It’s a prime-time playoff preview on Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers face off against the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium. Currently, both teams represent the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the NFC playoff picture, respectively. It’s the first of a three-game gauntlet for Kyle Shanahan’s squad, with the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans waiting for the 49ers over the following two weeks.
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.
So far, the 49ers are showing out when it comes to Pro Bowl votes. Rookie defensive lineman Nick Bosa leads all defensive players. Kyle Juszczyk leads all fullbacks. Tight end George Kittle is second only to Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. Both defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are second and third to Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald. Cornerback Richard Sherman trails only Baltimore Ravens’, Marcus Peters. I expect all of those players to make the Pro Bowl, with running back Raheem Mostert in the running as a special teamer.
Do you have any good news about these annoying injuries? Sanchez
I bring good news, Sanchez. The 49ers’ injury outlook took a turn for the better this week. The only players that didn’t practice are tackle Joe Staley (hand), defensive lineman Dee Ford (quadricep/hamstring), kicker Robbie Gould (quadricep) and running back Matt Breida (ankle). Kittle (knee/ankle) and receivers Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Emmanuel Sanders (rib) all returned to practice in blue, non-contact jerseys. A good sign for their availability against the Packers. Defensive lineman D.J. Jones (groin), linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (concussion) and running back Raheem Mostert (knee) were full participants.
Any chance the 49ers hire a relative of Mr. Miyagi to our medical staff? Eddie
Unfortunately for the 49ers, there isn’t anyone in the medical world that can clap, then rub their hands together and miraculously heal a player enough to take the field. The team is going to take their lumps just like everyone else in the NFL. Take comfort in the fact that it seems as if Kittle and Sanders are getting healthy in time for the 49ers’ historically difficult next three games.
How can the 49ers defense improve against mobile quarterbacks? Josh
The beauty of the mobile quarterback comes from off-schedule plays. It’s incredibly frustrating for a defense that, on any snap, feels like they’re closing in on the quarterback only for him to take off and pick the first down with his legs. The 49ers have been victimized on the ground by Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson over the past two weeks. The quickest and easiest solution is to assign a player, usually a linebacker, the responsibility of spying on the quarterback. Unfortunately, this makes the defense susceptible to throws with one less man in coverage. There is no easy solution to limiting a mobile quarterback that doesn’t open up the defense to other forms of attack.
Are other factors playing into the run game struggles outside of TE George Kittle’s injury? Sean
Kittle’s injury has had the biggest impact on the 49ers run game. He’s a threat as both a blocker and receiver. His absence, coupled with Sanders’ struggle to stay on the field, has allowed opposing defenses to hone in on the run game and dare quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to beat them through the air. He did that convincingly in both games against the Cardinals. It got rough against the Seahawks. The 49ers’ early success running the ball is another factor. The opposition knows that Shanahan’s offense is at full steam when the run game is firing on all cylinders. Stopping the ground attack stifles a lot of the play design built into the scheme. The 49ers are routinely outnumbered in the box, and when they get a good look, they are failing to execute.
Why haven’t the 49ers signed DL DeForest Buckner to a contract extension? Unpopular Opinion
The 49ers held talks with Buckner and his agents about an extension during the offseason, but haven’t been able to reach a deal, yet. I expect that to pick up after the season. Buckner will be among the highest-paid defensive lineman in the league, in the neighborhood of $15 to $18 million per year. I don’t see the 49ers having an issue giving that to Buckner, though, who is everything you can ask for from a player both on and off the field.
Would you keep DL Arik Armstead over DL Dee Ford? Pete
That’s a tough question, Pete. Armstead is having an outstanding season and making the 49ers look very smart for signing him to the franchise tag. The former first-rounder’s eight sacks lead the defense, along with nine tackles for loss. He’s going to command a hefty contract this offseason, one that the 49ers will struggle to afford given extensions for both Buckner and Kittle. Ford has totaled 6.5 sacks, despite playing roughly 40% of defensive snaps. In comparison, Armstead is on the field for roughly 75%. I’m not sure I can choose between the two, but considering Ford is already signed to a five-year contract, I suppose the 49ers have already chosen. We’ll see if their opinion changes before Ford’s contract in 2020 becomes fully guaranteed in April,
With other receivers struggling, will we finally get to see more of WR Richie James? Matt
The 49ers got James involved against the Cardinals, kicking off the second half with a 57-yard screenplay. It’s tough to say he’ll see a bigger role going forward, though, especially when you consider the eventual return of Kittle and Sanders. Samuel is also coming on strong, having caught eight passes in each of the last two games for 246 yards. James is a dynamic player and good things happen when he gets the football. He’s averaging 16.5 yards per reception, albeit over 10-target sample size. He’ll need to compete with Kendrick Bourne for snaps, who’s been reliable despite his recent struggles with drops.
How can coordinator Robert Saleh help DL Nick Bosa produce despite the added attention? Thomas
The 49ers’ defensive line made sure to say, “I told you so” to Bosa once opposing offenses started playing him the attention he deserves. The rookie hasn’t generated a sack over the past three games after starting the season with seven in six games. Not to worry, though. Bosa’s still been effective. The 49ers’ No. 2 overall pick has generated 14 pressures over the last three games, including two hits and 12 hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Outside of stunts, there isn’t much coordinator Robert Saleh can do to limit the attention paid to Bosa. He’s that good. Instead, Bosa can take comfort in knowing that while opposing offenses have focused on him, the rest of the defense has generated 12 sacks over the last three weeks.
Do you have time to stop by our tailgate before the game? I’ve got filet mignon. Ricky
Ricky is tempting me with red meat, which is a sure-fire strategy for success. I’ll do my best to wander that way before heading up to the press box. In the meantime, check out Ricky’s photos from the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals.