are a couple of obvious options that make sense for the 49ers, should they choose to pursue a trade. Minnesota Vikings wideout Stefon Diggs recently expressed his frustration with his team’s lack of offensive success, but after catching seven passes for 167 yards and three touchdowns last week, that may have changed. Diggs otherwise seems like a Shanahan receiver, with good routes, quickness, and great hands. Cincinnati Bengals veteran A.J. Green is another option as he returns from an ankle injury. At 31, Green would likely prefer to be on a team that can give him a chance at a championship. The 49ers have invested a lot into their receivers, so adding another seems like a long-shot, but Shanahan could feel like the offense is one perimeter threat away from taking the offense to the next level.

Can anything be changed to lessen the 49ers’ chances of injury? Claudia

Rarely is anyone at fault when a player is injured, but there are instances where they can be avoided. Soft tissue injuries like strains and pulls can be minimized by preparation both throughout the week and before a game. This is where the strength and conditioning staff and trainers can have their greatest impact. Other than that, it’s football, and injuries will always be a prevalent part of the game. The 49ers will take their licks just like every other team, and there’s very little that can be done to avoid it.