We are going to keep talking about the San Francisco 49ers schedule because of the significance each remaining game has. Over and over, we hear, “the 49ers haven’t played anybody,” yet, when they do play someone, and they win, it’s always, “the other team wasn’t that good to begin with.” We’ll see how that narrative changes over the final six games of the season.
During this stretch, the 49ers will rely on what has gotten them here but will have to clean up some obvious issues if the team is going to get the coveted bye in the playoffs. Let’s go over one area on each side of the ball where the Niners need to improve, but we’ll start with one stat that will keep them in each game.
Red zone warriors
In 2018, the 49ers were a terrible red zone team. There’s no point in sugarcoating it. Both the offense and defense struggled. The defense allowed opposing offenses to score a touchdown on 65% of their drives once they got into the red zone. For reference, the Packers offense is converting at a 68% rate this season, which is second in the NFL.
In 2019, the 49ers are holding offenses to 40.9%, which is the best in the NFL. They’ve been put in some difficult situations, and have still managed to keep opposing offenses from punching it in the end zone. A 25% drop in touchdown percentage from one year to the next is unheard of. Even a four-game sample would be impressive, but ten? That’s proof that the defense is for real if you haven’t realized this already. Credit timely sacks and good coverage on the backend.
What’s gotten into the offense?
The offense was dead last in 2018 as well. The Niners start to this season was slow, and that’s why they’re still only 24th in red zone touchdown percentage. That number is up 9% from 2018 to 50%. One of the biggest improvements for the 49ers offense has been their red zone efficiency over the last month. Since San Francisco acquired Emmanuel Sanders, they’ve scored a touchdown on 10 of their 14 red zone drives the past four games. It’s not likely the offense continues to convert in the red zone at a 71% clip. That would be good enough for second in the NFL this season.
So all it took was acquiring Emmanuel Sanders for San Francisco to perform like they’re capable in the red zone? Perhaps. It’s no coincidence that Kyle Shanahan has allowed Jimmy Garoppolo to throw the ball more now that Garoppolo has a wideout he can trust. There have been a handful of possessions where the team scored without Sanders on the field. Shanahan’s genius has been highlighted in the passing game. The majority of Jimmy G’s touchdowns near the goal line have been schemed open. Shanahan knows the defenses tendencies and has taken advantage. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
San Francisco overcame two turnovers in the red zone against Arizona. They’re not getting away with that against anybody else. The team likely doesn’t get away with that against the Cardinals if they played again on Sunday. The 49ers have 17 turnovers this season, which is the eighth-most in the NFL. Five of those have happened in the red zone, which is the second-most in the NFL. Coming into the season, I felt Garoppolo had that “gunslinger mentality,” which I actually appreciate and believe you need to have to win it all.
Garoppolo’s accuracy and ability to make difficult throws under pressure will always give the offense a chance to score. Despite Jimmy G throwing the seventh-most interceptions in the NFL, he’s fifth-fewest bad throws in the league. They just happen at the worst possible time, so they’re magnified. It’s a double whammy, you could say. The 49ers are taking points off the board for themselves and gifting opposing offenses short-fields, so they’re in a position to score. As we get into playoff mode, these mistakes can’t happen. San Francisco is one of the better teams in the NFL, but even they aren’t good enough to overcome turnovers consistently.